Search of cars at BWI prompted by threat

Unpredictable measures necessary, officials say

March 27, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Authorities stopped and searched every vehicle entering Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Tuesday night because they had received a specific threat that they deemed credible and that demanded immediate action, several officials said yesterday.

Although they declined to disclose the exact nature of the information they received, they said their cautious response was appropriate. After two hours of searching every vehicle, authorities resumed random searches, as they have been doing for more than a month.

The federal Transportation Security Administration had said Tuesday that there was no specific reason for the heightened security. Yesterday, a TSA spokesman declined to comment.

But Gary McLhinney, chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said yesterday: "Information we had received caused us to change for a period of time how we were conducting our security checks. After consulting with all our partners in the law enforcement community, this was the course of action we thought was appropriate."

It was the first time anyone can recall that every vehicle entering BWI had been searched, but it may not be the last. Authorities say they will be unpredictable in the actions they take to thwart potential terrorists - even if it means inconveniencing travelers.

"Any decision I make at the airport will be based on my responsibility as chief of police," McLhinney said, adding that people getting to the airport were delayed 15 to 20 minutes Tuesday night.

Since the national threat level was raised to orange March 17, state Transportation Authority police have conducted more than 31,000 searches of cars and trucks at bridges, tunnels and the airport. But police had not stopped every vehicle on a roadway until Tuesday night at BWI.

Starting at 6 p.m., police stopped vehicles on Interstate 195, Elm Road and Scott Drive. They peered into the passenger compartments with flashlights and asked drivers to open their doors and pop their trunks. Those stuck in the backup on I-195 said it took them about half an hour to get through the checkpoint. Random searches resumed at 8 p.m.

BWI Executive Director Paul Wiedefeld said he was not aware of any passengers missing flights or flights being delayed because of the backup. He also said that none of the airlines complained about the situation.

"We don't want to be very predictable in what we do with any of this stuff," Wiedefeld said. "We are doing lots of things [to enhance security], and we will do them at random by design."

He said domestic travelers should still arrive 90 minutes before departure time and international travelers should arrive two hours before departure time.

Air travel experts said they did not want to question the decision made by police to search every vehicle but warned that anything that adds to the time it takes to board a plane could drive people away from the ailing airlines.

"If we start having intense security measures, which may really be needed, it may push us back to arriving two hours before departure, and that will have a downward pressure on the airlines," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.

Sun staff writers Jason Song and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

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