Justice Department Steps Up Surveillance Amid Fears Of Attack

(WASHINGTON, September 23rd, 2004, 4:30 p.m.) -- As the election draws nearer, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned al-Qaida terrorists will mount a devastating attack to try to disrupt the political process.

In an unusual move, Attorney General John Ashcroft held a conference call with all 93 U.S. attorneys to spread the word that prosecutors and law enforcement officers should take every conceivable step to counter the threat, said two senior law enforcement officials briefed on the call.

Those steps include temporarily reassigning more FBI agents to counterterrorism investigations and having agents make more frequent checks with informers and key sources.

Authorities also are increasing what they call "overt" surveillance of terrorism suspects -- letting the suspects know they are being watched -- and they may arrest some on relatively minor charges to get them off the street.

The FBI also is checking new information gained from arrests of al-Qaida operatives, especially those in Britain and Pakistan, to see if any potential terrorist activities or warning signs in the United States have been overlooked.

The law enforcement officials, who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the United States still has no information indicating a time, place or method of attack.

Ashcroft's Sept. 13 call to prosecutors was prompted not by new intelligence but rather was intended to remind law enforcement officials about a steady stream of information pointing to an election-year attack, one official said.

Officials have said that Al-Qaida might try to replicate the influence terrorists had in Spain, where the governing party that supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq was defeated at the polls after March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed 200.

Intelligence gathered by the U.S. government since early spring indicates al-Qaida wants to launch an attack that would equal or surpass that of Sept. 11, 2001, when 3,000 people died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

"Recent intelligence suggest that al-Qaida may still be planning an attack, possibly targeting highly populated public places in large U.S. cities, in the weeks immediately prior to the elections," the FBI said Aug. 27 in a bulletin to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies.

The bulletin did not describe any potential targets or cities, and repeated that the FBI had no specific timing or method of such an attack.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently said the attack time frame could extend beyond the campaign season to the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration.

The color-coded threat level for most of the nation remains at yellow or elevated, the middle of a five-point scale. A higher level of orange was imposed Aug. 1 and remains in effect on specific financial services institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)