- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

The foiled plot to blow up fuel tanks at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport has highlighted the vulnerability of much of the critical infrastructure on which the U.S. aviation system relies.

Although authorities said the plot was foiled long before it was operational and insist that the fuel tanks at JFK are secure, aviation security specialists said such infrastructure represents a vulnerable “back door” to the nation’s airports.

“The back door to airports has always been an issue,” said John Raidt, one of the aviation security specialists who worked for the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

“You have trucks coming and going. … You have aviation fuel,” said Mr. Raidt, adding the foiled plot highlighted the need the commission identified to build security at all levels of airport planning and construction.

The Transportation Security Administration — the federal agency set up by Congress in the wake of the September 11 attacks to take responsibility for aviation security — oversees perimeter and infrastructure security at airports, but the work of protecting them day to day rests with the airport’s operator, and a government audit last year found enforcement efforts were patchy.

“TSA identified instances where airport operators failed to comply with existing security requirements, including requirements related to access control,” the Government Accountability Office said in its report. It said TSA had “identified threats to perimeter and access control security” at every single airport it had assessed in 2003, the latest year for which information was provided.

The report said further details were classified.

Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs JFK airport, said it was satisfied with its security.

“These tanks are 300 feet away from an internal airport road. They are surrounded by heavy-duty fencing and barbed wire, and are patrolled 24 hours a day,” he said. “Our security is good.”

Mr. Raidt said the TSA had focused primarily on passenger and baggage screening — where it had operational responsibility, and which was the most “glaring vulnerability” — and had tended to neglect perimeter security.

“TSA and Congress in its oversight role need to take a step back and look at the total security picture,” he said. “It is not just the air operations that are considered symbolic and that are targets.”

In the complaint unsealed this week, four men are charged with plotting to blow up the fuel tanks. The man charged with instigating the plot, Russell Defreitas, is a U.S. citizen of Guyanese origin who had worked at the airport as a cargo handler during the 1990s.

In conversations with an FBI informant, officials said, Mr. Defreitas boasted about the potential destructive impact of the attacks, and noted the symbolic significance of hitting an airport named after one of the most beloved U.S. presidents.

But the complaint, which reveals only enough of the evidence to show probable cause for a warrant, does not reveal any serious discussion of how to overcome airport security measures to reach the fuel tanks.

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