POSTED: 8:12 a.m. HST, Sep 10, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 9:25 a.m. HST, Sep 10, 2011
TOKYO — An air traffic controller at Haneda Airport posted secret Air Force One flight plans for U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan in November on his personal Web site, according to government sources.
The security breach, which one Defense Ministry official described as “terrible,” could possibly require Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to apologize to Obama when they meet this month in New York.
The air traffic controller, in his 50s, posted 12 images on his blog, including images believed to have been photographed at a control room and a radar room. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry is investigating the case.
According to the ministry, two images showed computer screens displaying aircraft flight plans. A government source said an aircraft identification number on one image indicated the flight plan was for Air Force One on Obama’s flight to Japan from Seoul on Nov. 12 to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Yokohama.
The air traffic controller was quoted by the ministry as saying: “I took photos of my workplace and computers with my digital camera. I posted the photos on my blog several days after taking the photos.
“I wanted to show the photos to my friends and acquaintances.”
However, it would have been technically possible to post the photos on his blog almost immediately by using a mobile phone.
The other flight plan was for a U.S. warplane, believed to be a Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft, the source said. The aircraft has been occasionally flying over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to collect information since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear crisis there. The flight information included scheduled takeoff and landing locations, flight paths and altitudes.
Also posted on the controller’s Web site were three images of radar screens showing aircraft flight routes. The images had no captions and have been deleted from the blog, the ministry said.
According to the Civil Aeronautics Law, aircraft operators must submit flight plans to air traffic control and obtain approval before flying. During flights, air traffic controllers confirm flight plan information displayed on computer screens, such as flight routes and aircraft altitude, to ensure air traffic flows smoothly and safely.
Once an aircraft completes its flight, the plans are blocked from appearing on computer screens.
“I believe the photos were taken during flights and just before landing,” a senior transport ministry said.
According to the ministry, flight plans should be kept secret for flight security, such as preventing terrorist attacks.
The controller said he launched the blog in 2001, according to the ministry.
All 12 images were believed to have been taken in the airport’s control room and radar room. Aviation regulations prohibit taking photos in these rooms.
Some pictures showed his colleagues making phone calls and checking computer screens in the rooms. One image that showed the controller in a radar room apparently was taken by a colleague.
“The movements of Air Force One have never been made public, even in the United States,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “It’s terrible that such important information has been leaked online.”
“Prime Minister Noda will need to apologize to President Obama at a Japan-U.S. summit meeting,” a senior government official said.
The leaders are next scheduled to hold talks in New York on Sept. 21.
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Yoshitomo Aoki, a commentator on aviation and military affairs, said flight plans are usually stored on computers and it is easy for air traffic controllers to access this information.
“It’s difficult to predict government plane schedules. If terrorists could obtain flight plans, it would be easier for them to plan attacks on the planes,” he said.
“With this incident, other countries will perceive Japan to be a country that leaks important information easily to others. It will likely erode other nations’ trust in Japan. I can’t believe the air traffic controller’s lack of awareness as a government official,” he added.
The air traffic controller has been working at Haneda Airport since October 1981.
Experienced controllers are usually deployed at Haneda Airport because its skies and runways are often crowded.
According to the transport ministry, the controller has never been moved to other airports.
A senior ministry official said: “I’ve heard the ministry refrained from transferring him to other airports after he strongly requested to stay (at Haneda). This is unusual — air traffic controllers are often moved from one airport to another.”
“It’s possible his colleagues felt unable to express their opinions against someone who had worked there for so long, which could have become the underlying cause of this information leak,” he said.