By James Gordon Meek

New York Daily News

WASHINGTON – The recent string of successes against al-Qaida hasn’t eased the strain on the country’s terrorist hunters. In fact, it has increased.

“Among senior leaders here, there is a level of anxiety I’ve never seen before,” a top Justice Department official said this weekend.

Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, Jim Comey, have stepped up the signing of supersecret warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for national security wiretaps, the official said.

“We have an enormous amount of electronic coverage going on right now,” the Justice Department official said.

The reason for the anxiety is the wealth of information American intelligence has received in recent weeks about al-Qaida surveillance of U.S. financial targets as well as the capture of key terror suspects.

The arrests were made in Britain and Pakistan, leaving open whether there are terrorist sleeper cells in the United States ready to be activated and strike.

Still, the arrests and the planning indicate Osama Bin Laden’s network remains global and active.

Criticism that the surveillance information is several years old – although reviewed in January – is no comfort to those familiar with al-Qaida’s history.

Counterterrorism officials’ knowledge about “preoperational planning” for past al-Qaida attacks suggests a pattern of meticulous surveillance over many years. It is followed by a long, dormant period for the operational planners and cells, then a “freshening up” of surveillance, and finally a rapid transition to an operational phase leading to a major attack.

“What we’re seeing now is everything but that last piece: the operational phase before a terrorist strike,” a homeland security source said. “It’s still a question mark.”

There is strong anticipation among counterterrorism officials “that they are going to try to hit us before the November election,” the homeland security source said. “The stuff on the laptops can be made operational very quickly.”

The source marveled that the 40- to 50-page “case studies” of the financial targets included “unprecedented detail” and called it “absolutely incredible” material.

The FBI’s 2004 task force, a special group of agents focused on pre-election terror threats, has mobilized and federal agencies have been communicating feverishly to warn local police, business officials and even hotel managers what kind of suspicious behavior or events to look for.

“We’re talking to anybody who could be a target,” the senior Justice Department official said.

Skepticism remains, even within the intelligence community, that politics may be playing a part in the alerts.

Some senior Bush administration officials were appalled last Sunday to hear Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge give the latest threat warning and then add, “The kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror.”

“They’re playing politics with classified information to get Bush reelected,” groused a federal law enforcement source.

But the homeland security source added: “People are offended at the suggestion that this alert is politically motivated. We’re trying to keep Americans from getting killed. It’s not like this stuff was in a warehouse and we were waiting to pull it out.”

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