WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda has shown no signs it plans to attack the United States during the presidential election, but the government must keep guard during the 2-1/2-month transition to a new president, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Thursday.
Chertoff added the global economic turmoil had yet to cause any visible change in al Qaeda’s strategy, although the financial crisis could reduce state and local spending on security.
He also cautioned about heated political rhetoric in “an intemperate time,” saying it could fuel violence among Americans.
“I have not seen evidence that a major element of al Qaeda’s planning is our anniversaries or our elections,” Chertoff told Reuters in an interview.
“Terrorist operations are undertaken when they are operationally ready. They don’t wait for something that’s an external event, and they don’t rush it.”
But he said, “In a transition, as people leave and new people come in, it’s human nature to have some distraction, and therefore it’s important to be extra-focused during that period so that distraction does not become a vulnerability.” The new president takes office on Jan. 20.
Al Qaeda attacks around the time of elections in Spain, Britain and Pakistan have caused some experts to warn the United States is potentially vulnerable before the Nov. 4 vote.
“The remaining ... days of before the elections should be seen as a time of high threat,” Los Angeles Police Commissioner William Bratton and former National Security Council official R.P Eddy said in a New York Daily News opinion column on Wednesday.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden also issued a videotape in late October 2004 shortly before the U.S. presidential election that was seen as an attempt to tilt the outcome toward U.S. President George W. Bush. That year’s Democratic presidential challenger, John Kerry, blamed the video in part for his defeat.
Chertoff did not rule out the possibility al Qaeda would issue election-season statements, but said, “I don’t regard an election, or a milestone like that, as in and of itself a significant indicator” of attack plans.
Asked about the potential for domestic violence, Chertoff warned that hot rhetoric could trigger a “disturbed individual,” something the United States has long lived with.
“We live in an intemperate time, when a lot of people take political positions which they express not just with vigor but so often with animosity and anger, and there is always a danger that someone reading that or listening to that suddenly decides now they want to act out. That’s why we have the Secret Service.”
The presidential campaigns of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have each accused the other side’s supporters of inflamed comments.
Chertoff said he had seen no signs a global financial crisis was enticing al Qaeda to plan attacks to take advantage of a perceived new weakness.
But he remained concerned al Qaeda had taken advantage of safe locations in Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan to train Europeans and dispatch attackers. “The question is whether that will translate into something that’s imminent.”
The U.S. financial system was relatively well protected against computer attacks, such as crippled Georgia during last summer’s incursion by neighbor Russia, and against physical attacks, he said.
But the financial crisis may affect security. Some state and local governments, facing tight budgets due to an economic slowdown, have already tried to shift federal homeland security money for other purposes, with stretched justifications that Chertoff characterized as treating “muggers as terrorists.”
Chertoff encouraged the Obama and McCain campaigns to identify early top homeland security aides so they could begin working with outgoing counterparts.
He said he intended to leave around the presidential inauguration to go into the private sector. He said his successor needed a background in law enforcement or emergency management, and should lack a grander political ambition, because of the many feathers ruffled by the sprawling new department.