WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned yesterday that the country is entering a period that will be ripe with potential targets for a high-profile terrorist attack and announced that he is forming a federal task force to coordinate security for them.
The next eight months be a "season that is rich with symbolic opportunities for the terrorists to try to shake our will," including the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the summer Olympics, several meetings of international organizations inside the United States, and traditional holiday periods, he said.
"With so many symbolic gatherings in the next few months, we must be aggressive," Ridge told a convention of news broadcasters in Las Vegas. "Special attention will be given to areas of concern such as rail and air security, hazardous materials shipments, chemical facilities, and the protection of the electrical grid, among others."
The announcement marked Ridge's boldest assertion to date of his mandate to collapse the barriers between government agencies in order to fight terrorism.
Although he offered few details, Ridge said his department would lead a still-unnamed working group with nine Cabinet-level agencies to coordinate security plans for the events. Representatives will come from the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, Treasury, and Transportation.
The task force will also work with state and local officials and private industry to ratchet up vigilance and emergency response capabilities in the times surrounding those events, he said.
Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security spokesman, said the department was authorized to head the task forces in December 2003, when President Bush issued two homeland security directives ordering the creation of national infrastructure protection and emergency preparedness plans.
Ridge decided to "accelerate" plans to create the task forces "because of the analysis by the intelligence community that indicates that terrorists may be attracted to some of these major events this summer," Roerhkasse said.
In his remarks, however, Ridge also cautioned that at this point there has not been any "specific, credible threat information around any of these events," and described the task force planning as "common sense."
Although officials are generally tight-lipped about the specifics of their plans for security at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in late July, the Secret Service has insisted that major portals into the city be closed near the site -- including part of Interstate 93 and North Station.
Ridge's announcement was not met with universal approval. US Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, released a statement attacking the plan as insubstantial. Maloney has frequently argued that the federal government is short-changing homeland aid to local police and fire-rescue services.
"There are high-profile events in America all the time," she said. "The Super Bowl, New Year's in Times Square and the 4th of July happen each year, and if we need to form new task forces every few months, that's a problem. . . . This announcement seems to be more about appearances than taking action."
But Christopher Cox, Republican of California and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised the idea.
"The secretary should be commended for this initiative, which rightly emphasizes our need to be prepared for a terrorist attack at every level of government," Cox said in a statement.
Among the upcoming symbolic events of concern singled out by Ridge yesterday:
Meetings of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., later this month and in October.
The dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington in May.
A summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in Georgia in June.
The Democratic National Convention in Boston and its Republican counterpart in New York City in August and September.
Election Day in November
The December holidays.
The 2005 presidential Inauguration.
Last month, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said terrorists could try to influence the outcome of this year's presidential election through attacks either in America or overseas, as they did in Spain with a March 11 bombing that killed 191 people. In the aftermath, Spain's ruling Popular Party lost to the Socialists, who are following through on a promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq
"In the wake of what happened in Madrid we have to be concerned about the possibility of terrorists attempting to influence elections in the United States by committing a terrorist act," Mueller said.
He also singled out the Athens Olympics as a possible target.
Appearing on "FOX News Sunday" national security adviser Condoleezza Rice also said counterterrorism officials are concerned that terrorists will target the US election.
"I think we also have to take seriously that they might try during the cycle leading up to the election to do something," she said. "In some ways, it seems like it would be too good to pass up for them, and so we are actively looking at that possibility, actively trying to make certain that we are responding appropriately."
Rick Klein of the Globe staff contributed to this report.