7/8/04 - By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday warned Americans that al Qaeda may try to carry out "a large-scale attack" to disrupt upcoming elections, but offered no details and had no plans to raise the terror threat level.
Democrats have criticized a number of such warnings by the administration and questioned the timing of the latest televised news conference that provided no new specific intelligence about an attack on any specific site.
Ridge said the information had been obtained from credible sources over the past months and years.
"Since September 11th, 2001, we have had intelligence that al Qaeda intends to launch more attacks against the homeland," he said.
"Credible reporting now indicates that al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process."
But he said authorities had no specific intelligence about whether al Qaeda was targeting either the Democratic convention later this month in Boston or the Republican convention in New York at the end of August.
The terror alert level will stay at elevated, or yellow -- the third of five levels on the color-coded scale.
"While we are not raising the color-coded threat level today, we are constantly reviewing threat reporting and strengthening the nation's security," Ridge said.
He said there were "permanent protections in place today" that did not exist a year ago. "And these protections make it harder for terrorists to attack us," Ridge said.
When asked about the timing of his announcement -- in a week Democrats have captured attention with announcement of presidential candidate John Kerry (news - web sites)'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."
Senior intelligence officials could not point to any new specific information regarding an attack, saying only there are "nuggets" that come in daily to add to existing intelligence.
Ridge and other top U.S. officials have been warning for months that al Qaeda may be planning a major attack in the United States in this presidential election year.
The March 11 train bombing in Madrid and recent arrests of al Qaeda suspects in Britain, Jordan and Italy show that al Qaeda can succeed, Ridge said.
"We know that they have the capability to succeed, and they also hold the mistaken belief that their attacks will have an impact on America's resolve," he said.
One senior intelligence official said the United States was concerned that al Qaeda might try to use truck or car bombs on bridges or tunnels. They may also use airplanes -- as they did on Sept. 11, 2001 -- as a way to launch an attack.
Last week the FBI (news - web sites) cited a number of possible infrastructure targets that included gas refineries and pipelines, subways and trains, financial institutions, civil aviation and nuclear power plants.
The government had warned of possible attacks around the July 4th Independence Day celebrations, but no major incidents were reported.