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Bin Laden Is Said to Be Organizing for a U.S. Attack.
By David Johnston and David Stout

Washington, July 8 - Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants, operating from hideouts suspected to be along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, are directing a Qaeda effort to launch an attack in the United States sometime this year, senior Bush administration officials said on Thursday.

"What we know about this most recent information is that it is being directed from the seniormost levels of the Al Qaeda organization," said a senior official at a briefing for reporters. He added, "We know that this leadership continues to operate along the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Counterterrorism officials have said for weeks that they are increasingly worried by a continuing stream of intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda wanted to carry out a significant terror attack on United States soil this year. But until the comments of the senior administration officials on Thursday, it was not clear that Mr. bin Laden and top deputies like Ayman Zawahiri were responsible for the concern.

Another senior administration official said on Thursday that the intelligence reports - apparently drawn partly from interviews with captured Qaeda members and partly from other intelligence - referred to efforts "to inflict catastrophic effects" before the election.

This official said that the reports did not refer specifically to Mr. bin Laden's instructions or desires, but did make clear that instructions were coming from Qaeda leaders. "It sounds like a corporate effort," the official said.

The new information about Al Qaeda came as Congressional Republicans barely managed to block an effort by Democrats to ban the government from demanding records from libraries and book sellers in some terrorism investigations. Although the Democrats' effort failed by a single vote, it reflected the deep divisions over President Bush's signature antiterrorism legislation, the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which allowed the government access to such records.

In discussing the latest threat information, one of the officials said the intelligence was "cryptic," about both timing and location. There is a widespread assumption in the intelligence community that past targets - New York, Washington, the Los Angeles airport - all still have symbolic value to Al Qaeda. There is no specific reference to the coming political conventions, the official said, but that remains an immediate focus of concern.

Mr. bin Laden's precise role remains somewhat uncertain. It does not appear that he is trying to take an active leadership role in formulating a specific plan, as he did in preparations for the September 2001 attacks, an administration official said. There is evidence, the official said, that he is able to communicate with his followers, urging them to carry out operations in the name of the terror network.

In the past, Mr. bin Laden has used a variety of methods to carry his messages, and he is acutely aware of American efforts to monitor his conversations. He has used couriers to carry private instructions and issued public statements that contained threats and exhortations. In addition, his followers have used cellphones and computer messages to disseminate his directives.

At a news conference on Thursday, Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, said the intelligence about Al Qaeda's intentions was credible, even if it lacked specifics. He said that the chances of heading off an attack were better than ever, and that there was no reason to raise the terrorist threat level for now.

Mr. Ridge said reliable information pointed to an attack in which terrorists would try to "disrupt our democratic process," suggesting an attack designed to disrupt the national political conventions or the elections in November. He added that extra protective measures would be in place at the conventions, even though there was no specific indication that they were targets.

"We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack, but along with the C.I.A., F.B.I. and other agencies, we are actively working to gain that knowledge," Mr. Ridge said. But several other officials said there were "strong indications" that Al Qaeda might strike at targets it had attacked before, "including those that they were able to attack, as well as those that they were unable to attack."

That suggested possible targets would include New York and the Los Angeles airport, which was a target in a millennium-related plot that was foiled by the authorities in December 1999.

Source: New York Times.