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Sen. Clinton asks shoulder-fired missile defense

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau

The Russian-made SA-7 missile launchers used in the Kenya attack..
The Russian-made SA-7 missile launchers used in the Kenya attack..

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, asked homeland security officials Monday to beef up domestic defenses against possible shoulder-fired missile attacks like the one attempted on an Israeli airliner taking off from Kenya last week.

Clinton sent letters to Tom Ridge, secretary-designate of the new Department of Homeland Security, and New York Gov. George Pataki asking them to take steps to prevent such an attack inside the United States, especially at the country's 400 airports.

"While the missile fired in Kenya thankfully missed its target, future targets may not be as fortunate," Clinton wrote to Ridge. "I urge you to develop an action plan as soon as possible to address the potential threat to U.S. airliners by shoulder-fired missiles."

"This is not a new concern, but it is one we take seriously," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Ridge's office, said Tuesday. "We are working to reduce our vulnerability to this threat."

The Office of Homeland Security is already working with the Defense Department, the Transportation Department, Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, and raised the issue most recently just a few weeks ago in a routine briefing with airline officials, Johndroe said.

But he added, "We have no specific information that there is an operational plan to use surface-to-air missiles in the United States."

Last Thursday's missile attack has raised speculation on just how safe domestic airlines are from such weapons. Clinton's office said that as far as it knew the senator was the first person to raise such issues since the attack.

A statement attributed to al Qaeda claimed responsibility Monday for the airliner attack and the nearly simultaneous bombing of an Israeli hotel in Kenya, saying Osama bin Laden's followers are "capable of reaching any place in the world." (Full story)

Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who is considering seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, said Sunday the Bush administration has been too "preoccupied with Iraq" and has not moved fast enough on homeland security.

"We're going to have to have perimeter patrols and other kinds of defenses in place in order to try to prevent these kinds of things from happening and to provide the traveling public with the assurance that they're safe," Kerry told NBC's "Meet the Press."

"It's going to be expensive and there's no easy answer to it, but we are way behind the curve of trying to provide that kind of security," he said.

After Flight 800 exploded off the Long Island coast in 1996, a White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security looked at threat possibilities and safety measures before issuing a report in 1997.

The commission recommended that the Defense Department, intelligence agencies and defense contractors study the possibility of anti-missile systems for civil aviation. It also recommended that international diplomacy restrict the sales of man-portable surface-to-air missiles.

In Clinton's letters, she asked Ridge to include the new Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration in the consideration of new measures, such as security sweeps of areas that could be launch points for shoulder-fired missiles.

Clinton asked Pataki to consider deploying the National Guard to help protect planes taking off and landing at New York airports during the busy holiday season.

"We need to ensure that we are taking every possible step to keep our air travelers safe," she wrote.

In a conference call with reporters Clinton said, "Just as we saw National Guards on the inside of our airports, we may need to see them on the outside at least to serve as a deterrent."

Clinton did not coordinate her request to Ridge and Pataki with other legislators, said spokeswoman Nina Blackwell.

James Kallstrom, director of New York State's Office of Public Security, told CNN that worries about terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles were not new.

"The governor and I and the law enforcement community share that concern. We've shared it for a long, long time," Kallstrom said. "It's on a list of many things that terrorists can use against us. The event in Kenya is not the first time we thought about these things."

Kallstrom said the state's plan is to better equip and train the 75,000 state and local police in New York, but deploying National Guard troops at the major airports was unlikely.

"It would probably not be an efficient use of these resources, minus specific information," Kallstrom said, noting that security has been enhanced at the airports and their perimeters.

"With the assets and resources we do have, we have a good plan."

Two Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles missed the Israeli charter jet carrying 271 passengers and crew members from Mombasa to Tel Aviv. No one was injured and the plane landed safely at its destination.

It happened at almost the same time suicide attackers detonated a truck bomb inside an Israeli-owned resort hotel, killing 13 people.

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