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RESPONSE TO TERROR

More Troops to Guard Airports for the Holidays

Security: President calls up 2,000 reservists as part of new measures to bolster Americans' confidence in flying.

November 10, 2001|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush took several new steps Friday to improve aviation security, including stationing more than 2,000 additional National Guard troops at airports around the country during the holiday travel season.

"We are calling up these Guardsmen and women immediately," Bush announced at the White House. "These are temporary measures, and we believe they will help a lot."

Since last month, nearly 7,000 National Guard troops--including about 800 in California--have been called up to provide security at the nation's airports. The federal government is reimbursing the states for the cost of the deployment, initially estimated at $150 million.

In an announcement Friday in the East Room of the White House, Bush said he would increase that funding by 25%, allowing for the additional troops. His actions are the latest in a series of efforts to bolster public confidence in aviation, which was shattered by the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.

In Sacramento, Gov. Gray Davis praised Bush's action, saying the extra money will "give us additional resources and personnel to provide an additional level of safety and security at California's airports."

"We will move quickly to put more National Guard members to work with new duties to keep air travelers safe for the holiday travel season and beyond," Davis said.

Decisions on how and precisely where to deploy Guard troops will be up to each governor, said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary.

But he added: "I think you can anticipate the Guard being involved in such things as monitoring passenger and baggage screening, monitoring gate activity, perimeter control, security for vehicles, garages and air-traffic control facilities."

The funding increase, Fleischer said, was "a reflection that there are always additional things that can be done. . . . The president, looking at the upcoming travel season, sees the ability to give the states more resources to help with the Guard deployment at their airports."

The current cost of deploying troops in California is $300,000 to $400,000 a day, a Guard spokesman in Sacramento said.

A White House official said the full funding for Guard deployment at airports will come out of the emergency supplement bill already passed by Congress.

There was no immediate indication of how the new funds would be allocated, but the official said the money would not necessarily be equally divided among the states.

In addition, the president ordered the Department of Transportation to conduct undercover audits of security performance at airports. And he directed Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to meet with law enforcement authorities, manufacturers of security devices, airport operators and airline executives to "prepare for a swift transition to a new federally controlled" aviation security system throughout the United States.

Bush's moves come amid continuing instances of airport security breaches--including passengers carrying knives and even a loaded gun through checkpoints--and as the House and Senate remain unable to agree on an aviation security bill.

On Capitol Hill, House and Senate negotiators are expected to work through the weekend, trying to resolve the major sticking point holding up enactment of an aviation security bill--whether passenger and baggage screeners should be federal employees.

Bush favors the narrowly passed House measure, which would increase federal oversight of airport security but leave it to the administration to decide whether screeners should be government employees, private contractors or a mix.

The Senate bill, approved unanimously, calls for putting 28,000 new federal workers in charge of screening passengers and baggage.

Security Firm Seeks to Improve Operations

Bush on Friday offered encouragement: "I urge Congress to work hard to resolve the differences between the two bills--they're not that far apart--and to get to my desk as quickly as possible a bill that will make air travel much safer for the American people."

In a related development, Argenbright Security Holdings named a new chief executive Friday and pledged substantial and immediate measures to improve its operations.

The Atlanta company came under extra scrutiny last weekend after its workers allowed a man carrying knives, a stun gun and tear gas through a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Argenbright, the largest airport security company in the country, is already on probation in a federal criminal case involving failure to perform background checks on its screeners.

Also on the domestic security front, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said the public should feel confident about the integrity of the nation's drinking-water supply.

"We are actually feeling very comfortable as far as water supplies are concerned, that it would be very difficult to carry out the kind of attack that could result in true health implications to a general population," Whitman said.

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Times staff writers Rich Simon in Washington and Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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