WASHINGTON – In the latest warning that al-Qaida terrorists are preparing to attack the United States before the November elections, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday alerted Americans that the terror group was readying a large-scale strike.

Ridge’s statement during a news conference was as relatively free of details about the threat as similar alerts he issued in recent months. And he repeated that the Bush administration didn’t have immediate plans to raise the threat level from its current yellow, or elevated, level.

The warning caused some skeptics to ask whether it was politically motivated to help President Bush’s re-election chances. And Senate Democrats used Ridge’s warning to criticize Republican leaders they said had put off Senate consideration of important homeland-security legislation to take up other bills important to the conservative business and social agenda.

Coinciding with federal notice of an election season terror threat, Maine is formalizing its Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Gov. John Baldacci signed an executive order doing so Thursday, characterizing the formal step establishing the council as a bow to prudence.

He said the move was not linked to any specific threat to Maine, but part of “a continuing effort to build up each day.”

Ever since deadly al-Qaida bombings in March of trains in Madrid, the Bush administration has worried that terrorists might time attacks in the United States to occur before the fall election. There also are particular concerns that attacks could come during the Democratic National Convention in Boston this month or in New York a month later during the Republican convention.

“Credible reporting now indicates that al-Qaida is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the U.S. in an effort to disrupt our democratic process … ,” Ridge told reporters.

“We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack,” he said. “But along with (the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge.”

Analysts blame the Madrid bombings, which killed nearly 200 people, with helping unseat Spain’s conservative government. Madrid had supported the U.S. war effort in Iraq by deploying Spanish troops. The Socialist opposition, which won in an upset, kept its campaign promise and withdrew the troops.

Ridge’s comments Thursday followed a warning in May by Attorney General John Ashcroft who held a news conference to warn of potential attacks in the run-up to the election. Ashcroft’s warning was criticized at the time because he and Ridge appeared to take different approaches, with Ridge opting to be lower key.

On Thursday, Ridge also praised the administration’s homeland-security efforts. He said, for instance, that his department’s new operations center, which operates round-the-clock, was now connected to all 50 states.

The new center permits the department to receive intelligence in real time and to act on it immediately, he said. He added that it would make it easier for the department to share intelligence with other federal agencies.

The failure of federal agencies to share intelligence before the Sept. 11 attacks has been widely criticized by congressional probes and other investigators as contributing to the atmosphere that failed to prevent those attacks.

But Ridge’s announcement gave Democrats an opening to criticize both the administration and Congress for what they said were their failings at securing the nation.

“Today Secretary Ridge told us that the Bush administration has made serious progress dealing with potential terrorist attacks,” said a statement from the Kerry campaign.

“What he did not tell you is that they still do not have a system in place to ensure that the FBI, CIA, local law enforcement, and other relevant agencies are working together to understand the threats we face or even assess our most obvious vulnerabilities,” the statement said, contradicting Ridge’s assessment.

For their part, Senate Democrats said that with the threat being so serious, it was wrong for Senate Republicans to delay action on homeland-security legislation.

“Unfortunately, even after this morning’s new terror warnings, Senate Republicans refuse to address important homeland security legislation,” said a statement from Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the Democratic leader.

Senate Democrats said they were particularly offended that Republicans chose to take up legislation on abuses of class-action lawsuits and a bill to add an amendment to the Constitution that would prevent gay marriages from being legally recognized in the United States instead of acting on the homeland-security measure.

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-08-04 2056EDT

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