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Ridge: Flight cancellations likely prevented attack

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on Wednesday recent flight cancellations have likely thwarted a terror attack, however difficult they may have been for airlines and their passengers.

He said the United States is working with Europe to decide how best to react to intelligence about potential threats.

Speaking just days after the latest wave of trans-Atlantic flight cancellations, Ridge acknowledged the process -- particularly over the Christmas and New Year's holidays -- was "difficult" but said it was understandable.

"Everybody understood, particularly after 9/11, why America continues to be ... more concerned about aviation security than anybody else," Ridge said when asked about reaction, mainly in France and Britain, to the recent flight cancellations.

"We don't have a transatlantic protocol yet but we're working on the process (of) how do we share information, how do we look at it together and how do we arrive at a consensus around what we ought to do based on the threat," he said in a meeting with a small group of reporters.

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Ridge said he had recently spoken to his counterparts in Germany and Britain and was discussing the issues with French officials on Wednesday.

"We are trying to find the right balance, the right response to the threat information," Ridge said.

Last weekend British Airways, Air France and Continental Airlines canceled several mostly trans-Atlantic flights to and from the United States after U.S. officials passed on intelligence regarding specific threats to those flights.

In December, after Washington raised its terror alert to the second-highest level, the government passed on data about potential threats that led several airlines -- including Air France and British Airways -- to cancel U.S.-bound flights.

Ridge said the intelligence regarding the threats was credible but incomplete. He said it specifically referred to the flights that were canceled but did not include many details of what attack might take place.

But he said the flight cancellations over the Christmas holiday likely prevented a terror strike.

"My gut tells me we probably did, but proving an unknown is pretty difficult to do," he said.

To help prevent an attack, when the United States receives intelligence of a potential threat to a flight it runs detailed security checks on passengers.

Although airline officials routinely check passengers against a "no fly" list, a detailed security check is not done on a regular basis before a flight takes off.

If such a check is required -- as it was over the last weekend -- it causes delays of several hours. In some cases, the airline decides it is better to cancel the flight.

Ridge said the United States would like to get enough information on passengers ahead of time that such checks can be run before a flight takes off.

In December the European Union and United States reached a deal to pass on personal data about air travelers after Washington offered sufficient privacy safeguards. But they have yet to agree on when to provide the information.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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