A Democratic congressman who receives classified briefings on the threat of terrorist attacks said yesterday that top U.S. government officials' repeated statements that international terrorists want to disrupt the American electoral process this year "appear to have no basis."
Rep. Jim Turner (Tex.), ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said that after several recent briefings by U.S. intelligence officials about perceived terrorist threats this summer and fall, "I don't have any information that al Qaeda" plans to attack the election process. "Nobody knows anything about timing" or the exact nature of any possible attack, although U.S. officials say al Qaeda wants to mount an attack this year, Turner said.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse declined to respond to Turner's remarks. Roehrkasse said the agency stands by comments by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at a news conference last week.
Ridge and a senior intelligence official who appeared at the news conference repeated statements they have made for months that al Qaeda wants to undermine U.S. elections. The terrorist network has been emboldened by its belief that it enjoyed a massive victory when, days after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people, Spanish voters ousted the government, they said.
Although Ridge and the intelligence official said they have no "specific" details on time or place of any attack, the intelligence official said, "Recent and credible information indicates that al Qaeda is determined to carry out these attacks to disrupt our democratic processes."
Turner's comments came yesterday as he and the panel's chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), spoke to reporters about their proposed legislation to improve the department's use of intelligence. Cox said in an interview that, based on his reading of the classified briefings he has received, Ridge is accurately reflecting U.S. intelligence conclusions.
Some Democrats have suggested lately that top U.S. officials, by raising fears of a terrorist attack to derail the elections, are trying to get President Bush reelected. But they have not cited evidence.
An example of such statements was one by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) after Ridge's news conference: "This administration has a long track record of using deceptive tactics for political gain. One cannot help but question whether their aim was to deflect attention from the Kerry-Edwards ticket during their inaugural week."
Ridge said such accusations are "a wrong interpretation. . . . 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 credible."
Also yesterday, the Homeland Security Department said it informally told the Justice Department that it received a query about the possibility of postponing the election if there is a risk of it being disrupted by terrorism. But Homeland Security said it did not ask Justice to review the legal issues involved.
[An article yesterday afternoon on washingtonpost.com quoted a Homeland Security spokesman saying that the department had, in fact, referred the legal issues to Justice. The spokesman said last night that he had not meant to suggest that a formal review had been requested.]
The idea was initially suggested by DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which was created by Congress to help localities improve their voting systems. Soaries told The Washington Post last week that he had written to Homeland Security expressing his concern about the lack of a formal plan to deal with a disruption of elections due to a catastrophe, such as terrorism. He said he never got a response.
Officials yesterday described as overblown an article in Newsweek magazine suggesting U.S. officials were floating a possible "proposal" to postpone the election. The article set off a round of denunciations and news stories.
"The Department of Homeland Security should not instill fear or inject uncertainty into the election," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said in a statement.
Cox and Turner discounted the likelihood of the country canceling Election Day, pointing out that it could require a constitutional amendment and emergency action by Congress and state legislatures. "The last thing we want to do is suppress [voter] turnout because people think Election Day is a dangerous day," Turner said.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said the administration is not considering postponing the elections. "We've had elections in this country when we were at war, even when we were in civil war. And we should have the elections on time. That's the view of the president, that's the view of the administration," Rice told CNN.
Also yesterday, the Government Accountability Office said in a report to Cox's panel that Homeland Security's color-coded threat advisories do not convey enough detail about threats to local governments.
Staff writer Fred Barbash contributed to this report.