Amid Fears, Justice Department Steps Up Surveillance

As the election nears, U.S. officials say they are increasingly concerned al-Qaida will attempt to mount a devastating attack aimed at disrupting the political process.

Though they have no new information indicating a time, place or method of attack, government agencies are stepping up counterterrorism efforts.

In an unusual move, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy Attorney General James Comey and other senior officials recently held a conference call with all 93 U.S. attorneys to reinforce that prosecutors and law enforcement officers must take every conceivable step to counter the threat, two senior law enforcement officials said.

The FBI has begun assigning more people to counterterrorism investigations and agents are making more frequent checks with informers and key sources. The Drug Enforcement Administration has been directed to check for terrorism leads among its nationwide web of informants.

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.

Last week, the Transportation Security Administration stepped up checks of air passengers. Authorities also are paying special attention to truck rentals.

U.S. officials are worried 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 killed 200 people.

``We remain concerned that al-Qaida continues to demonstrate its intent and desire to carry out an attack that will effect the democratic process,'' Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

Democrats and others have accused the Bush administration of scare tactics on terrorism warnings -- deliberately frightening the public to give President Bush a boost at the polls.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the public should be ``very circumspect'' about the timing of terror threat announcements.

``The Bush administration has an important job to do to safeguard public safety, but it's also clear that they are running for office,'' Romero said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other Bush administration officials have said the threat of an attack is very real and politics play no role in warning the public. Ridge recently said the attack time frame could extend beyond the campaign season to the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration.

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, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, just outside Washington.

On Aug. 1, the government raised the risk of a terrorist attack to ``high'' for specific financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, a decision based partly on years-old intelligence. The color-coded threat level for the rest of the nation remains at yellow, or elevated, the middle of a five-point scale.

The FBI has issued a series of bulletins in recent weeks highlighting potential al-Qaida targets and methods. Among them:

- A warning that terrorists might try to store supplies for an improvised explosive device in a rental storage facility.

- An alert that ``an increasing number of known or suspected terrorists, extremists or associates'' have been traveling with family members with destinations including weddings, vacations and visits to relatives or friends. ``It remains unclear if this is a potential diversionary tactic,'' says one recent FBI bulletin.

- Telling government and business officials to be wary of signs of terrorist surveillance along railroads, bridges, dams, nuclear plants and buildings.