WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Responding to a heightened threat of terrorists commandeering commercial aircraft from overseas, U.S. and foreign officials in the past two weeks have boosted security measures at airports at home and abroad to their highest levels yet, government officials said yesterday.
"There is a higher level of security domestically, and also with our international partners, than there ever has been," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
British Airways canceled two flights between London and Washington on New Year's Day. The move came one day after the London to Washington Flight 223 was escorted by U.S. fighter jets and then detained on the tarmac at Washington Dulles International Airport for several hours while passengers and luggage underwent additional screening.
An Aeromexico plane that took off from Mexico City on Christmas Eve turned around after it was in flight for about 15 minutes because a Transportation Security Agency inspector on the ground did not think passengers had been adequately screened, according to the airline and a senior administration official. After re-screening, Flight 494 and its passengers headed to Los Angeles International Airport.
Aeromexico Flight 490 bound for Los Angeles from Mexico City on New Year's Eve was canceled for security concerns. As with the British Airways Flight that was canceled in London yesterday, the decision was made by the airline or government in the country where the flight originated, based on intelligence gathered by U.S. operatives and shared with the foreign governments, the administration official said.
Counterterrorism officials said yesterday that the Aeromexico Flight 490 on New Year's Eve was of particular concern because it, like an Air France Flight 68 from Paris to Los Angeles last week, had been specifically identified in intelligence reports as possible targets of al-Qaida.
Aeromexico 490 was canceled last night.
The incidents are the most recent examples of the effects of tightened anti-terrorism measures at airports around the world. Behind the scenes, agents have been scrambling to check passenger manifests against databases of known or suspected terrorists, additional air marshals are flying on foreign flights headed to the United States, and Transportation Security Agency inspectors based in airports in most major cities around the world are scrutinizing the screening of passengers and luggage headed for America.
Officials have not reported making any arrests or discovering any suspicious items as a result of the additional security measures or in connection with any of the detained or canceled flights. Counterterrorism officials with the FBI and other U.S. agencies, however, have expressed the belief that the extraordinary security measures, particularly with Air France Flight 68, may have averted a terrorist attack.
The measures are all part of an increased security posture driven by a volume and specificity of terrorist "chatter" in recent weeks that FBI and other government officials have described as unprecedented.
"I have never seen people so scared as when we went to this alert," one senior government official said late yesterday.
Since Dec. 23, the Department of Homeland Security has placed the nation's law enforcement agencies on orange alert, the second-highest level established since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It remains unclear how long that increased security level will last, with senior U.S. officials privately explaining it could continue for at least another week to another month or more.
The increased security has occurred on a variety of fronts.
In Las Vegas, U.S. officials have quietly issued subpoenas and FBI National Security Letters within the past two weeks so agents can review both the hotel registers and airline passenger lists in one of the world's busiest tourist locations. The action was taken, sources said yesterday, because Las Vegas was one of several cities mentioned in recent terrorist alerts rather than because authorities had any reason to suspect terrorists were actually in the city.
"We wanted to see who was coming in and who was staying where," the senior government official said.
"It was done out of an abundance of caution," the official said. "We are at a heightened state of alert and have some very specific threats. And the names of some cities have come up so we cannot take any chances."
The exceptional precautions were being taken because intelligence agents have intercepted a larger volume of threats suggesting that terrorists are planning coordinated attacks by using commercial jets like the Sept. 11 hijackers used in the attacks on New York and Washington. The threats have focused on specific routes, such as Mexico City to Los Angeles, Paris to Los Angeles, and flights originating in London and bound for various U.S. destinations.
In the case of the British Airways plane that was detained at Dulles on Wednesday evening, credible threat information led analysts to have concerns about that specific route, the senior administration official said.
That concern also led to the decision Wednesday to escort the plane to its landing at Dulles with fighter jets, said Jennifer Marty, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The jet was kept far from the terminal while passengers were required to show identification and luggage was screened, Marty said.
The plane landed a little after 7 p.m. Wednesday, but FBI agents were still talking to some "folks of interest" as late as 2 a.m. yesterday, Marty said.
No one was arrested or detained, officials said.
In the end, "everything checked out," Roehrkasse said.
That same flight, British Airways 223, was canceled yesterday.
British Airways spokesman Leo Seaton said the decision was made based on the advice of the British government, which warned of security concerns. Forty-one of the 180 passengers scheduled to take the earlier flight from Heathrow Airport were put on the next flight to Washington. The rest were booked on other flights, Seaton said. He was not aware of security personnel interviewing any passengers as they checked in for the flight.
As of last night, he said there were no plans to cancel any other flights. But the British Airways reservations line reported that Flight 223, the return flight from Washington to London, also was canceled yesterday for "operational reasons."
In London, British officials would say only the earlier flight was scratched for "security reasons." A Department of Transport spokeswoman refused to elaborate, saying the government does not publicly comment on security matters.
Airline spokesman Seaton said British Airways officials were "very frustrated" at the lack of information they were receiving from the British government about the reasons for grounding the flight. "Whatever information we've had at that top level indicates it is terrorism-related," Seaton said. "But the scale and the detail is not there."
In the case of Aeromexico 490 on Wednesday evening, there were credible threats that the route might be targeted and special concerns that New Year's Eve might be a particularly risky night, said the senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After security analysts checked the flight roster against a number of different data bases, they had concerns that a few passengers may have had links to terrorist activities, the official added.
The passengers boarded the flight before it was canceled, so U.S. and Mexican officials were able to interview people who had sparked their interest, the official said. No one was arrested, and many, possibly all, of the passengers boarded a later flight to Los Angeles.
Airports were not the only transportation terminals effected by terrorism concerns over the holiday weekend.
The oil tanker terminal in Valdez, Alaska, was closed Tuesday night to safeguard against potential terrorist attack. The terminal, where tankers load oil from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, remained closed yesterday, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter of the Coast Guard.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux and special correspondent William Wallace contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.