Security upgrades due at some airports over missile threat

Authorities are concerned about planes' vulnerability to shoulder-fired devices

March 30, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Federal authorities will order major security improvements at several of the nation's largest airports after inspections showed that passenger planes taking off or landing at those airports would be vulnerable to attack by terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles, senior Bush administration officials said.

The inspections, which began several weeks ago, are being conducted by a federal task force created by the White House late last year after terrorists linked to al-Qaida tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane on takeoff from an airport in Kenya in November. The two small, shoulder-fired missiles barely missed the plane.

Administration officials would not identify the airports that would be required to make major safety improvements, noting security reasons. But they said the list included several of the nation's busiest, and that the improvements would include round-the-clock security patrols and tightened electronic surveillance of the flight paths used for takeoffs and landings.

Last week, dozens of National Guard troops were deployed to Los Angeles International Airport to patrol the perimeter and road checkpoints, in part because of what officials acknowledged was concern about shoulder-fired missiles.

A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty international airports, said it was aware of the missile threat and was responding to it.

The spokesman, Pasquale DiFulco, said the port authority had a policy of not discussing details of its security planning. "But we have certainly taken the necessary steps and precautions to address these issues," DiFulco said.

Bush administration officials said that nationwide inspections - which have been carried out at about 80 airports by officials of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies - demonstrated that a terrorist with a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile weighing as little as 30 pounds would find it relatively easy to evade security.

American intelligence and law enforcement agencies say that al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups are believed to have an arsenal overseas of dozens of shoulder-fired missiles, including the American-made Stinger and the Russian SA-7, and that others can be bought by terrorists on the black market for several thousand dollars each.

Many Stingers on the black market are left over from the American-backed guerrilla effort in Afghanistan to force out Soviet troops in the 1980s. The Stinger and missiles like it are capable of shooting down planes several miles away at heights of more than 10,000 feet.

Administration officials stressed that they had no evidence to suggest that al-Qaida or other terrorist groups had managed to smuggle any of the small missiles into the United States, or that they intended to try.

"We are not aware of any credible, specific intelligence information that MANPAD attacks are being planned against commercial aircraft in the U.S. at this time," said James M. Loy, director of the Transportation Security Administration, using the acronym for Man Portable Air Defense Systems, the technical name for the missiles. "The administration does, however, recognize the potential threat."

Officials say the attempt to shoot down the Israeli plane in Kenya in November created alarm in Washington that al-Qaida would try a similar attack in the United States. The incident near the international airport at Mombasa came six months after a similar Russian-made missile was fired at an American military plane in Saudi Arabia. That missile also missed.

American intelligence officials say that in the attacks in both Kenya and Saudi Arabia, the planes may have been saved by anti-missile technology that is routinely installed in Israeli passenger jets and U.S. military planes.

There is no similar federal requirement that anti-missile defense systems be built into American passenger planes. But since the Kenya attack, a growing bipartisan movement in Congress has called for the installation of the systems on American-owned commercial planes in the United States.

Federal aviation officials say it costs about $1 million to $2 million to outfit a passenger plane with equipment to deflect a missile.

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