More flights canceled after warnings

U.S. officials rebut reports that they overreacted to threat of terrorist attack

January 03, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - British authorities canceled more overseas airline flights yesterday in response to continuing intelligence warnings of terrorist threats. And, as they warned that more disruptions are likely, U.S. officials rejected suggestions that the string of cancellations over the New Year's holiday may have been an overreaction.

American officials said they had acted because credible intelligence information suggested that al-Qaida operatives were considering hijacking specific flights, and not because of what proved to be faulty efforts to match names of passengers with terrorist suspects.

The heightened security alert is not expected to end soon, officials said, emphasizing that air travel may be disrupted again if they have evidence that an attack may be planned.

"I think that this is our new reality," said Michael Mason, who heads the FBI's Washington field office, "because our actions are completely and utterly decided by intelligence."

"I'd like to say that the threat will go away. But it is not going to," he said.

Officials on both sides of the ocean stressed that they considered the extraordinary decisions to cancel so many flights over the past several days to have been appropriate, even though no arrests of terrorism suspects have been made. The decisions were made against a background of the heightened evidence that al-Qaida may be readying a long-delayed second attack against the United States.

"I'm human. I have a family. I understand the hardship that these actions with the flights can produce," Mason said. "But I would rather be dealing with angry passengers than picking through debris."

With the New Year holiday over, Mason expressed guarded optimism and relief about the intelligence community's response to the heightened efforts by al-Qaida operatives to hijack commercial airlines to use as weapons.

"I am feeling pretty good about what has happened so far," he said.

Nonetheless, British Airways canceled its flight 223 from London to Washington yesterday for the second day in a row because of security concerns. That same flight had been detained at Dulles International Airport on Wednesday evening, also for security reasons. British Airways flight 217 from London to Washington was delayed yesterday while passengers underwent additional screening.

Another British Airways flight from London to Saudi Arabia was canceled for today; that same flight had been canceled Wednesday. And a Riyadh-London flight was canceled for tomorrow.

Aeromexico flight 490 was canceled two days in a row over the holiday weekend for security reasons. Meanwhile, those airlines' other flights along the same routes - as well as other airlines flights on those routes - were not canceled.

A U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity said it would be correct to assume that intelligence agents `'have some information that points to specific flights, not just cities."

These comments addressed complaints from some officials in Europe over recent days that the cancellations of some of the flights were based on faulty intelligence and cases of mistaken identity. American officials may have overreacted, these European officials suggested.

Fueling such sentiments were news reports that, when intelligence officials raised concerns about the name of a particular passenger on the manifest for an Air France flight from Paris to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, the passenger turned out to be a 5-year-old child.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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