msnbc.com news services
updated 8/10/2004 3:09:20 PM ET 2004-08-10T19:09:20

The Transportation Security Administration announced it would take over security checks of passengers and baggage at city heliports, days after police were warned that al-Qaida had considered using tourist helicopters as bombs.

The federal government also will check names of passengers against lists of terrorist suspects and run background checks on helicopter tour operators’ employees, according to the TSA directive issued late Monday.

In addition, tour operators will be required to appoint an on-call security coordinator to answer security questions from the government, the directive said.

Heliport security had formerly been overseen by private security firms.

“These will be personnel in TSA uniform,” administration spokesman Mark Hatfield said.

FBI warnings
The FBI sent two bulletins late last week to 18,000 police and other government officials nationwide.

Video: “Al-Qaida has apparently considered the use of helicopters as an alternative to recruiting operatives for fixed-wing aircraft,” said the bulletin, sent Friday night to police and other government officials nationwide and obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

The second bulletin, also sent Friday night, said terrorists could use rental vehicles to conceal powerful bombs, including limousines that have a larger storage capacity than cars.

Both bulletins urge extra vigilance by people who operate car and truck rental businesses and those who handle airport security. The FBI repeated the government’s concern that al-Qaida intends to attack the United States in the next few months, before the Nov. 2 election.

Law-enforcement officials in New York said Monday that evidence recovered in Pakistan showed that terror suspects may have photographed helicopters and taken helicopter rides to gather information about possible targets in the New York area. They said they knew of no plans to use helicopters as weapons.

“Using an aircraft as a weapon ... is nothing new, we learned that lesson on 9/11 at enormous cost,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. “Ever since then you’ve not been able to just go and hop on a helicopter carrying anything.”

Security measures including metal detectors and ID checks have been in place at New York helicopters since after the Sept. 11 attacks and no major changes are anticipated, Bloomberg said.

The bulletins followed a week of heightened security after federal warnings that al-Qaida was surveilling financial targets. Shortly after the warnings, some officials and experts said they were skeptical about the information because much of it was years old.

The warnings didn’t stop a stream of tourists from boarding sightseeing helicopters in New York on Monday.

Liz Downie of Edinburgh, Scotland, said she saw the story about the latest terror alert on TV before boarding but had no hesitation about the tour. She had just one complaint about the flight. “It was too short,” she said.

Beyond New York area
Although the Bush administration’s recent heightened terror alert was confined to financial institutions in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington, the FBI said al-Qaida was interested in using helicopters to attack “any densely populated area of symbolic, economic or financial importance” in the United States.

The FBI said it has information that indicates al-Qaida has considered using helicopters packed with explosives in an unspecified attack.

Helicopters might also be used to spread chemical or biological agents in the ventilation systems of high-rise buildings, the FBI bulletin said. “Terrorists may view helicopters as an attractive weapon due to their maneuverability and nonthreatening appearance when flying at low altitudes,” the FBI said.

The other bulletin warns that al-Qaida has frequently used rented cars and trucks for bomb attacks in the past — including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center — and may do so again.

Limousines, the FBI said, could be especially useful to terrorists because they are larger than regular cars and might draw less suspicion than trucks.

“Limousines often convey an impression of authority or prestige, which may facilitate their access to specific locations in a building or a facility denied to the general public,” the FBI bulletin said.

The FBI says it has no credible, specific evidence about the method, timing or location of any al-Qaida attack inside the United States. But the bulletins come amid a steady stream of intelligence indicating that the terror group intends to strike in the months leading to the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Laptop, disks reveal strategy
The warnings surfaced as Time magazine, quoting an unidentified U.S. law enforcement official, said that included in information obtained on three laptop computers and 51 disks seized in a July 24 raid in Pakistan were details of how al-Qaida operatives thought of using speed boats and divers to carry out attacks in New York harbor before the November elections.

The plotters also were considering the use of helicopters in some New York operations, the report said.

Video: Time also reported that an al-Qaida report was found suggesting the use of a limousine instead of a truck or van to blow up the Prudential building in Newark. The report suggested a limo would be allowed to enter the parking structure more easily.

The New York Times, citing U.S. security officials, reported Monday that a new directive will call for increased security measures for helicopter operators in the New York City area.

Among the measures under review is a requirement to screen passengers for suspicious items, a Department of Homeland Security official who was briefed on the plan told the newspaper. No groundings are planned, the Times said, adding that the new directive could be issued as early as this week.

New York tourist helicopters operate out of three main heliports. A domestic security official said concern about helicopters is “restricted to New York right now.”

Plans raise timing question
White House officials on Sunday suggested that some of the potential plots uncovered in the past week may have been part of a broader effort to strike the country before the November elections.

Video: “I certainly think that by our actions now that we have disrupted it,” Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security adviser, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “The question is, have we disrupted all of it or a part of it? And we’re working through an investigation to uncover that.”

But Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that based on the information he’d seen, he believes the Bush administration may have overstated the immediacy of the threat of an attack.

“I have not seen any hard evidence that there was an active moment that was contemplated in the very near term,” Biden said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. “If there was a smoking gun that said we know for certain that was going to occur, I didn’t see it.”

1,000 disks seized in Britain
In cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies, authorities in Pakistan and Britain have detained suspected al-Qaida operatives, while computer files uncovered in Pakistan contained surveillance information of five prominent financial sites in New York, Washington and Newark. The administration issued a terror alert based on that information.

The arrests in Britain have led to the confiscation of more than 1,000 computer discs, a senior U.S. intelligence source told the New York Times. The data was still being studied but appears to contain new information that could lead to additional terror advisories, the Times reported.

Townsend said it is not clear how much has been uncovered about a potential plot around the presidential election. “This certainly looks like it was a piece of it,” she told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Besides the financial sites, counterterrorism officials have said other places have been mentioned as possible targets. Asked whether they included the Capitol and members of Congress, Townsend replied: “Yes, in the past and as part of this continuing threat stream.”

“We may see additional U.S. targets,” she said. “It’s hard to judge that now until we have a better sense of what we see out of Great Britain, Pakistan and this arrest over the weekend in the United Arab Emirates.”

A senior Pakistani al-Qaida operative who formerly ran one of the terror group’s training camps in Afghanistan was arrested in the UAE and has been handed over to Pakistani officials.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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