Government intelligence agencies continue to collect fresh information reaffirming earlier government warnings that terrorist groups are intent on launching an attack aimed at “affecting the democratic process,” an FBI official said Monday.
Senior administration officials acknowledged Monday that there is no new specific information relating to warnings they received this spring about terrorist intentions to disrupt the November election cycle. However, “we remain concerned about the information we received,” said a Department of Homeland Security official. Nothing has changed “except the window of opportunity is narrowing,” he said.
There also is a slight disagreement among the various agencies involved in the interagency security task force, which is being run by the FBI, about the timing of any potential attack. One faction believes an attack would be timed to happen before Election Day; meanwhile others believe a more likely target is Election Day itself.
Regardless of the timing, efforts are being ramped up across various law enforcement and intelligence agencies as the time before the election narrows. Those efforts are “simply a part of the methodical, day-to-day process” of making sure the country is secure, one official said.
All officials speaking to reporters Monday during the briefing did so on a "for background only" basis despite the absence of any classified or sensitive information being discussed. When pressed for a reason none of the officials could be quoted by name, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman would only say, “Those are the ground rules we’ve established for this briefing.”
In these last weeks before the election “we’re going to kind of put on a full court press on this,” an FBI official said. That means as new resources become available, such as newly trained bomb-sniffing dog teams, they will immediately be put to work bolstering areas with known vulnerabilities, such as mass transit facilities and passenger rail operations, an official said.
The public also will be called on, the FBI said, especially the Muslim community. “We intend to reach out for their assistance as we have in the past, and they have been absolutely wonderful in providing that,” an FBI official said.
Other initiatives have come online quicker than expected, government officials said Monday. One is a homeland security network that puts Washington in direct communication with all 50 states. That network wasn’t slated for completion until late in the year, but after the election threat was discovered in May, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge pushed for its completion.
Another initiative is being run by the National Governors Association in which state and local election officials are being briefed on how to provide better security for polling places. Washington has no official role in such efforts, said a senior administration official, but stands ready to help out where needed, the official said.
Political ideology be damned
Government officials said they don’t have any information as to whether any terrorist plans to disrupt the election are politically motivated one way or another.
“I could care less” what al-Qaida’s political agenda, if any, is, said one official bluntly. “Our job is to stop any threat regardless of its nature.”
Indeed, whether the “election comes and goes and the inauguration comes and goes” and no attack has happened “doesn’t make much difference,” said a senior intelligence official. The terrorists are patient and will come at us when they are ready,” and so we have to stay ready, too, he said.
Government officials couldn’t say whether any of their efforts have thwarted potential attacks. “We don’t get any of that kind of information from the terrorists,” a senior administration official said. “You don’t know what you don’t know and you’re never going to know what you don’t know,” he said.
The FBI also intends to step up plans to interview persons with suspected ties to terrorism; other efforts will include providing more scrutiny to ordinarily routine crimes, such as the theft of rental trucks.
The election threat doesn’t necessarily come from the al-Qaida group headed by Osama bin Laden, said an intelligence official. Just as the group responsible for the train bombing in Madrid, which successfully impacted that country’s election, was only marginally aligned with al-Qaida, such is true for groups now threatening the United States, the intelligence official said.
Although officials Monday tried to downplay recent news reports of increased aggressive security moves as “nothing new,” one senior administration official candidly noted Monday that the atmosphere surrounding the current homeland security effort “is one where the angst is higher than normal.”