WASHINGTON — Indications are that al-Qaida leadership, not some lower level supporters acting on their own, are behind the suspicions of a large-scale terrorist attack against the United States ahead of the presidential elections, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told NBC News on Friday.
Asked about a New York Times report in which a senior Bush administration source said Osama bin Laden and other "seniormost" al-Qaida leaders seem to be directing the plot, Ridge responded that evidence "does suggest there is some direct link to al-Qaida leadership. How high up it goes remains to be seen."
The administration source told the Times that “we know that this leadership continues to operate along the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
And while it does not appear that bin Laden is taking an active planning role in an attack, evidence suggests he is able to communicate with followers, the source said.
No change in threat level
Citing “credible” but non-specific intelligence, Ridge on Thursday warned of an increased risk of an attack that aims to "disrupt our democratic process.”
“We are very comfortable with the credibility of the sources themselves,” he said. “... How credible the information is is something we are trying to corroborate.”
Despite the new information, the government is not raising its color-coded terror alert status from "yellow," or elevated, because of the lack of specificity about possible targets, he said, adding that there is no evidence that the Democratic or Republican conventions are in the terrorists' crosshairs.
But the CIA, FBI and other agencies "are actively working to gain that knowledge," Ridge said.
Ridge said that in addition to the information, warning signs have been raised by the pre-election terror attack in Spain earlier this year and recent arrests that disrupted alleged terror plots in England, Jordan and Italy.
U.S. intelligence also believes that plots aimed at attacking large concentrations of people in public places were recently aborted by arrests in Canada and Pakistan, NBC News has learned.
New monitoring capabilities
In addition to trying to disrupt the plots through arrests, the government has instituted new monitoring systems — including a national center capable of collecting and disseminating information to local law enforcement agencies —and tightened security on many fronts, Ridge said.
"This is sobering information about those who wish to do us harm," Ridge said. "But every day we strengthen the security of our nation."
Asked about the timing of his announcement — in a week Democrats have captured attention with announcement of presidential candidate John Kerry’s running mate and as the campaign begins to heat up before the Nov. 2 election — Ridge denied any political motivation.
“We are basically laying out before the general public the kind of information that we’ve received,” he said. “And it’s not us — these are not conjectures or mythical statements we are making. These are pieces of information that we could trace comfortably to sources that we deem to be credible.”
Before Ridge’s news conference, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that the Department of Homeland Security is addressing the threat and has efforts under way to “ramp up security.”
‘No reason for panic’
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.
Last April, a working group made up of representatives from agencies that touch on law enforcement, homeland security and intelligence was established to deal with 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.
NBC News' producer Robert Windrem and the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.