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KLM incident raises security questions

Homeland Security considers emergency amendment

From Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers

Department of Homeland Security
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An incident in which U.S. officials refused to allow a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 747 to fly over the United States has brought to light a potential hole in the nation's homeland security safety net.

Currently, the United States requires international airlines to make certain that passengers on flights to and from the United States are not on a list of suspected terrorists. But no such check is required if a plane is transiting -- flying over the country without landing.

But on Friday, U.S. authorities denied permission for KLM Flight 685 to transit U.S. airspace after hearing indirectly that two passengers on the flight were on the "no-fly" list.

U.S. officials said they learned about the two people from Mexico, where the plane was destined after taking off from Amsterdam.

The plane, which was in Canadian airspace when U.S. officials denied entry, returned to the Netherlands. It had 278 people and 15 horses onboard.

The incident irked KLM and Dutch officials, especially because, they said the United States never requested an interview of the two passengers and did not indicate why they were of interest. A KLM official said that after returning to Amsterdam, the two men flew to London and then back to their home countries.

A Dutch official told CNN the Netherlands will take the matter to the European Union in Brussels to seek clarification about whether checks of "no-fly" lists are required for flights transiting the United States.

KLM officials said they are under no obligation to check passengers on transiting planes against terror watch lists.

"In our interpretation, this was not a flight to or from the United States. It was to Mexico," KLM spokesman Bart Koster said. The flight "never had the intention to make a landing in the United States."

But KLM has now begun checking its passenger lists for flights flying over the United States against the U.S. "no-fly" list to avoid repeating last week's incident.

Koster also expressed irritation about the timing of the incident -- saying the United States was late in notifying KLM that it would not permit the plane to transit.

U.S. officials said Mexico provided the names after accessing the KLM list and comparing it with a list of suspected terrorists. Such sharing of information is allowed under U.S.-Mexican security agreements, they said.

An official with the Department of Homeland Security said the agency is considering an emergency amendment that would require airlines to check transiting flights' passenger manifests against the list.

In the meantime, the official said, if the United States determines that a flight scheduled to fly over the country is carrying a passenger on the "no-fly" list, it will be prohibited from entering U.S. airspace.

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