10 August 2004
The NY Times yesterday sent undercover a reporter, Jennifer Medina, on two rides to red-team NYC helicopter security. Results: not so good. See Jim Atkinson's warning that medical emergency choppers could be used to attack the Democratic National Convention: http://cryptome.org/dnc-dauphine.htm
Little non-official red-teaming of NYC security is being done, and there are giant security gaps all around the city, as in the country. Pretty much the same people are in charge as on September 11, with the same mindset to warn, boast and bluff, and hide vulnerabilities from the public.
New York Times, August 10, 2004
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and MICHAEL LUO
Federal security officers will take over the screening of all passengers on helicopter tours in New York City, after officials found that suspected Qaeda operatives in Pakistan had photographs, a brochure and other information about the tours.
A security directive issued by the Transportation Security Administration orders federal screeners to begin doing passenger inspections in the city's three heliports, a job now done by private security contractors, Mark Hatfield, a spokesman for the agency, said yesterday. Passengers will be subject to the same types of searches for weapons, explosives and suspicious items as are now in place at airports.
The helicopter tour operators will also be required to provide the names of passengers to the federal government to run against federal "no fly'' lists of terrorist suspects and to provide names and data on their own employees for federal background checks. The operators will also have to name a security coordinator, to be available 24 hours a day to respond to federal inquiries.
While federal officials have imposed broad safety measures on the aviation and rail industries since the Sept. 11 attacks, the move to tighten security at New York's heliports marks the first time that they have imposed these types of stepped-up measures at specific sites because of a perceived threat.
Officials said they planned to redeploy federal screeners from other sites to the New York heliports by the end of the week.
As it stands, almost no regulations regarding security procedures exist for the operators of tourist and charter helicopters in New York City, several industry officials said yesterday. "It's basically kind of voluntary right now," said Michael Renz, the owner and chief executive officer of the Analar Corporation, a corporate charter company in Princeton, N.J. "There's no guidelines for us at the moment."
There are three major helicopter companies in New York City catering to tourists: Liberty Helicopters, the largest operator; Helicopter Flight Services; and New York Helicopter, a charter company that only recently entered the business. They use two out of the city's three heliports, one on 30th Street and 12th Avenue and the other off Pier 6 in Lower Manhattan. The city's third heliport, on East 34th Street and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, does not allow tourism operators.
One law enforcement official said that the security for tourism-oriented operators, especially, clearly could use improvement.
"They're making a business decision - they don't want to slow down what's going on there," the official said about tour operators. "I would say that's the bottom line."
"They want to get as many of those minitours" into the air as they can, the official said.
Many helicopter companies adopted certain measures on their own after Sept. 11, Mr. Renz said. Although his company does not make passengers go through a metal detector, employees now check passengers' luggage before they board and will sometimes call up a special hot line linked with the Newark office of the F.B.I. to check passengers' names against terror watch lists, he said.
"If someone's calling us out of the blue, and they want to see Manhattan, and they have some funny-looking name, we check it out," he said.
On Sunday, Mr. Renz's company flew a group of 14 Muslims, dressed in white robes and skullcaps, from East Brunswick, N.J., to Manhattan and then on to Philadelphia. They were members of Dawoodi Bohras, a Mumbai-based Shiite group with a branch in Queens. It was a "very unusual request," Mr. Renz said, so employees checked the passengers' names with the F.B.I.
Usually, charter companies are dealing with the same companies and passengers over and over, Mr. Renz said, so they are not so vulnerable as the companies that cater mainly to tourists.
Trips with two of the helicopter companies yesterday demonstrated that security procedures vary considerably. At the heliport on the West Side, used by Liberty Helicopters, a police officer and security guard were posted outside, asking for photo identification. Once passengers got inside, they were told to stow all their belongings, except for cameras, in lockers.
Even pens were prohibited, although a reporter got one aboard on a 1:30 p.m. flight because it failed to trigger the metal detector that passengers must walk through. If a passenger tripped the metal detector, an employee stood ready to scan him or her with a hand-held wand.
But at the heliport in Lower Manhattan, operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, passengers for New York Helicopter only had to open their bags for an employee to peek inside and were screened with a hand-held wand.
A reporter who did not identify herself but flew on a 2 p.m. tour had to open her bag and show her photo ID but was not asked to open her makeup bag, wallet or planner.
For a person hovering a thousand feet over the city, it was not difficult to imagine the potential for the helicopters to be used as weapons. Flight routes vary, depending on how much the passengers pay, but all fly by the city's major landmarks. And unlike airplane pilots, those in a helicopter sit shoulder to shoulder with passengers, who often crowd in seven at a time.
On the flight with New York Helicopter, the pilot warned a passenger to "watch out for the pedals," less than six inches from her feet.
For $101 a person, New York Helicopters yesterday offered a 10-minute tour up the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan to Midtown and back. The pilot used his microphone to point out major sights, including ground zero and the Empire State Building. He also made a special mention of the Citicorp Building on the East Side, cited last week as a potential terror target.
For $162, Liberty Helicopters offered a 15-to-17-minute tour yesterday that included a swing across Manhattan over Central Park. Usually, the tour includes a sweep over Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, but flight restrictions related to a game yesterday afternoon prevented the pilot from heading that way.
Any helicopter that flies over Manhattan is required to get in touch with air traffic controllers, said Paul M. Smith, director of safety for Helicopters Inc., based in Linden, N.J. In congested areas - basically all of Manhattan - pilots usually cannot fly below 1,000 feet of the highest building that is within 2,000 feet away. Usually, helicopter pilots, along with those in small planes, do not have to file flight plans, unless they are flying under instrument conditions.
The concerns that prompted the T.S.A. order yesterday grew out of information recovered from a computer discs recently seized from a suspected Qaeda operative in Pakistan - the same batch of information that led federal authorities to raise the threat level back to orange for some financial sectors.
The computer data included written references to some or all of the city's three heliports, photographs and at least one brochure for a helicopter tour operators, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Officials said they were still uncertain when the material was collected.
But in response to the new intelligence, officials put out an alert to law enforcement agencies around the country on Friday.
Jennifer Medina contributed reporting for this article.