March 28 — Federal authorities will order major security
improvements at several of the nation's largest airports after
inspections showed that passenger planes taking off or landing
at those airports would be vulnerable to attack by terrorists
using shoulder-fired missiles, senior Bush administration
The inspections, which began several weeks ago, are being
conducted by a federal task force created by the White House
late last year after terrorists linked to Al Qaeda tried to
shoot down an Israeli passenger plane on takeoff from an airport
in Kenya in November. The two small, shoulder-fired missiles
barely missed the plane.
Administration officials would not identify the airports that
would be required to make major safety improvements, citing
security reasons. But they said the list included several of the
nation's busiest, and that the improvements would include new,
round-the-clock security patrols and tightened electronic
surveillance of the flight paths used for takeoffs and landings.
This week, dozens of National Guard troops were deployed to
the Los Angeles International Airport to patrol the perimeter
and road checkpoints, in part because of what security officials
acknowledged was concern about shoulder-fired missiles.
A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New
Jersey, which manages Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty
International airports, said it was aware of the missile threat
and was responding to it. The spokesman, Pasquale DiFulco, said
the port authority had a policy of not discussing details of its
security planning. "But we have certainly taken the
necessary steps and precautions to address these issues,"
Mr. DiFulco said.
Bush administration officials said that nationwide
inspections, which have been carried out at roughly 80 airports
by officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the
Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies,
demonstrated that a terrorist with a shoulder-fired antiaircraft
missile weighing as little 30 pounds would find it relatively
easy to evade security at many large airports and fire a missile
that could bring down a passenger plane.
American intelligence and law enforcement agencies say that
Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups are believed to have an
arsenal overseas of dozens of shoulder-fired missiles, including
the American-made Stinger and the Russian SA-7, and that others
can be bought by terrorists on the black market for several
thousand dollars each.
Many of the Stingers available on the black market are left
over from the American-backed guerrilla effort in Afghanistan to
force out Soviet troops in the 1980's. The Stinger and missiles
like it are capable of shooting down planes several miles away
at heights of more than 10,000 feet.
Administration officials stressed that they had no evidence
to suggest that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups had managed
to smuggle any of the small missiles into the United States, or
that they intended to try.
"We are not aware of any credible, specific intelligence
information that Manpad attacks are being planned against
commercial aircraft in the U.S. at this time," said James
M. Loy, director of the Transportation Security Administration,
using the acronym for Man Portable Air Defense Systems, the
technical name for the missiles. "The administration does,
however, recognize the potential threat."
Officials say the attempt to shoot down the Israeli plane in
Kenya last November had created alarm in Washington that Al
Qaeda would try a similar attack in the United States. The
incident near the international airport at Mombasa came six
months after a similar Russian-made missile was fired at an
American military plane in Saudi Arabia. That missile also
American intelligence officials say that in the attacks in
both Kenya and Saudi Arabia, the planes may have been saved by
antimissile technology that is routinely installed in Israeli
passenger jets and United States military planes.
There is no similar federal requirement that antimissile
defense systems be built into American passenger planes. But
since the Kenya attack, a growing bipartisan movement in
Congress has called for the installation of antimissile systems
on American-owned commercial planes in the United States.
After a Congressional briefing on the issue by
representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency and the
Pentagon earlier this month, Representative John L. Mica, a
Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation
Subcommittee on Aviation, said that the missile threat was
sobering and "we can't afford not to act." Mr. Mica
said that he would seek immediate federal financing to protect
commercial planes against terrorist missiles.
Federal aviation officials say that it costs about $1 million
to $2 million to outfit a passenger plane with equipment to
deflect a missile.
There are a variety of different types of antimissile
technologies available, including a system that releases decoy
flares to draw a heat-seeking missile away from a plane; other
systems use jamming equipment to interfere with a missile's
Lawmakers say that among the American passenger planes likely
to be outfitted first would be those used routinely for flights
overseas, especially to parts of the world where Al Qaeda and
other terrorist groups are known to exist.
In a speech last month to an air travel conference in
Thailand, Steven J. McHale, the No. 2 official in the
Transportation Security Administration, warned his Asian
counterparts about the dangers of portable missiles and called
on their governments to step up security around their airports
and to make sure that their own military stocks of the missiles
"There are thousands available on the gray and black
markets, and many of these are finding their way into the hands
of terrorist groups," Mr. McHale said of the portable
missiles. He warned that a single missile attack on a passenger
plane in Asia "would likely cripple international
Asa Hutchinson, the under secretary for border and
transportation security in the Department of Homeland Security,
said in an interview that the federal government had taken a
variety of steps in recent months to deal with the missile
threat at major airports, although he could not reveal details
for security reasons. "We're much better off than we were
some time ago," Mr. Hutchinson said. "But certainly
this is a threat and a vulnerability that we're concerned
While the federal government has the authority to order
airports to step up counterterrorism measures, Mr. Hutchinson
said the Department of Homeland Security understood the budget
constraints on many large airports. "There will be
negotiation," he said. "Obviously we're not going to
be telling them to do something they're totally incapable of
The worldwide inventory of portable surface-to-air missiles
is estimated at 700,000, according to government officials and
private weapons specialists. The vast majority of those missiles
are in government arsenals, but munitions specialists say that
shoulder-fired missiles like the Stinger and the SA-7 are so
small and portable that many are diverted from government stocks
each year and sold on the black market. A Stinger is about 5
feet long, 6 inches wide and weighs about 35 pounds when fully
John Iannarelli, a spokesman for the F.B.I., said that many
airports were being asked to step up their training of security
officers to be on the lookout for the missiles. "A lot of
this is educational," Mr. Iannarelli said. "These are
rather conspicuous weapons, and we want to make sure that it is
recognized for what it is."
Administration officials said some large airports had stepped
up anti-missile security measures long before the federal
Logan Airport in Boston is flanked on three sides by water,
and airport officials have provided local clam diggers with
mobile phones to allow them to call in if they see suspicious
The chief spokesman at San Francisco International Airport,
Mike McCarron, said that inspectors from the Transportation
Security Administration completed their review of the airport's
antimissile defense this month. Mr. McCarron said airport
officials believed San Francisco International was better
protected than others because it is surrounded by water,
allowing the Coast Guard to keep a close eye on activities
nearby. He said that the airport had also stepped up its road
patrols on the perimeter of the airport.
"We think we've got a pretty good idea of what's going
on," he said.