British Cancel Another Flight as Allies Question U.S.: Reliability of Intelligence Questioned
January 3, 2004
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
New York Times
WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 British Airways canceled another flight to the United States on Friday as the Bush administration faced questions from American allies about the reliability of the intelligence information that has led to the recent rash of flight cancellations.
The British airline grounded a flight from London to Washington the third cancellation over all in 24 hours and canceled a flight scheduled for Saturday from London to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Seven international flights have now been canceled since last Saturday after the Bush administration began an aggressive approach to defending American airspace when the nation was put on orange or "high" alert on Dec. 21. Administration officials said no arrests had been made in connection with any of the more than a dozen international flights subjected to rigorous scrutiny. And officials have acknowledged that even now, they are uncertain whether they have succeeded in foiling a terrorist plot.
"I don't think we know yet, and we may never know," a senior administration official said.
The latest concern over the tighter security perhaps unparalleled in commercial aviation history was raised by Mexico on Friday. A spokesman for President Vicente Fox questioned decisions by the United States on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day to cancel Aeromexico's Flight 490 from Mexico City to Los Angeles. The spokesman, Agustin Gutiérrez Canet, said that armed Mexican agents had been scheduled to fly aboard the flights and that the authorities made special efforts to interrogate passengers closely and inspect luggage.
"Those revisions have found nothing suspicious," Mr. Gutiérrez said. "Where was the risk?"
In another indication of the turmoil resulting from the increased security measures, an American official said that the cancellation of the British Airways flights was not in response to United States safety concerns, but rather was prompted by the refusal of British pilots to fly with armed marshals on board. The United States put other nations on notice earlier this week that it would not allow certain suspicious flights into its airspace without armed marshals on board.
In addition to the flight cancellations, foreign airliners have been escorted into American airspace by F-16 military fighters, and a Mexican flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles was turned around in mid-air.
The events have left both domestic security officials and international travelers on edge over the prospect of another attack by Al Qaeda. American officials said they were determined to avoid the kind of missed warning signs that preceded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even if it meant inconveniencing travelers.
Government officials refuse to talk about key details of their decisions to ground the flights because they are classified, but they say that the anxieties are driven by a confluence of factors indicating that another attack on the scale of the Sept. 11 hijackings might be in the works. And the White House's approach, the result of both cold analytical intelligence and gut-level emotion, helped set in motion the extraordinary security measures seen over the last 10 days.
Two days before an Air France flight to Los Angeles was to depart from Paris on Christmas Eve, President Bush's top national security advisers briefed him at the White House on their growing worries about the route, administration officials said.
American officials were picking up intelligence indicating terrorists might be on board that flight or others from Paris to Los Angeles. They had persuaded the French, despite initial resistance, to post armed marshals on board. But the Americans remained nervous and were considering urging the French to cancel the flight.
President Bush had one threshold question for Tom Ridge, his secretary for homeland security, as they met at the White House situation room on Dec. 22. "Would you let your son or daughter fly on that plane?" he asked Mr. Ridge, according to a senior administration official privy to the conversation.
"Absolutely not," the secretary responded. "Well," Mr. Bush said, "neither would I."
The two men and Mr. Bush's other advisers then agreed that if the threat remained, the French should be urged to cancel the Paris-to-Los Angeles flights over the Christmas holiday. Two days later, the French did just that.
But with that aggressive approach have come questions about the quality of the intelligence information. In the case of the Air France cancellations, for instance, the discovery of a name on the passenger manifest similar to that of a Tunisian pilot with possible extremist links ratcheted up concern. But officials said it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity; the name of the passenger was that of a child, a senior official said in an interview. Other apparent "hits" from American terror watch lists turned out to be an elderly Chinese woman who owned a restaurant and a Welsh insurance agent, an F.B.I. official said.
The level of intelligence "chatter" picked up by the American intelligence community, and used as a gauge of terrorist activity, had risen to alarming levels by the time Mr. Ridge raised the threat level, officials said. Electronic eavesdropping, monitoring of e-mail messages, and information from informers picked up snippets of suspicious references to flight numbers and cities, and it pointed up concern about specific flights as well, including London to Washington, Paris to Los Angeles, and Mexico City to Los Angeles, officials said. The holiday period was also a time of particular concern, in part because Richard Reid, the so-called "shoe bomber," had tried to detonate an explosive on a flight from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22, 2001.
In the hours and days leading up to the Dec. 21 orange alert, the suspicious intelligence became louder, more credible and more specific, officials said. And it appeared to take a sudden upturn just before Dec. 21, surprising even some national security officials who said they had no reason to expect the alert level to increase in the day or two beforehand. By the time the alert was declared, officials said, they were deeply concerned that an international flight would be Al Qaeda's next means of attack on the United States.
Daniel Benjamin, a former counterterrorism specialist with the National Security Council, said he spoke with officials who "thought the orange alert was easily justified based on the available intelligence, and one person could even have imagined it going higher" to a red alert, which has never happened under the current threat system.
The French routes were among their biggest concerns, and intelligence pointed to the possibility of attacks on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, officials said.
Americans became even more concerned about the Paris-Los Angeles route as they began reviewing preliminary flight manifests from the Air France flights on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.
"There were names on those manifests that caused concern because of hits on our databases. That's what caused the anxiety level," the senior government official said.
The passenger name that appeared to match the Tunisian pilot provoked particular concern, officials said, but investigators would not learn of the mistake until after the flights were grounded.
In the days leading up to the Christmastime flights to Los Angeles, French and American security officials exchanged information often hourly on the passengers scheduled to be on board, and the Americans persuaded the French, after vigorous lobbying, to post armed marshals on the flights, officials said. One French diplomat told the Americans that he was concerned that the Paris-Los Angeles flights could be disrupted for an extended period and that the public would see the issue as a result of more diplomatic friction between the two nations, according to an American official who spoke with the emissary.
While American officials have asserted tight control over how and when foreign flights can enter their airspace, their authority has come into question in recent days, as they have sought to balance national security and diplomatic concerns.
In Mexico, legislators expressed frustration about the Mexico City-Los Angeles cancellations on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, saying that they wanted Mexico's transportation minister to answer questions about the security agreements with the United States and about who would compensate Mexican airlines for any financial losses.
Victor Hugo Islas, a federal legislator from the central Mexican state of Puebla, told the newspaper Cronica: "We do not know for sure the reach of these agreements, but surely someone should compensate the Mexican airlines as well as the passengers who have lost reservations, hotels, business or even jobs over these decisions."
The American authorities have negotiated tougher security controls with the French, and they have also begun sending inspectors into Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City to help put stricter measures into effect.
But there appear to be limits to how far other nations will go to accommodate American concerns.
In France, for instance, Dominique Bussereau, the state secretary in the transport ministry, said in a French radio interview on Friday that officials there would have to evaluate future requests from the United States for flight cancellations, and he said the French had turned down one such request this week.
"There was a flight that took place a few days ago that the United States didn't particularly want," Mr. Bussereau said. But French officials determined "that all the security measures had been taken, that all the checks made into the passengers were of such nature that the flight had all reason to travel, to fly," he said. French officials apologized to the passengers and allowed the flight to take off "even if the American authorities didn't entirely agree," he said.
Ginger Thompson reported from Mexico City for this article, and John Tagliabue reported from Paris.