- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

The discovery aboard two commercial aircraft of box cutters and a note questioning airline safety prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security yesterday to order the search of all U.S. commercial flights by security personnel within 24 hours, federal authorities said.

The note and the box cutters, similar to those used by the 19 al Qaeda terrorists who commandeered four aircraft on September 11, crashing three into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were located Thursday night in separate plastic bags aboard two Southwest Airlines airplanes in Houston and New Orleans.

The search order involves more than 7,000 aircraft in the nation’s commercial fleet.

Despite the searches, federal officials yesterday said they did not believe the discovery of the box cutters and the note was a signal that terrorist attacks were imminent. Authorities suggested the items had been planted as a challenge to airport security procedures and not as part of a terrorist plot.

“I will tell you that it does not appear to be a terrorist event and there is no imminent threat,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said during a visit to the bureau’s field office in Houston. “I think it is safe to fly. There were no explosives, there was no imminent threat in terms of a capability to commit a terrorist act.”

A 20-year-old North Carolina man was being questioned by the FBI in connection with the incidents, according to a congressional official and a senior law enforcement official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The congressional official said the man, described as a college student, had informed the Transportation Security Administration that he planned to put packages on planes in an effort to expose gaps in aviation security.

The matter is being investigated by the FBI’s joint terrorism task forces in Houston and New Orleans.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse described the searches as “a precautionary measure,” adding that they would be conducted by government security personnel.

The bags, according to authorities, were found in bathrooms aboard the two airplanes during routine maintenance after they had landed on flights from Austin, Texas, and Orlando, Fla. In addition to the box cutters, they also contained bleach, matches and modeling clay.

Authorities said the clay was molded to resemble a plastic explosive and the note contained the exact date and location where the items had been placed on board.

Airport and airline officials said the searches of airplanes for weapons and other suspicious items caused minimal inconvenience for passengers.

“I’m not aware of any delays related to searches,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports.

Southwest notified the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) immediately after the box cutters were found on its airplanes.

“We did the searches overnight,” said Linda Rutherford, Southwest spokeswoman. “We have flown a full Friday schedule with no delays.”

The searches of 385 Southwest airplanes revealed no additional box cutters or other hidden weapons.

“We are searching our aircraft. We do not anticipate this causing a significant disruption to our operations. However, there may be delays across our system just based on the location of the aircraft and the aircraft schedule,” said Jeff Green, United Airlines spokesman.

Amy Kudwa, spokeswoman for US Airways, said the Arlington carrier did not expect any effect on its operation.

While downplaying the discoveries Thursday as potential terrorism threats, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued several warnings over the past two years about the possibility of terrorists once again targeting commercial aircraft, using carry-on items to take over or blow up the airplanes.

Earlier this month, Transportation Security Administration chief James Loy told a House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee that security problems still existed at the nation’s airports that could be exploited by terrorists and that additional resources were needed to plug the holes.

“We cannot provide world-class, effective security on the cheap,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called for congressional hearings into security breaches at the nation’s airports, including the discovery of the box cutters. He said “very serious gaps” have been exposed in the security safety net put into place to protect the flying public.

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