The term "dirty" airport applies to a facility that provides fertile ground for terrorist activities. Athens International has been given that unsavory designation for several reasons. One is the large number of resident non-Greeks who are linked to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. A second is the Greek government's apparent lack of determination to take decisive action against them. The third reason is deplorable airport security.
As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on international operations, I dispatched a task force to Greece last November to assess the terrorist risk to U.S. diplomats and embassy personnel and to help the Greek government develop effective anti-terrorist programs. While the findings of our task force are classified, some examples of lax airport security must be made public if international pressure is to be brought against governments that allow such conditions to exist.
In American airports, we are accustomed to security guards' examining our baggage on X-ray monitors. Their diligence stems, in part, from limited shifts of 30 minutes on the X-ray monitor. In Athens, they stare at the X-ray screen for eight long hours. Inadequate training and equipment are the rule.
In America, airports are ringed with sturdy security fences and are routinely patrolled. In Athens last March, a truck drove onto the runway, fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an airplane and raced off, unmolested by security guards.
In America, the Federal Aviation Administration requires screening of all passenger and carry-on baggage for aircraft of 60 seats or more. In Greece, as in other countries that subscribe to the looser standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the only requirement is that "necessary measures" be taken to prevent unauthorized weapons or explosives from being smuggled aboard.
Glaring as these shortcomings are, they are only symptoms of a deeper problem that is rooted in the attitude of top Greek officials. What was the signal to terrorists when the Greek government released, over U.S. objections, the terrorist who tried to put a bomb on a commercial airliner last year? What was the signal when the Greek government refused a request by Pan American World Airways to install a new X-ray monitor at Athens International, just five days before the hijacking of TWA Flight 847?
I appeared on the "Today" show to discuss those overtures to the Greek government. My counterpart, a Greek government official, accused us of "politicizing" the hijacking. My response: If the majority of Greeks knew of their government's lackadaisical approach, they would be as outraged as we are. And if "politicizing" the issue means demanding that the Greek government and others take basic precautions to protect the lives of international travelers, so be it.
After the hijacking, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell and I recommended a State Department survey of all international airports and a boycott of those that fail to comply with FAA standards. Countries that remained in violation would be faced with travel advisories and the withholding of U.S. aid.
For Greece, those penalties would be substantial. Tourism is a staple of the Greek economy. A State Department warning on the hazards of a Greek vacation could deal a severe blow. Moreover, Greece receives $500 million a year in U.S. assistance.
Foreign aid, travel advisories and landing rights at U.S. airports are powerful leverage. So powerful, in fact, that three days after President Reagan's speech -- in which he endorsed our proposals -- the Greek government formally agreed to implement all U.S. security recommendations.