- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Transportation Security Administration wants to reduce funding for air marshals even as the government is warning about the possibility al Qaeda may try more suicide hijackings.

The TSA is seeking approval from Congress to cut $104 million from the air marshal program to help offset a $900 million budget shortfall. It’s not clear how many of the estimated several thousand air marshal jobs would be affected.

“When we are faced with more priorities than we have funding to support, we have to go through a process of trying to address the most urgent needs,” TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said.

News of the air marshal program budget cutback comes as the Department of Homeland Security is warning of the possibility of hijackings and increasing screening of certain overseas passengers.

A TSA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the agency sent a directive to U.S. airlines Monday telling them to immediately begin more intensive screening of travelers flying out of a foreign airport into the United States, then connecting to another foreign destination.

Those affected are non-U.S. citizens who do not have U.S. visas. They previously have been allowed to stay in secure areas while passing through U.S. airports but have not been subjected to more intensive screening because they aren’t staying in the country.

President Bush noted the hijacking threat during a White House news conference yesterday and said U.S. officials are talking to foreign governments about it.

“There are still al Qaeda remnants that have designs on America. The threat is a real threat,” he said. “We obviously don’t have specific data. We don’t know when, where, what … I’m confident that we will thwart their attempts.”

A copy of the advisory, obtained by the Associated Press, suggests an attack could take place by the end of the summer. The warning said terrorists may use five-man teams to take over airplanes just after takeoff or before landing and crash them into buildings.

The September 11 attacks were carried out by three five-man teams and a four-man squad of hijackers, U.S. officials believe.

“The hijackers may try to calm passengers and make them believe they were on a hostage, not suicide, mission,” said the warning, which was distributed over the weekend to airlines and law enforcement agencies. “The hijackers may attempt to use common items carried by travelers, such as cameras, modified as weapons.”

It suggested cities on the East Coast, in Britain, Italy and Australia as potential targets.

The national terrorist threat level remained at yellow, signifying an elevated risk of attacks. The five-level, color-coded system was last raised to orange, or high risk, for 11 days in May.

TSA refuses to identify weaknesses in the commercial aviation network to avoid giving “a road map to those who would do harm to the traveling public,” said Brian Turmail, the agency’s spokesman. “The bottom line is the TSA has worked to put in place a multiple-layered system of security.”

However, David Plavin, president of Airports Council International, a trade group for airports, said, “I think the lack of effective intelligence is probably the biggest security threat we’ve got.”

The TSA has made “huge strides” in preparing for predictable threats, he said. It is the unpredictable threats that are most dangerous.

“You cannot focus every resource on every conceivable threat,” he said. “Unless somebody knows something specific about a particular group, I don’t think anyone perceives that as a security threat.”

Staff writer Tom Ramstack contributed to this report.


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