Russian jet attacks heighten U.S. fears

Lawmakers advocate tighter airport security amid budget constraints

September 03, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Russian jet attacks heighten U.S. fears

WASHINGTON - The destruction of two Russian airliners in suspected suicide bombings Aug. 24 has alarmed U.S. officials, exposing a gap in airport security that authorities here have identified but not yet closed.

"It is sort of your worst nightmare come true," said Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. "Even though it has happened thousands of miles away, it just ushers in a whole new era of potential problems and disasters."

A complicating factor, though, is a reluctance among some in the Bush administration and in Congress to increase the $5 billion annual aviation security budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, officials said.

Yesterday, security screeners in Moscow were supposed to begin checking passengers traveling to the United States for hidden bombs, following a directive from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. A U.S. official said the two women suspected of carrying out the attacks over Russia each might have been wearing "some sort of body bomb."

But those security measures do not address the danger of similar attacks on planes flying from airports in the United States, a threat that deserves "priority attention," according to the independent Sept. 11 commission. U.S. airport screeners do not routinely check passengers for hidden explosives. Checked bags are screened for bombs; to some extent, so are carry-on articles and shoes.

"I believe that with this terrorist event, we are entering a whole new era of suicide bombers," Mica wrote TSA chief David M. Stone on Tuesday. "These simultaneous acts of terrorism involving aircraft, if proven true, could signal the advent of copycat actions."

In an interview, Mica said he was putting the TSA "on notice."

A TSA spokesman, Mark Hatfield, said the agency wanted to screen people, not just bags, for explosives. It has no timetable for meeting that objective, although it is testing various devices.

Checking for explosives should be "part of the routine of passenger screening, as opposed to just some sort of addendum," Hatfield said.

But Mica's Democratic counterpart on the House aviation panel said the agency and the Bush administration were "in denial on this issue."

"They have no intention of quickly deploying bomb detection equipment to screen passengers and carry-on bags," Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said. "What happened in Russia is the final call before we wake up to a tragedy."

There are precedents in the recent history of terrorism.

When investigators pieced together the background of the Sept. 11 plot, they found that it grew out of a mid-1990s scheme to bomb 12 U.S. airliners as they flew over the Pacific. Known as the Manila plot, it fell apart when Philippine police raided a bomb-making factory. One of the plotters, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, became the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities say. He is in U.S. custody.

TSA officials say they are aware of the threat and are working on tests of at least three kinds of technology.

Among the most promising are high-tech booths called trace detection portals, or "puffers." They resemble medical diagnostic devices and would be installed at security checkpoints.

At a cost of $132,000 for each machine, about $240 million would be needed to equip the 1,800 security lanes at 450 commercial airports.

Another technology involves using document scanners to detect minute traces of explosives on passports, boarding passes and other papers. These have been installed at four airports, but testing has not begun.

Finally, the TSA is experimenting with a "backscatter" - an X-ray machine that can perform a full body scan. A spokeswoman said the agency planned to test these machines at airports, but had not chosen a timeline or locations.

In addition to technology, the TSA is working on a program to train screeners to recognize behavior patterns that might reveal a bomber, officials said.

DeFazio questioned the need for extensive testing of new technology, particularly the trace detection portals.

"We have been told in staff briefings by a senior TSA official that these machines are a mature technology," he said. "They are being used effectively at nuclear power plants and military installations. We just need to buy them and deploy them."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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