NASA worried about al-Qaeda attack on shuttle
NASA officials worried that al-Qaeda might attempt to attack the space shuttle Columbia on its launch pad in 2003 because there was an Israeli astronaut aboard, according to a new book by a former CIA operations officer.
Their concern was shared by national security officials in the Bush White House, Richard G. Irwin writes in “KH601,” his memoir of 28 years of CIA service, in which he rose from a low-level security guard to Director of Incident Management in the Bush White House.
The ill-fated Columbia took off without incident but exploded while descending over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven aboard, including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to go into space.
“Many space agency officials feared his presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target," Irwin writes. "Because they were concerned, we became concerned as well."
"There was no concrete evidence," Irwin said in a telephone interview Friday, "but information derived from a 'threat matrix' analysis by U.S. security agencies indicated that the first Israeli on board the shuttle could be a good target for al-Qaeda."
Security was beefed up.
“Nine months earlier …NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe had asked Governor [Tom] Ridge and the new [White House] Office of Homeland Security for assistance in securing the Columbia launch…” Irwin writes.
“In addition to the normal security measures,” Irwin says, the Defense Department provided air cover over the Kennedy Space Center, the Coast Guard put additional patrols in the waters surrounding the Cape Canaveral, and “U.S. Customs promised to place armed helicopters in the air to patrol the skies over the Cape.”
Irwin also recounts a strange premonition about the flight's fate uttered by the Israeli astronaut's youngest son as he watched the last seconds tick down to the launch.
“Goose bumps went up the back of my neck as I overheard the youngest son of Ilan Ramon … say, ‘Farewell, my father. I doubt that I will ever see you again,’ just when there was nine seconds left to lift off,” Irwin writes.
Said Irwin: "I guess he was worried, like any five or six year old, that he might never see his father again when undertaking such a mission."
“KH601,” which refers to Irwin’s badge number, also recounts the CIA officer’s missions in the 1980s in Central America and two decades later in Afghanistan, where he led one of the early agency teams into battle against al-Qaeda.
The book was heavily redacted by CIA censors, he said.
| June 18, 2010; 3:12 PM ET
Categories: Homeland Security | Tags: George W. Bush, Richard G. Irwin, Tom Ridge
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