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Secretaries Committee of National Security will conduct an airline security review.

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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.


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Wednesday 13 August 2003

Secretaries Committee of National Security will conduct an airline security review


MARK COLVIN: Governments and airlines are having another hard l ook at airline security after arrests in the US and Saudi Arabia revealed new threats of supposed al-Qaeda plots to target passenger jets. 


US authorities say a man sold an anti-aircraft missile to an undercover agent who was posing as an al-Qaeda operative.  


In response, the Australian Government's top public service security chiefs will review intelligence and available technology to see if changes are needed at our airports and onboard planes. 


As Rafael Epstein reports, counter-terror analysts warn that the threat of missile attack is real and plausible. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The latest security review comes in part as a result of as arrests in the US and Saudi Arabia. They reveal alleged plans to hit passenger jets with shoulder-fired missiles. 


An alleged arms dealer was arrested in New Jersey, after he'd smuggled a Russian surface-to-air missile by ship to the United States and sold it to an undercover FBI agent, who was posing as an al-Qaeda operative.  


The FBI says it's clear the arrested man knew the missile would be used to shoot down a large passenger aircraft.  


The day before, a shootout in Saudi Arabia resulted in the arrest of a 10-person al-Qaeda cell that, according to intelligence officials, had hoped to mount an attack on a British commercial aircraft, possibly using a lightweight missile. 


In response, in Canberra, the Secretaries Committee of National Security, or SCNS, will look again at what they can do to prevent such an attack.  


The Committee includes the public service chiefs of the Attorney General's Department, and the Departments of Defence, Transport, and Prime Minister and Cabinet.  


Transport Minister, John Anderson. 


JOHN ANDERSON: To undertake an assessment of our aviation security system and that assessment will form the basis for advice for the National Security Committee of Cabinet, so SCNS, Mr Speaker, will draw on intelligence, border control, transport, policing and technology expertise from across the Commonwealth as part of its assessment process. 


Amongst other things, that Committee will examine the latest intelligence and what its implications are, how immigration and border control and airport security arrangements contribute to an effective system, which of our existing arrangements we might need to change or augment or make less predictable to meet the emerging threats, what new technologies, and they are rapidly emerging and evolving, might be appropriate for us to consider and whether we need to expand our existing system and if so, how. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The sophisticated Russian Igla missile in the US undercover operation, and other similar weapons, are relatively easy to smuggle - for example one could fit inside a golf bag. 


Analysts believe al-Qaeda has dozens of them, and hundreds of other surface-to-air missiles are reported to be circulating on the black market. 


Despite the fact no real terrorists were ever connected to the arms trader in the US, those who advise some of the biggest global companies say the use of such a weapon is plausible. 


STANLEY BEDLINGTON: I think this is a thing that we're going to see in the future. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Stanley Bedlington spent 17 years at the CIA, the last six as their chief counter-terror analyst.  


He now advises companies on security. 


STANLEY BEDLINGTON: Oh yes, I think the threat is very real. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: And do you think it's a tactic that terror groups would pursue because it's not too hard to import them and they're relatively easy to use; is that something that adds? 


STANLEY BEDLINGTON: That’s the point, you know, that they are deadly and accurate and (inaudible). I mean, the Israelis could afford to put evasive mechanisms on all their planes, but other airlines, US airlines, Australian or British airlines, of course the fleet is too large. 


RAFAEL ESPTEIN: What’s the solution then? 


STANLEY BEDLINGTON: You've got to get inside the terrorist groups. It's intelligence, investigation and law enforcement. 


I think in any country that is involved with the United States as an ally, they are differently at risk. 


Australia is a major target. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Singapore Airlines Spokesman in Australia says the company has to move with evolving technology, and that they'll consult with the airlines majority owner, the Singaporean Government. 


That means the airline would look at installing anti-missile technology if they were advised the threat is warranted, and that threat justified the cost.  


A QANTAS Spokeswoman says the airline has no plans to introduce on board anti-missile systems on any of their planes, but is constantly reviewing security. 


Norman Shanks is a former head of the British Airport Authority.  


He says Australian airports and airlines could have adequate anti terror technology relatively quickly.  


NORMAN SHANKS: I would expect that things could be done, given the deployment of technology, we're looking at a programme between now and say 18 to 24 months. 


MARK COLVIN: Aviation security expert, Norman Shanks. 


That report prepared by Rafael Epstein.