WASHINGTON The economic crisis sweeping the United States and an upcoming change in the country's leadership make it vulnerable to terrorist attack, a former aide to President George W. Bush said on Friday.
Frances Townsend, who chaired the Homeland Security Council from 2004 until January this year, said it was vital that the campaigns of presidential candidates Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama ensured a swift transition of power when Bush leaves office in January.
Bush this week officially established a transition team to help manage the handover.
Townsend, who sits on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, said the campaigns had submitted names to the FBI and the Justice Department for vetting so "the transition can begin right away."
While the government has stressed it has no evidence a terrorist attack is being planned against the United States, "we would be foolish to take much comfort in that," said Townsend, speaking at a conference on al Qaeda.
"This is a period of vulnerability," she said.
She cited examples of where al Qaeda or sympathizers staged attacks in the United States, Britain and Spain, either to influence the outcome of an election or within 12 months of a new administration taking office.
The 1993 World Trade Center bombing took place within weeks of Bill Clinton becoming U.S. president; the September 11, 2001, attacks in the first year of Bush's presidency; the 2004 Madrid train bombings before a national election in Spain; and an attempted car bombing at Glasgow airport in Scotland in 2007 just days after Gordon Brown became prime minister of Britain.
"The facts speak for themselves of a period of vulnerability during the lead-up and transition of a government. ... Imagine then with the current economic crisis the vulnerability that represents to the country," she said.
Noting how stocks tumbled on Wall Street after the September 11 attacks, she said the impact of a similar attack during the current economic turmoil would be "greatly exaggerated."
Some critics have accused the Bush administration in the past of stoking public fears of terrorism for political gain, although the administration has denied the charges.
"Do I think they (terrorists) necessarily time attacks they did not otherwise plan during these periods? I am not saying that," she told Reuters in an interview. "What I am saying is that a transition of power ... presents people who would want to take advantage an opportunity."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)