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Mineta To Address Lawmakers

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta will defend government handling of information about vague hijacking threats made by terrorists before Sept. 11 when he faces Senate lawmakers pressing to know what the Bush administration may have known in advance.

Mineta will testify Tuesday before the Senate Commerce Committee about a range of threats, some of them to seize commercial airliners, that were gleaned by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement in the months before the catastrophic attacks on New York and Washington.

The threats, which the government has said included no specifics on dates, places or times, were passed along to U.S. airlines by the Federal Aviation Administration between January and August. The advisories to airlines, including five between June and August, included no security recommendations.

"Yes, he will defend DOT (Department of Transportation) handling of this," said a senior Mineta aide who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "Our job is to be in touch with the matrix of intelligence people and pass it along with consistency to the stakeholders. We've done exactly that time and time again."

Mineta is not expected to raise on his own a disclosure that the FAA was told a week before the hijack attacks that flight student Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested in Minnesota and that the information was never given to the airlines.

Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiracy to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks and is in federal custody in Virginia. He has pleaded not guilty.

Moussaoui was arrested in August and it was only after the attacks that the government suspected he was part of the hijacking plot. The FAA contends that the FBI only said before hand that Moussaoui was a suspicious flight student who had been arrested on an immigration charge.

Mineta is also not likely to discuss publicly details about current intelligence operations, the Transportation Department official said.

While carriers still receive intelligence bulletins and alerts from the government, the industry no longer has the lead responsibility for making security decisions, especially at airports.

Since mid-February, that has been the function of the Transportation Security Administration, which was set up in the aftermath of Sept. 11 under orders from Congress to overhaul aviation security. While its primary focus has been on establishing systems for screening passengers and their baggage, streamlining intelligence has also been a priority.

Taking away major security decisions from the airlines made intelligence gatherers more comfortable sharing data, knowing the final decision wrested not with a private company, but with another government agency.

"There was a natural barrier," said Chet Lunner, a spokesman for Mineta, who receives a daily briefing from the CIA. "It's a lot easier if you're talking agency to agency."

The new security agency has also set up an intelligence assessment system where threat data and other information relevant to airlines, airports, seaports and surface transportation is coordinated around-the-clock.

"The system is much better," Lunner said. "It is possible now to share that sort of information where you might have lost track of it before."

Mineta's appearance comes as the six-month-old Transportation Security Administration announces it will need 57,000 employees to screen airline passengers and their luggage.

That's more than many members of Congress had anticipated.

The agency also says it will meet several key deadlines. In half a year, federal employees must replace private security screeners at all 429 commercial airports. And by the end of the year, all checked luggage is supposed to be examined by machine for explosives.

An estimated one billion bags are checked every year.

The agency yesterday announced pilot programs at five airports to see which bomb detection technologies work the best.

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