Posted: 12/24/2003 10:49:58 AM EDT
Pentagon official: Attacks using airliners a major concern
Wednesday, December 24, 2003 Posted: 2:20 PM EST (1920 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The French government has canceled three Air France flights to Los Angeles, California, because of fears of a possible terrorist attack, the French Interior Ministry said Wednesday.
Two of the flights were direct routes to Los Angeles, while the third was scheduled to stop first at the airport that serves Cincinnati, Ohio, then continue on to Los Angeles.
News of the cancellation came as U.S. officials said a high volume of good-quality intelligence indicated that the al Qaeda terrorist network wants to attack the United States during the Christmas holiday.
A Pentagon official told CNN on Wednesday the possibility of an attack using an airliner -- either one coming to the United States from Mexico or an Air France plane -- remains a major concern.
The intelligence suggests major cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, New York and Washington, are possible targets, although the names of small, rural communities have come up as well, the officials said.
The concerns are based on intercepted communications from people described as "terrorist supporters." The warnings prompted federal officials Sunday to raise the nation's color-coded threat level to orange, indicating a high risk of terrorist attack.
Military teams with expertise in dealing with chemical, biological and nuclear attacks are on alert for a possible terrorist attack and may already be deployed to key locations as threat information develops, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
The official would not specify if the teams had already been sent to potential target areas, but confirmed their locations are under review given the intelligence that led the government to heighten the terror threat level.
A major concern is that the teams be available for quick response if there were a successful terrorist attack involving a so-called dirty bomb or other radiological device. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive such as dynamite that has been packaged with radioactive material, which scatters when the bomb goes off.
U.S. military jets randomly patrolled major cities, missile batteries were placed in the Washington area, patrols were stepped up at seaports, and landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, were under guard.
"You ask, is it serious?" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday. "You bet your life."
National Guard units were mobilized to provide high-visibility security at airports in New York City and elsewhere for the first time since the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. In addition, combat aircraft went on alert at some military bases, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Flight crews questioned
At Los Angeles International Airport, police stopped curbside drop-offs of passengers from private vehicles, limiting access to buses and cabs. And security officials said that some flight crews from international airlines were being questioned for up to an hour before being allowed to continue on their way.
Special security measures were taken at bridges, power plants and landmarks, and state police rode commuter trains in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
"It's a lot of trouble, because it slows you down going through, getting to the gate," said Ned Johnson, an international passenger at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. "But I really don't worry about it."
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has warned that intelligence indicates terrorists are hoping to pull off an attack as big -- or bigger -- than the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The biggest worry was the possibility that al Qaeda could hijack a plane from another country and use it as a weapon.
Some senior officials have raised the possibility that terrorist plots could involve the use of weapons of mass destruction. It's not known whether al Qaeda or related terror groups have the capacity to use WMD but, one top U.S. official said, "We know they are trying real hard to get it."
U.S. airlines have increased the number of air marshals on domestic and international flights, but several officials said airlines overseas were not required to meet the same security standards as those in the United States.
One federal law enforcement official in Washington indicated the greatest level of concern appeared to be "in L.A. and LAX," referring to the city's international airport. He said officials were drafting a plan for actions to be taken for that area in the event a terrorist act occurred.
Numerous people on America's terrorist watch lists have been prevented from entering the United States since December 1, a government official said. The official, who would not provide specifics, said the people were turned back at various locations.
Another government source told CNN there was uncorroborated intelligence mentioning Rappahannock in Virginia. But County Administrator John McCarthy said he was puzzled by the reference to his county of about 7,000 people, "with twice that many cattle" located about 70 miles south of Washington.
"It's got no federal installations of any note," McCarthy told CNN's "American Morning." "We back up to the Shenandoah National Park, where there is a limited federal presence. Mainly we're talking about deer, bear and trees -- not the kind of targets we normally expect terrorists to go after."
McCarthy said sheriff's deputies were told that the word "Rappahannock" may have come up in intelligence "chatter," but "We do not have any indication from any federal agency that we are a target for anything at all."
He said deputies checked a local hotel that sometimes hosts visiting dignitaries, "and there were no people that fell into that category that we felt would be a likely target."
The concerns extended to U.S. interests overseas.
A senior State Department official told CNN the U.S. government had received intelligence that al Qaeda was planning attacks in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kenya. Monday, U.S. military officials said al Qaeda terrorists may be in the final stages of planning an attack in Saudi Arabia.
The State Department has authorized nonessential diplomats and families of U.S. officials to leave Saudi Arabia because of ongoing security concerns.