But many of the measures comprising the massive nationwide security operation -- dubbed "Liberty Shield" -- that authorities put in place just before the attack on Iraq will remain, officials said.
"We are still in the process of determining which of the portions of Operation Liberty Shield will be scaled back," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told United Press International, "There are certain measures that will continue for the time being."
He said that special flight restrictions over Washington and New York, and the detention of asylum seekers from more than 30 countries were among the measures that would remain in place. Other measures, including more patrols by Coast Guard vessels, and additional security measures for critical infrastructure were being reviewed, he said, and likely would be scaled back.
The decision to lower the threat level was made about 8:20 a.m. EDT by President George W. Bush, following a recommendation by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. The president always makes the final decision on such matters, he added.
The recommendation from Ridge "followed a careful review of all the best intelligence about the threats out there," Roehrkasse said. "There is never one sole factor (that causes us to lower or raise the threat level), but one (factor) was the winding down of the war in Iraq."
"These judgments are much more an art than a science," terrorism analyst Ben Venske told United Press International, "this defies the nice clear cut answers ... we tend to love in this country."
Venske, whose company consults on terror and other national security issues for government agencies, argues that the decision may have been influenced by more than just an assessment of the threat: "Part of the reason (for lowering the threat level) is that it's unsustainable to leave it at too high a level for too long ... If it's constantly high, then after a period of time, high becomes normal and it doesn't have any more significance."
Venske also says that officials will have taken the huge financial drain of stepped up security into consideration. But Roehrkasse denied that cost was a factor in the decision to lower the level. "If the threat and the intelligence would have warranted, the security measures would have been kept in place," he said.
Roehrkasse said that, as best officials can tell, the cost of security measures associated with the war is more than $5 billion.
The emergency supplemental appropriations bill signed by Bush Wednesday allocates just over $4.3 billion to the Department of Homeland Security, and to state and local governments, to meet the cost of keeping the threat level at orange, or "high," for nearly a month, and to pay for "Liberty Shield." But there is more than $1 billion allocated to other parts of the government, such as the Justice Department, to defray their costs as well.
"That's about as accurate an estimate (of the costs) as we get right now with the information we have at the moment," said Roehrkasse.
Much of the cost -- millions and millions of dollars, mainly in overtime for law enforcement personnel and first responders -- was borne by cash-strapped state and local governments.
The Conference of Mayors said recently that the orange alert and "Liberty Shield" was costing Los Angeles about $2.5 million every week, putting it in the top five spenders among cities nationwide. New York's own security alert, "Operation Atlas" -- which will continue despite today's announcement -- costs about $5 million a week, according to the office of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The administration had originally asked for about $3.5 billion for the department in the supplemental. Most of the $800 million difference is in the form of a special fund for high-threat urban areas like New York and Los Angeles. Lawmakers upped the original $50 million allocation to $700 million after intense lobbying from New York and other big cities, which argued they faced special security burdens owing to their greater attraction as targets.
State and local officials from other jurisdictions have also complained loud and long that the stepped-up security associated with the war was an unsustainable drain on their resources, already stretched almost to breaking point by the dire plight of the economy.
Wednesday, some said that the allocation in the supplemental was still not enough, and argued that the way it is disbursed will hurt them, too.
"We don't feel it's enough to meet the homeland security needs of cities," Andy Solomon of the U.S. Conference of Mayors told UPI.
City governments are also unhappy about the way the cash will be dished out. Apart from the $700 million special fund, all the money goes through state governments on its way to city and county jurisdictions, which employ the vast majority of first responders.
"Our preference has always been that these funds should be distributed direct to cities," said Solomon.
State officials say that their role is to ensure that local jurisdictions coordinate and to avoid duplication of effort among them.
The largest pot of money, $1.3 billion, will be given out in grants by the Office of Domestic Preparedness. But cities and states will not be able to use it to reimburse the huge overtime costs of the orange alert.
Roehrkasse said that in a series of conference calls with state and local officials around the country, Ridge had stressed the need for continuing vigilance. "We must (stay) alert to the possibility that al-Qaida and those sympathetic to their cause, as well as former Iraqi regime state agents and affiliated organizations, may attempt to conduct attacks against the United States or our interests abroad," Ridge said in a statement, echoing the concerns he said had led him to raise the level March 17.
Venske puts it more strongly. "There is no question in the opinion of much of the counter terrorism community that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, related or not, are working aggressively to try and carry out an attack against the United States ... There will be periods of greater or lesser risk ... But in the end all you can really hope to do is deter (them temporarily) or delay their plans ... The threat doesn't go away."