Federal authorities will begin nationwide preparations to counter the threat of terrorist attacks aimed at the national political conventions and at the U.S. presidential election, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Monday.
Although the nation’s quadrennial elections have occurred without interruption in times of war, including the Civil War, the war on terrorism poses a different kind of risk for 2004: the possibility of coordinated terrorist attacks on civilians -- with the effects of such attacks amplified by today’s nearly instantaneous mass communication systems.
“In this country, we soon enter a season that is rich with symbolic opportunities for the terrorists to try to shake our will,” Ridge told a meeting of broadcast news executives in Las Vegas. “These targets of opportunity for the terrorists are opportunities that can’t be missed to tighten our security.”
In addition to the election process, Ridge said security planning would encompass the May 29 dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, as well as upcoming meetings of the International Monetary Fund in Washington and the leaders of the G-8 group of industrialized nations in Georgia.
Ridge said he had no information on specific threats, but cited the March 11 train attacks in Spain as the backdrop for his announcement. The bombings, attributed to Islamic militants, preceded the electoral defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s center-right Popular Party. Aznar had been a steadfast ally of President Bush in the Iraq war, but his successor has ordered Spanish troops home.
Given the outcome in Spain, Al Qaeda might find the U.S. elections “too good to pass up,” national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said in a Fox News interview over the weekend.
Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said U.S. intelligence had raised the possibility of attacks timed to coincide with the elections.
“We do not have specific threat reporting that indicates Al Qaeda is targeting the elections,” Roehrkasse said. “However, there is an analysis in the intelligence community, based on the fact that terrorists are strategic actors. They may perceive that their actions determined the elections in Spain. We are entering a season dominated by major symbolic events that could present an ideal target for Al Qaeda.”
Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister, said Sunday that he had warned Bush. “I told George Bush and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair ... to be extremely careful before elections,” Aznar said in a Fox News interview that aired Sunday. He said it was “very possible” the U.S. elections would be a target.
Terrorists “will be as harmful as they can possibly be, if they can do it,” he added.
Facing an election-eve attack would put the government in uncharted territory. Postponing a national election would be almost unthinkable.
“This is a mass democracy of 300 million people, and an election is going to go forward,” said Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, and co-chairman of a commission that warned of the nation’s vulnerability to terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“What terrorists can’t disrupt is highly decentralized activity, and there’s nothing more highly decentralized than voting,” Hart said. “I can’t imagine anything short of a mass epidemic where people couldn’t leave their houses.”
There is constitutional authority to reschedule a national election, and it rests with Congress and the president, legal experts said. The Constitution allows Congress to set the date of elections by law, provided the whole country votes on the same day.
There are also options in the event that political party conventions are disrupted. The Republican and Democratic national committees could put forward nominees, said political scientist Charles O. Jones, a retired University of Wisconsin professor.
“There is a process by which the national committees can act for the parties,” Jones said. “The national committees could fill a position.” But he added that such a scenario would be highly unlikely.
Jones said Ridge’s announcement could be viewed as a message to Al Qaeda and to the American public.
“With what’s going on in the 9/11 commission, the last thing the administration wants is to be perceived as not thinking ahead,” he said. “A major lesson is to be forward-thinking.”
For now, Homeland Security’s efforts will steer clear of the electoral process and focus on traditional civil defense priorities, such as identifying vulnerabilities, protecting infrastructure and improving communication among security agencies and different levels of government.
Ridge said the department would establish a special working group to coordinate the planning.
“This group will reach out to mayors, governors and officials at every level of government, as well as the private sector,” he said.
The task force will concentrate on carrying out two presidential orders issued with little fanfare last December, a department spokesman said.
One order calls for a national preparedness plan to deal with a range of disasters, from natural calamities to terrorist attack. The other calls for assessing and meeting threats to critical infrastructure, such as power plants, transit systems and communications facilities.
Separately on Monday, leaders of the nation’s public transit systems called on Congress to provide $2 billion to improve security.
The number of transit riders far exceeds that of airline passengers. Yet aviation security has received $11 billion since the Sept. 11 attacks, while only $115 million has gone to transit systems. Transit operators say they have unmet security needs totaling about $6 billion, despite spending $1.7 billion of their own money on improvements.