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Ridge warns of al-Qaida attack aimed at U.S. elections

July 8, 2004/Omaha World-Herald

WASHINGTON - The United States is tightening security in the face of a steady stream of intelligence indicating al-Qaida may seek to mount an attack aimed at disrupting elections, the White House said.

The Department of Homeland Security is addressing the threat and has efforts under way to "ramp up security," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the Bush administration based its 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."

U.S. officials do not have specific knowledge about where, when or how such an attack would take place, but the CIA, FBI and other agencies "are actively working to gain that knowledge," Ridge said.

Notwithstanding the heightened air of vigilance, the government is not raising its color-coded terror alert status, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told reporters that Americans should not expect a major announcement on homeland security any time soon, indicating that the nation's threat level could remain at its "elevated" level.

"There's, obviously, no reason for panic, or paralysis," Frist said after a briefing for senators on intelligence matters. "The country is at some increased risk between now and the time of the presidential election. It's important for people to be aware of that."

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

In April, a working group made up of representatives from agencies that touch on law enforcement, homeland security and intelligence was established to deal with a series of events through the election that may be attractive targets for terrorists, including the presidential nominating conventions.

Senior administration officials and counterterrorism experts view the coming months as a time to increase vigilance out of concern that Islamic militants may try to replicate the political success they had in Spain with coordinated pre-election train bombings.

Nearly 200 died in the March attack, and the prime minister's ruling Popular Party lost to a rival who promised a pullout of Spanish troops from Iraq.

Elaborate plans are already in the works to protect the Republican and Democratic party conventions in New York and Boston, which have been classified as National Security Special Events. With the designation - a concept that evolved from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta - comes federal funds, increased preparations and heightened security.


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