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Rumsfeld: Flying safe despite shoot-down policy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday he is "absolutely" certain it is safe for Americans to fly despite what officials described as new "rules of engagement" that would allow mid-level generals to order the shoot-down of domestic jets "under extraordinary circumstances."

At a briefing, Rumsfeld did not talk specifically about the policy -- which comes in the wake of this month's deadly terrorist hijacking and crashing of four jets -- but he suggested that any shoot-down would be an absolute, last-resort measure.

"Every effort is made to dissuade an airplane from going into any area that's prohibited, for example," Rumsfeld said. "And there are all kinds of ways that's done. It's done through radio communication. It's done through hand signals. It's done through flying in front of an airplane ... There are a lot of safeguards in place."

Sources told CNN that President Bush decided to delegate the authority to shoot down domestic jetliners to mid-level generals without his specific approval "under extraordinary circumstances."

A military spokesman said "every effort would be made to reach the president," but when lives were in jeopardy and the president could not be reached, the decision to shoot down a jet could be made at that lower level.

Pilots and the aviation industry will be informed of the new rules in a directive to be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA sources said.

Rumsfeld said that he and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, crafted the rules that were then approved by Bush.

Shelton told reporters that the "last thing in the world" a fighter pilot wants to do is engage a commercial jetliner.

"So don't get the impression that anyone is flying around out there that has a loose trigger finger, that's not the case," he said.

Earlier Thursday, a directive was sent out advising pilots to avoid airspace above or near sites such as power plants, dams, refineries and other industrial complexes. New aviation charts will be issued within two weeks showing the restricted airspaces, the sources said.

The possibility of being shot down is a big step up from the previous punishment for flying over restricted airspace: suspension of a pilot's license or possible fine.

Officers who can authorize a shoot-down include Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, whose authority in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) includes the continental United States; Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, whose authority includes Alaska; and Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, who heads the United States Pacific Command, whose authority includes Hawaii.

"This action would be an absolute last resort," said Scott McClellan, White House deputy press secretary. "Every attempt would be made to go to the highest chain of command, all the way to the commander-in-chief."

McClellan, traveling with the president in Chicago, outlined in very general terms the conditions under which someone other than Bush would make the call. "If the plane is nose down and threatens the safety and security of the American people, that is the type of situation we're talking about, and that's the last resort. The senior-most official at the last moment possible to make that decision would have that authority."

The reason for the policy change, McClellan said, is "these are different times we are living in now, a different world."

Rumsfeld suggested that it is unlikely the president would not be in a position to make such a grave decision.

"The president, the secretary of defense and the combatant commanders are never more than a minute or two away from a secure phone. ...Very, very senior people are able to address a matter in real time and ask the right questions and make the right judgments," Rumsfeld said.

On September 11, after it became clear that the United States was under terrorist attack, President Bush authorized the shoot-down of any commercial jet that entered unauthorized air space and refused to turn around. The military never shot at any of the four hijacked jets because they crashed before fighter jets could take any action.

CNN Correspondents Bob Franken and Kelly Wallace contributed to this report.


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