- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Americans are not satisfied with internal security, despite newer and newer bureaucracies. And they are right.

We've all been entertained by the ignorance of the Transportation Department's random search of a 79-year-old woman bent over with osteoporosis and a 7-year-old child instead of male adult potential terrorists. But there is an even greater ignorance in the Defense Department's policy of no longer flying regular fighter patrols over Washington and New York.

To appease the public, F-16 and F-15s will be over the vital skies of these two cities, but only for July Fourth. Did they believe the terrorists would accommodate them?

The true scare the other week by a Cessna private plane headed for the White House and not intercepted in time by fighters should make us realize how vulnerable we are to attacks by light planes loaded with high-impact explosives, especially those aimed at the White House and the Capitol.

Soon after September 11, fighter planes began around-the-clock coverage of the air over Washington and New York. The work was assigned to the U.S. 1st Air Force, comprised mainly of Air National Guard units. The coverage of the two cities was maintained by both the Vermont Air National Guard (158th Tactical Fighter Wing with F-16s) and the Maine Air Guard (102st Tactical Fighter Wing with F-15s.) From time to time, they were helped out by fighters from Andrews Air Force Base in the shadow of the White House and two aircraft carriers off New York.

They did a splendid job. But then suddenly in April 2002, the Defense Department canceled the round-the-clock coverage. The reason, or excuse, was it costs too much money $500 million a year and was wearing out the National Guard planes and the part-time Air Guard pilots. The substitution was random flights over the two cities from time to time which, of course, is worthless protection.

Just how worthless the present system is was proven on June 20, when a Cessna entered the air space only a few miles from the White House. At 7:59 p.m., the Cessna 182 entered "restricted" air space. At 8:03, the FAA notified NORAD. At 8:04, the Cessna entered "prohibited" air space. Two fighter jets were on a 15 minute strip alert at Andrews but did not get the order to scramble until 8:06.

At that same time, the plane passed its closest point to the White House. Not until 8:17 did the jets take off from Andrews, and a few minutes later intercepted the Cessna, which they forced to land in Richmond. Since the Cessna pilot did not answer radio calls, the Secret Service briefly evacuated the White House, but there was still a chance that, had it been a terrorist plane, it could have destroyed the president's mansion and everyone within it. Of course, had the round-the-clock air patrols still been in force, the Cessna would have either been shot down or quickly escorted out of the area.

This is not the first case of planes violating the air space above the White House and Capitol. Four commercial jets and one medical helicopter have flown into forbidden airspace protecting the White House, Capitol and the vice presidential mansion, but fortunately all were innocent intrusions. The next time it might not be so innocent.

According to the former FAA security chief, under the present arrangement, "Practically speaking by the time a violation is discovered, it is too late to do anything to prevent a crash into the White House." The Defense Department says it cannot afford 24-hour air patrols, which is ridiculous. We have appropriated some $40 billion for domestic security, and the Defense budget reaches near $400 billion. We cannot afford not to protect our two major cities.

If we need more F-15s and F-16s, at $30 million each, let us buy them. They will always be valuable in any future conflict. If the Air Guard part-time pilots are wearing out, switch the responsibility to the Air Force itself. In any case, the present situation is an invitation to hit the White House, the Capitol and prime targets in New York.

The FAA, as usual, is also making it easier for the terrorists to do their evil work. Pressure from the FAA caused Congress, in the Aviation Security Act, to make it possible for a foreigner to take pilot training without any background check so long as the plane is less than 12,600 pounds which includes the Cessna and even larger executive jets or twin-engine propeller planes. They are the perfect size to take down the White House or Capitol. What has the government done to avoid another June 20 debacle? Not much.

Beginning July Fourth, it announced restrictions on flights around such popular landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. At Andrews Air Force Base, it is repositioning planes for faster takeoff and improving communications between the FAA and NORAD. But those changes are obviously too little and too late.

The Defense Department turned down three options: to resume 24-hour coverage by air patrols, increasing restricted space around the city of Washington, and installing anti-aircraft guns or missiles near the White House and Capitol. That attitude is pennywise and fatally foolish.

My guess is that if you really want to stop a terrorist attack on the main levers of power in Washington, you need to do all three immediately.


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