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Insiders May Have Phoned in New York Airport Bomb Threat

By Joseph W. Queen and Ken Moritsugu
Newsday
NEW YORK

Investigators think the bomb threat Monday to a New York air traffic control center may have been an inside job because it was phoned in to an unlisted number, federal law enforcement sources said Tuesday.

The threat led to the evacuation of 150 employees at the Westbury, N.Y., facility, causing widespread delays at New York-area airports. A spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the phone number was not public. "Only insiders and people they deal with would have that number," one law enforcement source said.

Adding fuel to the insider theory was the fact that the threat was made to a little-known facility called TRACON instead of a more obvious site like a control tower. "Most people have never heard of it," the law enforcement source said. "That's why this looks more like someone with an ax to grind than like terrorism."

Targeting TRACON, which handles 3,000 flights a day to and from 50 airports including John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, N.J., was a particularly effective way of disrupting air traffic, sources at the FAA, which runs TRACON, said.

"It's a critical link to air traffic control," said one FAA source. "Whoever did this knew what they were doing."

Investigators also confirmed that unlisted numbers at FAA facilities have fallen into the hands of outsiders in the past. In 1993, hundreds of crank calls were made to the air traffic control towers at the JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports over a period of months. A New York City man disgruntled about area airplane noise was eventually arrested in connection with dozens of the calls to the LaGuardia tower.

The FBI declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation. "We have an investigation that is pursuing several avenues, which we will not discuss," said spokesman Joseph Valiquette.

FBI agents were interviewing TRACON employees Tuesday and pulling detailed telephone company records that show incoming and outgoing calls from the number that the threat was allegedly called in to in an effort to trace the call, sources said.

There have been 11 bomb threats to FAA facilities around the country in the past year. The FAA would not describe the nature of the threats or whether there had been any evacuations.

A union representative for the controllers at TRACON said the threat was unusual and had raised safety issues for workers who formerly did not think of themselves as particularly vulnerable. "In a way, you kind of feel anonymous where you are," said Dean Iacopelli, vice president of the TRACON local for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Most people don't know who you are, what you do."