NASA feared Al-Qaeda attack on 2003 Columbia space shuttle launch

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Washington, June 19(ANI): A new book by a former CIA operations officer has revealed that NASA officials worried that Al-Qaeda might attempt to attack the Columbia space shuttle on its launch pad in 2003 because there was an Israeli astronaut aboard.

Richard G. Irwin, in his memoir of 28 years of CIA service 'KH601', writes that the NASA officials' concern were also shared by national security officials in the White House.

Columbia took off without incident, but exploded while descending over Texas on February 1, 2003, killing all seven aboard, including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to go into space.

"Many space agency officials feared his (Ramon's) presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target," The Washington Post quoted Irwin, as having written in his memoir.

"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, " it added.

Meanwhile, in a telephone interview Irwin said that because the NASA officials were concerned, "we became concerned as well".

"There was no concrete evidence, 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," Irwin said.

"In addition to the normal security measures, 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," he added.

"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. (ANI)

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