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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon is changing the pattern of fighter air patrols over New York from continuous to intermittent and intends to do the same in Washington by mid-April, officials said Tuesday.

It is the first substantial change in domestic air defenses since round-the-clock patrols over New York and Washington began in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.

The new plan, drawn up by the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and approved by the White House, would leave room for changes in the location, frequency and intensity of fighter air patrols across the country depending on the military's assessment of air threats.

Defense officials discussed some details of the plan Tuesday on condition they not be identified.

At the highest threat level, known as Level One, a large number of fighters would patrol continuously over many major cities across the country. At Level Four, the lowest level, fighters would fly intermittent patrols over randomly selected cities and other fighters would be on short-notice alert at numerous air bases, but there would be no 24-hour fighter patrols, the officials said.

Under the current system, fighter jets at about 30 bases across the country stand ready to launch on 15 minutes' notice of an airborne threat. Fighters also fly 24-hour patrols over two cities, with one set of fighters over New York and two sets over Washington. An undisclosed number of additional fighters fly combat air patrols intermittently over dozens of other cities.

As a last resort, the fighter pilots would have authority to shoot down a hijacked aircraft.

One defense official said the Pentagon is ``presently'' moving to a Level Three arrangement that continues to provide 24-hour patrols over Washington but changes the New York patrols from continuous to intermittent. By mid-April the Pentagon expects to move to Level Four, in which air patrols over Washington also would switch to intermittent, the official said.

The new arrangement reflects the fact that security on commercial airliners and at airports _ considered the first lines of defense against suicide hijackers _ has been strengthened since Sept. 11.

It also reflects shortened response times for fighter jets on ``strip alert,'' in part because new linkages between military and Federal Aviation Administration radars give a better picture of potential air threats, officials said.

The Air Force has argued for changes in the air defense plan. The large number of fighter jets and pilots, plus maintenance and other support crews, are being diverted from their normal training for combat. The patrols also cost the Air Force as much as $60 million a week.

Regardless of the threat level, intermittent patrols will still be flown over a number of cities and sensitive facilities. Special events like the World Series that draw tens of thousands of people will draw extra patrols.

Publicly, the Bush administration has been imprecise about the new approach, mainly to prevent potential attackers from predicting with confidence which cities are defended and when.

The administration also is worried that Americans will interpret the change as a lowering of defenses against terrorists like the hijackers who flew airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a rural Pennsylvania field.

In addition, New York lawmakers cried foul after news reports that continuous patrols would be maintained over Washington but not New York and urged the administration to reconsider. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called it a ``glaring example of letting our guard down.''

At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said the public should not think air defenses are being weakened.

``The president and the administration will always put plans in place to fully protect the American people _ and people in New York and people throughout the country and people in Washington can rest assured that any plans that are in place to provide protection will be robust,'' he said.

Fleischer declined to provide details of the Pentagon plan.