US is grounding aircraft due to 'specific intelligence' of terror attacks

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The US government has rejected international complaints that it had made mistakes in ordering cancellations and delays to more than a dozen international flights in the past fortnight, insisting the decisions were justified by "specific intelligence" indicating the possibility of terrorist attacks.

It was clear yesterday that the information on which these extraordinary actions were taken had in every case originated with US intelligence agencies. They focused not so much on the movements of suspect individuals but on identified threats to specific routes and even specific flights, all of them - with the exception of British Airways' cancelled flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - with US destinations.

Three routes have been under especially intense scrutiny: Mexico City to Los Angeles, Paris to Los Angeles, and London to Washington. But doubts over the quality of intelligence have multiplied after it emerged that, on the six cancelled Air France flights to Los Angeles, three of the passengers whose names came up on US security "hit lists" were a child, an elderly Chinese woman and a Welsh insurance agent. Nor has a single person been arrested or detained.

Nonetheless, Bush administration officials were unrepentant yesterday. According to Asa Hutchinson, deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, such drastic action would be taken only on the basis of specific intelligence, "and I think we've made some really good decisions". Giving a glimpse of the ever-present nightmare of a repeat of 11 September 2001, The New York Times yesterday reported an Oval Office meeting between President Bush and Tom Ridge, the Secretary for Homeland Security, on 22 December, a day after the colour-coded terror alert had been raised to level orange, and just before Air France suspended flights between Paris and Los Angeles.

"Would you let your son or daughter fly on that plane?" Mr Bush is said to have asked, after a discussion of intelligence suggesting terrorists might be on board. "Absolutely not," Mr Ridge replied. "Well," the President said, "neither would I." Within hours the French government had agreed to cancel the flights.

In fact, the French have been relatively restrained in their reaction. The demands from Washington had been "legitimate", Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, said after the embarrassing misidentifications had become public. "In a time of tension and risk, I prefer the principle of precaution," he added. That, most certainly, is the basic approach of the Bush administration ahead of the approaching election campaign, with the knowledge that another successful attack on US soil could cause the President huge political damage.

The ultra-cautious US approach carries a separate, if more subtle, danger closer to home. The flight cancellations, combined with a heightened terror alert, have merely made an already edgy population even more jittery.

"Our city is on the front line of the war on terrorism," the mayor of Peoria in distant Arizona told National Public Radio, reflecting the national mood. The aviation turmoil, moreover, hardly bears out assertions from the Bush administration that the Iraq war and the capture of Saddam and various al-Qa'ida leaders have made the US a safer place.