WASHINGTON – The nation's aviation system remains vulnerable to attacks by Al Qaeda and other terrorists who may be targeting noncommercial aircraft and helicopters, according to a government report.
But officials said the report by the Homeland Security Department (search) and the FBI (search) concludes that commercial airlines also remain susceptible to attack, despite billions of dollars worth of security investments. Moreover, members of Al Qaeda are believed to be examining and testing U.S. security systems for weaknesses, officials said.
The confidential report, dated Feb. 25, reflects what officials have long said: that beefing up security in one sector would inevitably prompt terrorists to target other areas that might not be under the same level of scrutiny.
However, the report, drafts of which have been circulating since late last year, is the first to pull the intelligence together in a single package, officials said.
It was distributed to state, local and private sector officials who deal with counterterrorism concerns, said Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
"We have made dramatic improvements to security in all components of the aviation industry over the course of the past three years," Roehrkasse said.
The report was first reported Sunday evening by The New York Times on its Internet site.
A counterterrorism official said helicopters were singled out as potential targets in intelligence that surfaced last August. That intelligence also led Homeland Security to raise the terror alert level in Washington, New York and northern New Jersey to protect financial institutions there.
More than $12 billion has been spent on explosive detectors, armored cockpit doors, screeners, air marshals and other aviation security systems since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. President Bush has proposed giving the Transportation Aviation System $5.6 billion in 2006 — $2 billion of which for airline passenger screening and $1.45 billion for airline baggage screening.
But a report by congressional investigators in December found that TSA (search) "has primarily focused on strengthening the security of commercial aviation." That report noted that TSA doesn't understand the risks posed by small private planes, fails to issue meaningful threat information to general aviation airports and can't make sure charter airlines and flight schools comply with security regulations.
Officials said that the thousands of general aviation airports — which host recreational planes, business jets, helicopters and other kinds of noncommercial aircraft — must all have security measures that are equivalent to TSA mandates at commercial airports.