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Ridge warns terror plot to disrupt elections
Updated: 2004-07-09 07:41

A steady stream of intelligence, including nuggets from militant-linked Web sites, indicates al-Qaida wants to attack the United States to disrupt the upcoming elections, federal officials said Thursday.

Vice-President Richard Cheney, left, looks on as Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge, addresses workers in the new Homeland Security Operations Center at the Homeland Defense Headquarters, Thursday, July 8, 2004 in Washington.[AP]
Besides elaborate security plans for the political conventions this summer in Boston and New York, the officials are considering how to secure polling places come November.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the Bush administration based a decision to bolster security on credible reports about al-Qaida's plans, coupled with the pre-election terror attack in Spain earlier this year and recent arrests in England, Jordan and Italy.

"This is sobering information about those who wish to do us harm," Ridge said. "But every day we strengthen the security of our nation."

The government is not raising its color-coded alert status, however, he said, and U.S. officials do not have specific knowledge about where, when or how an attack might take place.

The CIA, FBI and other agencies "are actively working to gain that knowledge," Ridge said.

Asked why he had made a public announcement on Thursday, Ridge said that after the attacks in Madrid, Spain, he considered it "very important, on a periodic basis, to frankly just give Americans an update as to where we are and what we are doing."

The Bush administration was criticized by Democrats in late May when Attorney General John Ashcroft put forward a high-profile warning that an attack could be imminent - an assessment not all high-ranking officials shared.

Before Ridge's public comments, top FBI, CIA and Homeland Security Department officials had briefed House members Wednesday and Senate members on Thursday at the request of congressional leaders. With the summer political conventions nearing, lawmakers had requested information about the terror attack threat and security precautions.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said that officials were taking security steps that "we anticipate will continue all the way through the election."

In addition to increasing security at the conventions in Boston and New York, authorities have begun working through the process of how to secure the thousands of polling sites that will be used around the country this fall, said a senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But the chairman of the new federal Election Assistance Commission complained Thursday that he was rebuffed when he wrote to Ridge seeking to discuss election security issues, including how to handle rescheduling the election if it were to be disrupted by an attack.

"What Ridge basically said is I don't have time to meet with you," said DeForest B. Soaries, a Republican Bush appointee and former secretary of state of New Jersey. "I'm still assuming that there's time for us to meet to share information and work cooperatively on all of these important issues," he added.

A Homeland Security spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment on Soaries' remarks.

There are plans for road and rail closures and even greater restrictions than usual on access to the political convention sites. The Democrats will meet at Boston's FleetCenter July 26-29, and the GOP convention will be at Madison Square Garden in New York from Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

"We have briefed the campaigns, both campaigns - the Kerry-Edwards campaign as well as the Bush-Cheney campaign - about the security measures that are being put in place for those conventions in New York and Boston," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

The information being examined includes some gleaned from militant-linked Web sites, said another intelligence official. Plans for a terror attack are believed to be near completion, the official said, echoing what Bush administration officials said earlier in the summer before the Memorial Day weekend.

The official, also speaking only on condition of anonymity, said recent information indicates that planning is being directed at the most senior levels of al-Qaida, which includes Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who are thought to be operating in the Afghan-Pakistani border region.

That doesn't necessarily mean a strong command-and-control structure is in place - counterterrorism officials still believe they are breaking al-Qaida down - but rather that senior leaders still oversee operations by pointing to targets and encouraging certain types of attacks, the official said. Counterterrorism authorities are working to understand whether cells that they are dealing with around the globe are closely tied to the central al-Qaida organization.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said after the briefing to his chamber that there was "obviously, no reason for panic, or paralysis."

"What is clear is that law enforcement has generally been notified. ... There are enhanced activities on behalf of law enforcement around the country," he said.

But Texas Rep. Jim Turner, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said what is needed is action. "A press conference will not deter a terrorist," he said.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Ridge later Thursday toured a recently completed 24-hour operations center at the Homeland Security Department's complex in northwest Washington, which replaces a temporary setup.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a need to quickly consider a homeland security spending bill but bickered over when that debate would begin - and whose fault it would be if the start was delayed.

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