WASHINGTON – U.S. government officials say the level of information picked up about an election terror threat has ebbed somewhat recently, but they still believe the danger posed by Al Qaeda (search) has not waned.
Law enforcement authorities are making arrests and increasing surveillance, tracking several hundred people nationwide in a final push to break up any potential plots before Tuesday's elections or beyond.
Officials have been on alert for a possible Al Qaeda strike since intelligence sources this spring and summer indicated the group's interest in such an attack. The sources were never specified publicly.
In the past four or more weeks, however, the various sources of intelligence information have quieted down. That includes a decrease in "chatter" — or the contacts and communications among terror suspects and sympathizers that governments can monitor. This often-ambiguous dialogue can include messages as easy to track as postings to Internet chat rooms.
U.S. authorities are picking up less of that kind of traffic, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Within the past week, U.S. officials also have said that some of the information from one intelligence source who led to the heightened election concerns now has been deemed not credible. They say other sources do remain credible.
As counterterrorism officials try to assess the intelligence, the FBI (search) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (search) agents are arresting people who are considered a possible threat; they are usually being taken in on charges unrelated to a potential terror threat.
Law enforcement officials said "several hundred" people are under tighter surveillance ahead of Tuesday's election. They declined to give a precise number.
Since Oct. 1, agents have arrested 137 people on immigration violations in a stepped-up enforcement action aimed at finding those who may pose a threat to national security, ICE officials said. The names of some of those arrested appear on government lists of those with possible connections to terrorism.
Those people under heightened government scrutiny were identified through methods such as intelligence gathered inside and outside the United States; FBI interviews with an estimated 10,000 Muslims, Arabs and others based on investigative leads; and immigration database alerts triggered when someone violates the terms of a visa, such as failing to attend college as promised.
"We now have systems in place to address this vulnerability, and we are doing so aggressively," ICE chief Michael Garcia said.
Some Muslims worry the arrests and interviews could intimidate Muslims from voting, said Council on American-Islamic Relations spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed. The FBI has had town-hall meetings and other forums hoping to ease those fears.
"Members of our community have been targeted for reasons that are often unexplained or untold," Ahmed said.
Democrats have suggested that the timing of some highly publicized terror warnings this year was designed to improve support for President Bush.
That includes a summer warning from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that terrorists might try to disrupt the political process. The announcement came shortly after Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry named Sen. John Edwards as his running mate.
Ridge and others have said politics do not play a role in security decisions.
As the election approaches, authorities are cautioning that they have no credible information about a specific attack, including a time, place or method of assault. Ridge has said the threat could extend after the election to the Jan. 20 inauguration and beyond.
No one is sure about the meaning of the decrease in the chatter, or dialogue monitored among suspected terrorists and sympathizers, and other incoming intelligence.
Some view such a trend as a warning, noting a similar lull in the summer before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Before that lull, in July 2001, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has said the government picked up "frustratingly vague" messages, including: "Big event — there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar." Then came the lull, then the attacks.
Others see the decline this time as a potentially positive development, or a sign that Al Qaeda might be inactive or weakening.
The bottom line is that no one really knows, said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief.
"It doesn't mean anything," he said. "Quiet means there isn't a lot of talk on Al Qaeda Web sites, and it means there isn't any new intelligence."