The Bush administration believes more strongly than ever that al Qaeda terrorists plan to try to influence the presidential race with a massive preelection attack, a strike that is more likely to come in August or September than in October, a White House official said yesterday.
The official ratcheted up administration warnings of an election-related attack on a day when President Bush and Vice President Cheney were on the campaign trail contending that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would be a weak commander in chief. Some Democrats accuse the White House of issuing repeated terrorism warnings to inspire fear so voters will hesitate to change leaders with the nation under threat.
The White House official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the government had not gleaned any new information about political motives for an attack since the spring, when administration officials began saying they were concerned about an attack in conjunction with the Nov. 2 election. Nothing to date indicates "an imminent operation," the official said.
Administration officials said over the weekend that they believe at least part of the plot has been disrupted with recent arrests and computers seizures.
Nevertheless, the official referred to "the preelection plot" and said the government has intelligence in which suspected terrorists "were talking about the election."
"The beat keeps building," the official said. "You will get intelligence which suggests they're targeting the election time frame. . . . In addition to that, you get other intelligence that suggests there is planning for an ongoing operation that may not specifically mention the election."
Asked whether the terrorists appear to have a candidate of choice, the official replied that the goal "is being seen to have influenced the election, as opposed to a particular person." The official invoked the elections in Spain, where the ruling party was thrown out in March after terrorist train bombings that killed 191 people three days earlier.
"They took an enormous boost from the outcome of the Spanish election," the official said. The official said the intelligence pointed to a strike this month or next, although it could come in October.
The warning came 11 days after the administration announced it had discovered plans for attacks on financial buildings in Washington, New York and Newark. The buildings were cased years ago, but officials said the information was viewed recently on a computer seized in Pakistan.
"No question some of this information was accessed in 2004 and indications are more recently than January -- spring," the official said. However, the official added, "I have seen no indication of an imminent operation."