Six flights scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday were canceled — three headed to Los Angeles, and the three return flights to Paris. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that al Qaeda terrorists may be eyeing Los Angeles International Airport.
U.S. officials were also in intense security talks with officials from several other countries on Wednesday, as intelligence concerns again intensified about possible plans by the al Qaeda terror network to use aircraft to attack American targets. One industry official, who asked not to be identified, said a Mexican airline, Aeromexico, was another focus of U.S. concern.
At home, U.S. security officials closely watched activity at airports, train stations and public buildings, while police randomly stopped cars near the U.S. Capitol as they nervously watched for Christmas Eve disruptions.
A spokesman for French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the decision to cancel the six Air France flights came early Wednesday after American authorities notified France that "two or three" suspicious people, possibly Tunisian nationals, were planning to board the flights.
CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports U.S. intelligence had the exact flight numbers and the names of suspected al Qaeda operatives who might be on the flights. The manifest for at least one of the flights had one or more names similar to the names of the suspected terrorists.
Wednesday's flights were cancelled with no warning at the last minute in an effort to trap the suspected terrorists after they had boarded the plane.
The French Interior Ministry said the flights were canceled at the request of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. A spokesman for Raffarin said the United States had threatened to refuse the planes permission to land in Los Angeles if they took off.
But U.S. officials refused to confirm that they had made the request, leaving the question of who actually ordered the cancellations unclear.
The United States handed French authorities the names of suspicious people who may have intended to board the flights, but no people by those names went through airport security checks, and no arrests were made, the Interior Ministry said.
French television station LCI reported that American authorities believed members of al Qaeda may have been planning to board the planes. The Interior Ministry declined to comment on whether any al Qaeda members figured into the incident.
American officials said the U.S. government was comparing data it had compiled on passengers preparing to board flights entering the United States, as well as data on the flight crews on those flights, with terrorist watch lists it has compiled.
"We are looking at both passengers as well as flight crews," the official said.
Officials from the U.S. Homeland Security Department, including Secretary Tom Ridge, had been meeting with French officials in recent days over concerns about a possible terrorist attack.
In addition, Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred by telephone Wednesday afternoon with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin about the security situation. Bush administration officials declined to provide details but suggested concerns extended beyond the Air France flights.
A Homeland Security official in Washington, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said the United States had been working with a number of governments overseas to help them increase their security measures at airports. The official said American officials had passed on to other governments a "very credible threat" of possible attacks originating overseas.
U.S. officials have been working to get foreign airlines to provide American officials with more passenger information on people aboard the flights that originate overseas and travel to the United States, said an official who spoke earlier this week on condition of anonymity. France and Mexico were of particular concern in this regard, the official said.
Despite the threats, U.S. officials were encouraging all U.S. travelers to keep their scheduled holiday plans, noting the "significantly enhanced security here and overseas" since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Before the French ministry issued its statement that the United States had requested the cancellations, U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, had said the United States had been "hoping that we would be able to lure some of these people in" and arrest them when they showed up for the flights.
The official said then that there was some frustration within the Homeland Security Department that the flights were canceled, thus allowing the word to get out about the security concerns.
But Homeland Security officials declined to clear up the conflict after the French announcement.
Three of the flights were scheduled to depart Wednesday — two from Paris and one from Los Angeles. Air France gave the flight numbers as 68, 69 and 70.
The three other flights were scheduled to leave on Christmas Day
two from Los Angeles and one from Paris. Air France listed those flight numbers as 68, 69 and 71.
No more cancellations were expected, the French spokesman said.
At Los Angeles International Airport, security had already been tightened to its highest level in two years. Los Angeles operates one of the busiest airports in the world and was the hoped-for target in a foiled al Qaeda bomb plot planned for around New Year's Day 2000.