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Random vehicle searches for explosives begin at airport

Friday, February 14, 2003

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Searches won't be limited to travelers boarding planes at Pittsburgh International Airport anymore.

Vehicles on roads within the airport complex also will be subjected to random stops and searches, the Allegheny County Airport Authority announced yesterday.

County police officers began inspecting vehicles for explosives yesterday afternoon. The searches will be conducted randomly at different places on airport property, authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said.

The airport authority said the searches are in response to the United States raising its terrorist threat level to orange, or "high risk," last week. Officials have said they were not in response to any direct threat against the Pittsburgh airport.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which oversees security at the nation's airports, had suggested random vehicle searches as a possible response to the heightened terrorist alert.

Jenny said all vehicles traveling airport roads -- including shuttles, buses, limousines and taxis -- will be subject to the random inspections. She said officials are hoping to keep the searches to no more than 90 seconds.

The airport authority had planned to start the searches Wednesday but then delayed them because of concerns about possible civil rights violations. Jenny said it decided to go ahead with them after discussing legal and logistics issues with the TSA, attorneys and county police.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh, said the decision to make the searches demands further public debate.

"The discussion around this issue is tremendously important," Walczak said. "Fear has always been the enemy of liberty. Given the asserted terrorist threat, our society needs to discuss where we will draw the line between security precautions and civil liberties."

Despite the new searches, Jenny said there is no reason for travelers to arrive any earlier than 90 minutes before their flights. The TSA recommends that travelers arrive two hours before their flights.

Officials also have banned parking along airport roads and increased scrutiny of travelers at the checkpoints, causing longer waits to be screened, since the terrorist threat level was raised to orange last Friday.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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