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Suicide Flights Seen as Threat to '96 Olympics

Safety: Crop-dusters and jets within hundreds of miles of the Atlanta Games were tracked.


WASHINGTON — Five years before the World Trade Center towers toppled, U.S. authorities had identified crop-dusters and suicide flights as potential terrorist weapons, taking elaborate steps to avert an attack from the air during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

In an extraordinary aerial dragnet, launched quietly that summer and kept largely under wraps ever since, Black Hawk helicopters and U.S. Customs Service jets were deployed to intercept suspicious aircraft in the skies over the Olympic venues, officials said. Agents monitored crop-duster flights within hundreds of miles of downtown Atlanta.

Law enforcement agents also fanned out to regional airports throughout northern Georgia "to make sure nobody hijacked a small aircraft and tried to attack one of the venues," said Woody Johnson, the FBI agent in charge of the Atlanta office at the time.

While no one suggests that the Olympics security precautions could have been a blueprint to prevent attacks, the revelations raise questions about whether more could have been done in the ensuing years to tighten aviation security. The aftermath of Sept. 11 has brought calls for increased airport security, tighter restrictions on crop-dusters and closer monitoring of foreign students who attend U.S. flight schools.

"In hindsight," said Johnson, who retired from the FBI in 1997, "it's probably one of those things you think about at the time and then you move on to the next operation."

The Atlanta experience also points out the difficulty of stopping a determined terrorist: An attack took place, but on the ground. A bomb was detonated at a crowded Olympic concert, despite tightened security. One person was killed, 100 were injured and the prime suspect, a home-grown extremist, remains at large.

At the time, there was no specific threat from any particular terrorist group, said Steve Simon, who was the National Security Council's senior director for transnational threats during the Olympics. Concerns were based in part on a classified 200-page FBI "Terrorist Threat Assessment" on the 1996 Olympics distributed to federal, state and local law enforcement officials before the Games. The document made no mention of Osama bin Laden or his Al Qaeda network in a list of potential terrorist organizations, according the former federal officials familiar with the report.

Describing the Games as "an excellent opportunity for terrorists," the threat assessment analyzed an estimated 80 nations, including Afghanistan, where Bin Laden had recently relocated. The report described that nation as a haven for terrorist training camps, along with neighboring Pakistan.

The FBI, federal prosecutors and intelligence officials already had identified Bin Laden as a growing terrorist threat to the U.S. They also knew that at least one terrorist sympathetic to Bin Laden's anti-American cause, a Pakistani who trained in terror camps in Pakistan and at flight schools in the United States, had planned to hijack a U.S. airliner and crash it into CIA headquarters in Virginia.

In fact, the federal grand jury that ultimately indicted Bin Laden in New York in 1998 for conspiring to destroy U.S. national facilities, launched its probe of him and Al Qaeda in June 1996, just a month before the July 19 Olympic opening ceremony in Atlanta. The Saudi Arabian government already had revoked Bin Laden's passport, and, just two months before the Games, the U.S. succeeded in pressuring Sudan to expel him as a security threat.

"We certainly knew that Al Qaeda was interested in getting biological weapons and chemical weapons [at the time]," added another former NSC official, who asked not to be identified. "The problem was not so much weaponization as distribution. That's what crop-dusters do. It was fairly obvious."

But Johnson, the former FBI official, said that when planning security for the 1996 Games, he had no specific information about Bin Laden and his organization, or about the alleged kamikaze plot.

"We were just thinking about possibilities of what bad guys could do," he said. "What if someone takes a private airplane and puts explosives in it or loads it with gas and crashes it into the stadium? We didn't have any history of anything like that. They were just precautionary measures."

Kent Alexander, who was the U.S. attorney in Atlanta in 1996, said security officials played out a litany of potential terrorist threats in field exercises and "tabletop" scenarios during the final months before the Games.

"There was a parade of horribles we went through," Alexander said.

Simon, the former NSC official, said that crop-dusters loaded with chemicals and suicide flights were among the government's concerns.

"It was clear that the Games were vulnerable to attack from the air--either by an aircraft flown into the stadium or a crop-duster overflying the site and spreading a chemical and biological weapon," he said. "We jumped through hoops to keep crop-dusters away."

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