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US takes offensive to thwart terrorists in election season

WASHINGTON -- Agencies across the federal government are launching an aggressive and unusually open offensive aimed at thwarting terrorist plots before and during the presidential election in November.

Numerous law enforcement and counterterrorism officials also warned last week that a heightened threat of terrorist attack will persist through the January inauguration.

The government's strategy will include heavy surveillance by the FBI, increased checks of terrorism watch lists by local police and heightened security at polling places Nov. 2, officials said.

Counterterrorism officials concede they do not have new or specific intelligence outlining plans for an attack, but say they remain alarmed by indications that Al Qaeda and other terror groups might seek to influence US elections as they did in Spain last spring by setting off bombs on Madrid commuter trains. By publicizing the government's efforts, which will begin in earnest later this week, authorities say they hope to forestall any plans for similar attacks here.

The FBI, which is sharply limiting personal leave and transferring hundreds of agents to the effort, will focus heavily on individuals within the United States who are suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups or who sympathize with their causes, according to officials who have been briefed on the plans.

Officials said the FBI's tactics, which will be outlined in an electronic communication to field offices, will include aggressive and often overt surveillance, widespread interviews, and, in some cases, arrests. Local police will be urged to run the names of suspicious people through the federal government's terrorism watch list, even during traffic stops and other minor encounters.

"We are always asking ourselves the critical question, 'Have we done everything we can to thwart the next attack?' " said Michael A. Mason, who heads the FBI's Washington field office.

Earlier this month, the FBI's " '04 Threat Task Force" issued an advisory saying there was no intelligence detailing the timing, status, or targets of any plot, but it said an increased threat of terrorist action will continue through the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to sources with access to the memo. The bulletin indicated New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington -- the nation's capital and three largest cities -- were cities of interest, but mentioned others, these sources said.

A national election security planning bulletin will be sent tomorrow to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, containing guidelines to governors and elections officials for coordination of law enforcement, polling place and ballot-counting security, legal powers to order emergency election changes, and public communication from now through Election Day.

Authorities are focused on a series of dates, starting with the annual meetings that begin Friday at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both of which remain under a heightened "orange alert" along with other potential financial targets in Washington, New York, and New Jersey. State and federal officials said the threat window will remain open through the Nov. 2 elections, the Dec. 13 Electoral College ballot, and the inauguration.

Agents from various federal departments have begun visiting rental car and truck firms, as well as limousine companies, around the country to urge them to be on heightened alert for suspicious activity that might indicate a planned car- or truck-bomb attack. Airline security officials have tightened procedures at airport checkpoints to hunt for explosives that might be hidden under a passenger's clothing.

Even as security is tightened, numerous counterterrorism and law-enforcement officials concede the activity is not based on any new or specific intelligence. Some officials also say they are concerned that people may become inured to the drumbeat of warnings about the terrorist threat, especially given the lack of incidents during the political conventions or Olympics.

James Loy, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, said in an interview Friday that even if there is no attack between now and the inauguration, officials will be just as worried about other events well into 2005 and beyond.

Homeland Security has taken dozens of steps that now will be more or less permanent, Loy said, including stepping up inspections of train tracks, increasing Coast Guard boardings of incoming cargo ships, and expanding the use of explosive-sniffing canine units.

One senior European intelligence official said his country has seen no direct evidence that Al Qaeda has the ability or specific intent to launch an attack in the United States before the November elections. Regardless, the official added, Al Qaeda is benefiting from widespread fears that they are plotting something.

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