Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 1 News List

US orders all planes to be searched

TERRORISM SCARE The call came after maintenance workers found box cutters, bleach and fake plastic explosives in the lavatory of a Southwest Airlines plane

AP , WASHINGTON

The US government ordered intensified security checks of the entire US commercial air fleet after small plastic bags containing box cutters and other suspicious items were found on two Southwest Airlines planes. The FBI announced later it had found the perpetrator.

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

An FBI statement issued later on Friday said only that agents had "located and interviewed the individual believed responsible" for placing the bags and that the person poses no further threat to airline security. The person's name was not released.

No charges were immediately announced, but the statement said legal proceedings were expected tomorrow in federal court in Baltimore.

"It doesn't appear to be a terrorist event," FBI Director Robert Mueller said. "I think it is safe to fly."

Still, as a precaution, the government ordered intensified searches of the roughly 7,000 commercial aircraft. The checks were expected to be completed by yesterday, with no disruptions to service.

The suspicious bags were hidden in lavatory compartments aboard Southwest Airlines jets that landed in New Orleans and Houston. They were found late Thursday by maintenance workers.

A Southwest statement said the items appeared "intended to simulate a threat" and that each bag was accompanied by a note that "indicated the items were intended to challenge Transportation Security Administration checkpoint security procedures."

Another senior law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said each note included precise information about where and when the items were placed on board the aircraft. The official would not provide further details.

In addition to the box cutters and notes, the bags contained bleach, matches and modeling clay, according to the official. The bleach on one of the planes was in a suntan lotion bottle and in another unidentified container on the other plane.

The clay was formed to look like a plastic explosive, while the bleach could have been used to demonstrate how a corrosive or dangerous liquid could be smuggled aboard an aircraft.

Though government officials were quick to say there were no indications of terrorism, the discovery aboard the Southwest planes was a chilling reminder of the Sept. 11 attacks. The 19 hijackers used box cutters to take over four jets that day. Box cutters and bleach are now are among the items that cannot be carried onto planes.

The TSA was created after the attacks, with the goal of replacing privately employed airport security workers with better-trained and higher-paid government employees. Problems with screening passengers and bags have persisted, however. For example, officials say X-ray machines can't detect plastic explosives.

Officials say it's unclear whether the items placed on the Southwest planes ever went through security.

Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said the New Orleans plane had originated in Orlando, Florida, and was scheduled to go on to San Diego later Thursday night. The crew reported a lavatory wasn't working and a cleaner discovered the bag while working on the problem at about 9pm, she said.

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