'UNADULTERATED GARBAGE AS - THREATS HALT MORE FLIGHTS - 3 JAN 2004'
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Threats halt more flights
British cancel planes to US, Saudi Arabia; no arrests
3 Jan 2004
By Charlie Savage
WASHINGTON -- British Airways yesterday canceled flights from London to the capitals of the United States and Saudi Arabia, the latest in a series of international flights disrupted over security concerns.
No arrests were immediately reported in connection with the cancellations, and none have been reported in more than a dozen flight disruptions dating to six canceled Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles on Dec. 24 and 25.
Officials said the decision to stop yesterday's flight to Washington and today's flight to Riyadh was prompted by specific "security threats." They said intelligence and law enforcement officials in Europe, the Mideast, and North America were joining in a search for potential hijackers, but offered little other information.
The fact that no arrests have apparently been made in connection with any of the flights canceled from Mexico, France, or England has worried some specialists on homeland security. They said the string of apparent false alarms threatened to undermine public confidence in the airline system and could diminish future cooperation from foreign governments.
"It shows that we still have gaps in both the quality of our raw intelligence and our ability to process that information into a coherent threat picture," said P.J. Crowley, a former National Security Council official who is now with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "There is a cost to that, which is borne in terms of international cooperation, in terms of economic impact, and in terms of public support."
Washington has been vigilant since Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge declared a "high alert" two weeks ago, citing intelligence that Al Qaeda might be planning to hijack foreign airlines and crash them into populated areas and high-risk industrial sites in the United States.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Rachael Sunbarger, said yesterday that the information the United States shared with the British government involved a specific threat to the Washington-bound flight from London.
"The flight was canceled again today because of specific information about a potential threat to that flight," she said. "We shared it with our counterparts in the British government, and they made the decision to cancel the flight. It's just an example of us working with our international partners to share any information that we have."
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington said London would not discuss the security matter. "All we can really say is that British Airways canceled its Flight 223 based on advice from the British government, but as usual it's our policy not to comment on the specifics of that advice or any of the intelligence underpinning it," he said.
Retired Army colonel David McIntyre, deputy director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, said he thinks the recent security steps were based on "some pretty strong evidence," but officials need to offer a better explanation for their actions or risk undermining public confidence in the terror alert system.
"We should ask questions," McIntyre said. "How much did we know and when did we know it?"
Still, McIntyre added: "The government is in a terrible dilemma. If nothing happens, then it appears that they overreacted. If something does happen, they appear inept and incompetent. The bad news is you never know when you're successful."
James Carafano, a specialist on homeland security with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the incidents demonstrate why Ridge announced an emergency change earlier this week to require all foreign airliners to be prepared to place marshals on international flights bound for the United States. Once the foreign marshals are in place, security officials will have one more option for dealing with flights for which ambiguous intelligence suggests there may be a threat, he said.
The current set of options, based on what has happened in recent days, includes simply canceling a flight, escorting it into the airport with fighter jets, or "reverse screening," wherein a jet taxis to a special terminal after landing and passengers are scrutinized a second time before being allowed to leave.
Some travelers affected by the cancellations yesterday were more understanding than others.
"I am irritated," said Deepa Menon, 28, a law student from Washington who was supposed to be on a canceled British Airways flight. "I am sure there are reasons, but I do wish we had known what was going on earlier."
But Mike Coppolelli, 39, a Washingtonian now living in London, supported the airline's decision.
"We can't just sit around and wait for another catastrophe to happen and say, `Oh gosh, we shouldn't have gone,' " he said. "I feel more comfortable knowing they've canceled it and something has possibly been averted."
Carafano said one lesson of the recent disruptions is that the computer-assisted passenger prescreening system being tested, known as CAPPS II, ought to have more information included in its databases despite concerns by civil libertarians.
The Wall Street Journal Europe reported that the cancellation of the Air France flights over Christmas were prompted by "false positives" in which names and the countries of origin of passengers on the flight manifest, including a child, matched those of suspected terrorists. A dozen British Airways passengers were interrogated at Dulles on New Year's Eve because their names were similar to those of suspected terrorists on the watch list.
Carafano said that by including other information about passengers, such as height and weight, the system could result in fewer hassles for low-risk travelers.
"It's controversial because people are concerned about civil liberties and privacy, but to my mind the real problem is [the system] doesn't give enough information," he said. "In the intelligence world, they say the easiest way to find a needle in a haystack is to add more hay."
Crowley said he worries that recent events could show terrorists a new way to disrupt Western society: By simply buying a ticket on the Internet and using names known to be in Western files, they could cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic disruption.
Crowley also said the recent impact to the airline industry in terms of canceled flights and other people choosing not to fly could be compared to the broader costs of maintaining an orange alert for weeks, causing cities and town in United States to add to police overtime and take other costly security measures.
"I worry about whether we have the resources to be able to sustain what we're doing over time," he said.
But Carafano said the economic impact would be far worse should an attack be allowed to happen.
The airline industry was devastated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with several carriers going bankrupt despite a $15 billion aid package passed by Congress shortly after the attacks.
"My guess is the economic impact of this is pretty marginal compared to a 9/11," he said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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