Flight Sent Back on Terror Fear, U.S. Officials Say
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
New York Times
Published: January 1, 2004
ASHINGTON, Dec. 31 The American authorities in the last week directed a United States-bound flight from Mexico to turn around in midair and imposed extraordinary security measures on at least six other incoming flights because of terrorist concerns, federal officials said Wednesday.
Officials were so concerned about possible attacks on at least five foreign flights that landed in the United States, including one on Wednesday night at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, that they moved the planes away from the main terminals and rescreened the passengers.
The security moves, along with the cancellation of several flights on Dec. 24 by Air France to Los Angeles, reflect an aggressive new approach toward guarding United States airspace because of concerns that terrorists may seek to hijack an international flight. The strategy is an outgrowth of the "high risk" alert status initiated 11 days ago.
While officials said they wanted to cooperate with other nations to strengthen security, they also said they were unwilling to let foreign flights into United States airspace without rigorous security checks.
This week, Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, put foreign airlines on notice that they would be denied entry to American airspace if they refused to put armed air marshals on any incoming flights of concern. The move, which met resistance from some countries, came less than a week after Air France canceled six flights because of American worries that terrorists might be aboard. The federal officials said that putting pressure on foreign carriers to use marshals was just one of several steps they were taking behind the scenes to meet rising concern about international flights.
The officials said that in the last week they also had "significantly increased" inspection of air cargo on foreign flights, a source of widespread concern as a potential mode of attack for terrorists.
Military F-16 fighter jets have also shadowed some foreign flights from Air France and other airlines arriving at major American cities, including Los Angeles, an administration official said.
And the federal officials disclosed Wednesday that after the Air France cancellations, they reached an agreement this week with a French delegation to impose tougher security on flights that American officials suspect may be at risk.
A key provision, the officials said, was that the French agreed to give to United States officials passenger lists for any flights thought to be suspicious at least one hour before take-off, rather than waiting until the flight is in the air as is now normally done. American officials said they wanted to use that agreement as a model for ensuring tighter aviation security in other nations as well.
"What we're trying to do is establish protocols to be able to vet these passenger lists before the flight takes off, and that's in the interests of both parties," said an American official involved in the agreement. "No one wants to be told when a flight is halfway across the Atlantic that it has to turn around."
But American officials have shown a willingness to do just that in recent days if questions arise about a flight's security.
In the case of a foreign carrier's flight this week from Mexico, a Transportation Security Administration inspector based there told officials in the United States that passengers boarding a flight for the United States had not been properly screened, government officials said.
As one official related the exchanged that followed, American transportation officials told the airline, "You said there were procedures in place for that flight that weren't there. Turn it around."
The airline agreed to return the plane to Mexico and rescreen the passengers, and the American authorities allowed the flight to complete its scheduled route, the official said. Officials refused to disclose the city of origin or the itinerary for the flight, citing both diplomatic and national security concerns.
Since the Bush administration put the United States on high terrorist alert
on Dec. 21, some flights have made it to the United States even amid concerns
about their security, officials said.
At Dulles airport, the police surrounded a British Airways flight from London that landed at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday and directed it to a remote site, a security official involved in the operation said.
Intelligence developed by American officials indicated that the route of the flight might be a target of terrorists, and at least one name on the passenger list appeared to match a name on a terror watch list, the security official said.
Nothing suspicious turned up in a screening of luggage on the plane, but some passengers were searched and interviewed late Wednesday night, and officials said it was unclear whether the flight represented a threat.
"We're out here trying to deter and disrupt attacks," the official said, "and that's not always immediately going to produce a guy in handcuffs."
In five or six flights coming to the United States from England, Mexico and elsewhere, officials said, there were concerns about lapses in security in the city of origin, intelligence about possible terrorist activity, and sometimes both. Officials said several suspect flights landed at the Los Angeles International Airport and another at Dulles, but they declined to provide details on the routes.
In each case, officials said, security officials met the planes and did "reverse screenings" like the one in Dulles, interviewing passengers and searching them for explosives, weapons and other contraband.
Before the alert level was raised to orange, or high, such screenings for flights that had already landed were rare, a security official said.
"Clearly we're in a situation where this is happening much more frequently than in earlier periods," the official said.
In another instance several days ago, a flight headed for the United States from Latin America was grounded on the runway for several hours after United States officials told the air carrier they were not satisfied that passengers had been adequately screened.
David O'Connor, director of the United States operations for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents most international carriers, said one critical challenge facing the United States in seeking to strengthen air security was that safety standards vary so widely around the world.
"Some airports and airlines are very secure," he said. "The British, for example, have been concerned about terrorist attacks long before 9/11, and they screen passengers and baggage extensively. And in Germany, the same."
But he added, "when you're talking about developing nations in Latin America and elsewhere, many haven't until recently initiated any real screening procedures, and that's where you have problems."