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But it was what Clinton said after these private meetings, at a news conference on the tarmac at J.F.K. airport, that signaled the sea change that the crash of TWA Flight 800 had brought to U.S. commercial aviation. The President ordered tighter security measures at U.S. airports. While stressing that "we seek the cause of the [TWA] disaster," he instructed airlines to step up their screening of passengers and baggage and to conduct preflight inspections of all planes traveling to and from the U.S.
Clinton also named Vice President Al Gore to head a panel that has 45 days to prepare a plan to install explosive-detection devices in U.S. airports as swiftly as possible. In announcing these measures, which many security experts considered long overdue, the President acknowledged that they "could increase the inconvenience and expense of air travel."
Orders for heightened nationwide airport security make no sense unless the President and his advisers strongly suspect, despite his admonitions not to jump to conclusions, that the crash of Flight 800 was not an accident. In fact, government sources told Time that Clinton plans, perhaps as early as this Tuesday, to call on Congress to resurrect two of the sternest, most controversial measures that were dropped from the antiterrorism bill it passed last winter. One extends the Federal Government's ability to conduct wiretaps of suspected terrorists; another eases the use of posse comitatus restrictions on the use of military personnel for domestic police investigations. Both provisions were opposed by civil libertarians when Congress first considered them after the Oklahoma City bombing.
As if the friendly skies had not grown jittery enough, last Friday a Lebanese man hijacked an Iberian airliner carrying 232 passengers bound from Madrid to Havana and--brandishing what later turned out to be a fake bomb--ordered the pilot to land in Miami, where he surrendered to authorities. This was the type of air piracy that prompted airlines and governments to install metal detectors and other devices at airports some 20 years ago. The added security eventually cut back the number of hijackings to near zero, inspiring terrorists to turn to bombs that the old-fashioned machines could not detect. If hijackings are once again possible--and if suspicions about what happened to TWA Flight 800 are confirmed--a vicious circle may be closing around the flying public. --Reported by Elaine Rivera/New York and Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/ Washington