New U.S. intelligence is prompting stepped-up scrutiny into whether foreign airports and airlines have been penetrated by individuals sympathetic to terrorist groups, U.S. law enforcement officials said.
U.S. security officials have been thoroughly checking the identities of foreign flight crews before their departures from U.S. airports and upon their arrival in the United States. U.S. officials have questioned a small number of crew members in recent weeks after their names appeared to be similar to those on the FBI's "watch lists" of suspected terrorists, Bush administration sources said yesterday.
The officials said there have been no arrests and declined to identify the air carriers involved.
"At this time, our Customs and Border Protection inspectors are increasing scrutiny of all international passengers coming into the United States," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
The most recent U.S. intelligence reports that prompted the government to elevate the nation's alert level on Sunday to "code orange," or "high," indicate that terrorists may target U.S.-bound flights from overseas, although other methods of attack, such as use of a "dirty" bomb that spreads radioactive materials, are also possible. Law enforcement officials said they are concerned about security throughout the country but in particular in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
In an unusual event, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Los Angeles city officials said last night that they will forbid passengers from being picked up or dropped off by private vehicles at the Los Angeles International Airport terminal during the holidays. Passengers will have to be picked up and dropped off at nearby parking garages. It is the first time in nearly two years that a major U.S. airport has restricted access in that fashion.
"Terrorist operatives remain interested in bombings, suicide hijackings and even the possible use of man-portable air defense systems," or shoulder-fired missile, said a Department of Homeland Security memo to U.S. airports issued Sunday that was obtained by The Washington Post. The department continues "to receive uncorroborated reports that extremists may attempt to hijack or bomb commercial aircraft both in the United States and abroad."
Passengers coming into at least one major U.S. international airport on Air France and flights from Mexico will be subject to more security procedures beginning today, according to an aviation industry official and two other sources. Some foreign airlines are planning to have their countries' armed air marshals on board U.S.-bound flights, sources said.
Miguel Monterrubio, a Mexican Embassy spokesman, said authorities from his country are cooperating with U.S. officials to "avoid any security risk." He declined to discuss specific security procedures.
A French official said there have been "some very intense exchanges" between U.S. and French officials on efforts "to share intelligence and to reflect on how we could prevent any possible terrorist attacks."