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Extra air patrols over major cities on July 4

From Jamie McIntyre
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military will step up random air patrols over major U.S. cities on the Fourth of July as a precaution, Pentagon officials told CNN Thursday.

"This is not in response to any specific threat," said a senior defense official. "It's more a recognition that it is a day of symbolic significance."

The move comes as the Federal Aviation Administration has announced restrictions beginning July 4 on flights around popular U.S. landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Round-the-clock combat air patrols over Washington and New York ended in April, and since then patrols by fighter jets have been conducted on a random and unannounced basis.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, more jets than usual will be patrolling the skies over Washington, New York and other unspecified major cities, Pentagon officials said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to comment Thursday on whether there was concern about possible terrorist attacks.

"I'm not in the business of giving warnings or alerts or a heads up with respect to possible terrorist events in the United States. We have forces all over the world. We're constantly adjusting force levels and threat levels in various parts of the world based on intelligence, but I have nothing I'd really want to say about that," Rumsfeld told reporters after budget meetings on Capitol Hill.

As a result of last week's inadvertent violation of restricted airspace around Washington by a small plane, changes have been made to shorten the response time from F-16s that remain on alert at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.

Those changes include repositioning the planes for faster takeoff and streamlining communications between the FAA and NORAD to provide for quicker notification to respond to incursions of Washington air space.

Pentagon sources say U.S. government officials considered and rejected three other options to increase protection of the White House and other potential terrorist targets in Washington.

Those options were increasing the restricted air space around the city, resuming around-the-clock air patrols, and installing anti-aircraft missiles or guns near the White House.

Currently, there is a 15-mile circle around the Washington Monument that is off limits to general aviation, and expanding that restricted zone would impose a economic burden on Washington airports.

The Pentagon opposes a return to around-the-clock patrols because of the expense and the stress it put on planes and pilots, most of whom are in the National Guard or reserves.

Consideration of installing air defenses was dropped because of the complexity of operating them in a busy air corridor, and the danger of accidentally shooting down an innocent plane, or causing collateral damage on the ground.




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