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Authority Given to Down Planes Two Generals May Attack, Destroy Commercial Aircraft

By Paul Richter


The Pentagon, in its first major move to strengthen homeland security, has embarked on a major overhaul of the nation’s air defense system that authorizes the military to shoot down commercial jetliners in “extraordinary circumstances.”

In an effort to encourage jittery travelers to fly, the White House stressed that two generals will give such orders only in the rarest of circumstances, when the president or top ranking generals cannot be reached.

“If the plane is nose-down and threatens the safety and security of the American people, that is the kind of situation we’re talking about,” said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman.

Previously, only the president had authority to order domestic jets shot down, which President Bush gave in the hours after the initial attacks Sept. 11 on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center

Since then, a military air defense network that had focused exclusively on incoming international traffic has broadened its mission to include thousands of daily domestic flights. Defense officials have also tightened ties with civilian air authorities and have stepped up fighter-jet air patrols.

The air defense system, which is run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, previously kept 14 fighter planes on constant “strip alert” at seven Air Force bases around the country. Now, 100 fighters are on alert and ready to fly within 10 minutes from 26 locations.

F-15 and F-16 fighters are on regular patrol over New York City and the Washington federal complex, and other fighters planes intermittently patrol other parts of the country.

A military source said the NORAD was also flying AWACS surveillance planes, which can track large numbers of aircraft simultaneously. Air patrols are also being used at major public events, such as NFL football games, the officer said.

The generals who can authorize a fighter to strike an airliner include Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, who has authority for the continental United States, and Lt. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, who has authority for that state.