Pressured by Families, U.S. Acts to Tighten Air Security
Under pressure from the families of those killed in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, the Bush Administration on Monday introduced new measures to guard against airplane sabotage and otherwise tighten airport security around the world.
The plan, unveiled hours after President Bush met with relatives of the victims, will redeploy dozens of U.S. security personnel to overseas posts and eventually will require the installation of state-of-the-art explosive-detection devices at high-risk airports in the United States and overseas.
Other initiatives, outlined by Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner at a news conference here, include efforts to improve the government’s system for warning airlines and foreign governments of possible terrorist threats.
Skinner described the plan as a “first step” toward making the skies safe from terrorism. But experts within the counterterrorism community and the airline industry characterized the steps as moderate and predicted that they would have little immediate practical effect.
“This is really nothing new,” one U.S. counterterrorism official said.
The experts said that slow development of the explosive-detection device is likely to prove an enduring brake on anti-terrorism efforts, despite Skinner’s pledge to accelerate the project.
The first six such devices, which use neutron-bombardment technology to identify hard-to-detect plastic explosives, are scheduled to go into operation this summer, and Skinner said he will require that at least 100 more be installed “at the earliest possible date.”
But Skinner said he does not know when that will be, and a senior Federal Aviation Administration official said it likely will be “years” before enough devices are in place to form a substantial defense against terrorists.
The White House meeting between the President, Skinner and representatives of the victims’ families had been scheduled to last 20 minutes but instead stretched into an hour. Skinner told reporters after the session that he and Bush had been “personally moved” by the appeals.
But on behalf of the Administration, Skinner rebuffed the families’ call for a congressional investigation into the Dec. 21 crash, which occurred after an in-flight bomb blast over Scotland and killed all 259 aboard and 11 people in the village of Lockerbie, where the wreckage rained down. He also rejected their demand that the government make public its knowledge about possible terrorist threats to flights. Three FAA warnings were issued to airlines and foreign governments about possible terrorist acts against U.S. carriers in Western Europe before the December incident, but none were made public.
“I respect the families and their position,” Skinner declared. But he said that he regards as sufficient the internal Administration review of how the government responded to the crash and warned that if the government “were to disclose every threat and the basis for it, we would have no intelligence-gathering capability at all in this country.”
Later Monday, at a news conference of their own, relatives of the victims reiterated their demands.
“We are not asking for a criminal investigation,” said Paul Hudson, chairman of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103. “Rather, it is to look at what the (federal agencies) did or did not do. We want the truth.’
At a gathering jammed with the families of the victims, Hudson denounced as “absurd” the government policy that allows terrorist threats to be circulated on only a confidential basis and vowed to keep trying to change the policy.
Noting that many of the victims would not have boarded the plane if they had been notified of the risk, Hudson said: “We are going to see that they did not die in vain.”
Hudson, who was among the group of family members to meet with Bush earlier in the day, said he was heartened by “a strong indication of the President’s concern.”
While barring public announcement of terrorism warnings, the revised policy announced by the Administration does require for the first time that the warning bulletins--which are issued by the FAA about 30 times each year--be made available to pilots-in-command.
The action satisfies demands of pilots’ groups but was questioned by some airline security officials.
“What can he do up in front?” one official asked rhetorically. “Can he really evaluate intelligence information that three guys named Abdul were leaving Beirut and headed for Western Europe using false Moroccan passports?”
Other new regulations on warning bulletins seek to ensure that airlines respond quickly to word about possible terrorist threats. The new rules require airlines to comply with the FAA’s anti-terrorism directives, which until now have been issued on an advisory basis.
They also require airlines to acknowledge within 24 hours that they have received the directives and to prepare action plans within 72 hours, informing the FAA about how they intend to counter the threats.
Security personnel redeployed as part of Monday’s initiatives will be assigned to provide surveillance and assist U.S. carriers operating at the busiest airports worldwide. Skinner said that he could not say where officials will be assigned, but a senior FAA official said later that “dozens” of employees will be involved.
The explosive-detection machines, known as thermal neutron analysis devices, currently are produced by Scientific Application International Corp. of San Diego at a cost of $750,000 each.
Skinner estimated that the ultimate cost of installing the machines at high-risk airports at $100 million and said that the cost would be borne by the airlines and their passengers through increased ticket prices.
One of the six machines scheduled for delivery in June is to be installed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, while others are to be installed at unnamed airports overseas. All are to be shared by U.S. carriers and used to inspect luggage on international flights.
Times staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow, Michael D. Shear and Robin Wright contributed to this story.