EXCLUSIVE: ELECTION DAY WORRIES

American counter-terrorism officials, citing what they call "alarming" intelligence about a possible Qaeda strike inside the United States this fall, are reviewing a proposal that could allow for the postponement of the November presidential election in the event of such an attack, NEWSWEEK has learned. The prospect that Al Qaeda might seek to disrupt the U.S. election was a major factor behind last week's terror warning by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Ridge and other counterterrorism officials concede they have no intel about any specific plots. But the success of March's Madrid railway bombings in influencing the Spanish elections--as well as intercepted "chatter" among Qaeda operatives--has led analysts to conclude "they want to interfere with the elections," says one official.

As a result, sources tell NEWSWEEK, Ridge's department last week asked the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to analyze what legal steps would be needed to permit the postponement of the election were an attack to take place. Justice was specifically asked to review a recent letter to Ridge from DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the newly created U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Soaries noted that, while a primary election in New York on September 11, 2001, was quickly suspended by that state's Board of Elections after the attacks that morning, "the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election." Soaries, a Bush appointee who two years ago was an unsuccessful GOP candidate for Congress, wants Ridge to seek emergency legislation from Congress empowering his agency to make such a call. Homeland officials say that as drastic as such proposals sound, they are taking them seriously--along with other possible contingency plans in the event of an election-eve or Election Day attack. "We are reviewing the issue to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election," says Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland spokesman.

EXCLUSIVE: ELECTION DAY WORRIES | News