- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) — The White House Saturday said there appears to be no links to terrorists in the tragic destruction of the shuttle Columbia over Texas, but outside analysts said they would not be surprised to see terrorists groups claim responsibility.

A White House official who asked not to be identified by name said, "There is no reason to believe that there are terrorist links" to the crash.

In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, the question of whether the Saturday morning destruction of Columbia as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere was caused by terrorists could not be ignored, but most experts agreed with the White House assessment.

What made terrorism such a question was the presence on the shuttle crew of Col. Ilan Ramon, 48, an Israeli fighter pilot ace who was the country's first astronaut. UPI confirmed Saturday he was one of the pilots who flew a 1981 mission against Iraq that destroyed a nuclear weapons facility.

"There was no terrorism involved," Pat Lang, a national security expert, told United Press International. "There is no aircraft and no shoulder-launched missile on Earth able to reach a space vehicle at that altitude."

"But," she added, "I wouldn't be surprised if we have claims from various terror groups that they shot the thing down. I'm sure we'll hear some of that."

The shuttle Columbia was about 200,000 feet above Earth and traveling at 12,500 miles per minute at the time of disintegration.

Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counter-terrorism, told UPI that based on conversations he had Saturday with current employees, the CIA ruled out early terrorism as a cause of the disaster. "There is a faint possibility of sabotage — that some explosive could have been placed aboard the vehicle before launch, but the agency folk discount this," he said. "Security was very tight."

But Cannistraro said that "the destruction of the shuttle will be seen as a sign from God in much of the Muslim world. You have America about to attack an Arab country, Iraq, you have an Israeli on board this Space Shuttle which suddenly and inexplicably blows up, and many Muslims will say, 'God has spoken. God has given a sign.'"

He added that he fully expected "some pronouncement from al Qaida to the effect that the destruction of the shuttle expressed God's will."

Getting explosives or other sabotage smuggled into a space launch became much more difficult after Sept. 11 and there was particularly tight security at the launch with Col. Ramon.

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