- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

From combined dispatches

One or more terror suspects may have escaped due to a premature disclosure in France of the security concerns behind the cancellation of Christmas flights to Los Angeles, U.S. officials said yesterday.

One official said “a chorus of groans” from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House went out when the French made clear at the time the cancellations had been ordered for security reasons.

Washington believed that the longer publicity could have been avoided, “the greater the chance to catch anybody else who was suspected of being involved,” he said. “The French announcement caught everyone off guard.”

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials had hoped all the suspects could be detained as they showed up for the flights, said a senior U.S. official familiar with the situation who did not want to be identified.

Six flights between Paris and Los Angeles were canceled on Wednesday and Thursday at the urging of Washington after U.S. officials spotted what they believed were suspicious names on the manifests of three Los Angeles-bound flights.

Nine persons on the passenger list for Air France Flight AF068 to Los Angeles on Dec. 24 — the first flight grounded — were questioned and released. One was French and the others were four Americans, two Germans, an Algerian and a Belgian, a French Interior Ministry spokesman said.

A source close to French anti-terror investigating judges told Reuters in Paris: “We have not detected passengers with the profile of people belonging to a radical Islamic group. … All the checks so far have come to nothing.”

U.S. concerns centered on passengers whose names matched those on a U.S. terrorism watch list, but who failed to show up for the flights, officials said.

Among them was a Tunisian passenger reported to be a licensed pilot and suspected of having ties to al Qaeda, which orchestrated the September 11 hijacked airliner terror attacks on the United States.

The French news agency Agence France-Presse quoted a French anti-terrorist police source as saying the Tunisian had been the focus of a U.S. intelligence warning, but the man was still in Tunisia, not France, and was not known to French police.

Another senior U.S. official said it was too early to say whether a terror plot had been thwarted.

“It’s still being looked at with this whole situation,” the official said. He said crew members were of concern to U.S. investigators along with the no-show passengers.

U.S. investigators still want to speak with a small number of people in Paris who failed to show up for flights to Los Angeles. U.S. officials have not publicly discussed the issue of whether potential hijackers would be likely to check in under names known to U.S. intelligence.

Air France resumed service to Los Angeles yesterday, though the initial flight, AF068, was delayed for nearly three hours by security checks amid heightened airline vigilance.

The flight cancellations added to Americans’ unease during the holidays after the Bush administration increased the national threat level to its second-highest level, orange.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday the government was working to “make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the American people and prevent possible attacks from happening in the first place.”

Officials in Washington and Nevada disputed a published report yesterday that the flight cancellations thwarted a possible terrorist plot to crash an airliner in Las Vegas. Jerry Bussell, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn’s adviser on homeland security, said federal Homeland Security officials told him there was no known threat to Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, U.S. counterterrorism officials were turning to possible threats next week that might target large public gatherings, such as New Year’s Eve celebrations. One U.S. official said there was no specific information such an attack was likely, but said such gatherings obviously would be an attractive target for terrorists hoping to inflict large-scale casualties.

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