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FAA got alerts but no blame in attacks

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In April 2000, a man walked into the FBI field office in Newark and gave an extraordinary confession.

He said he was involved in a plot by Osama bin Laden to hijack a Boeing 747. He told agents that he had learned hijacking techniques at a training camp in Pakistan and was meeting five or six other hijackers in the United States who planned to overpower the plane's crew, according to the report released last week by the congressional panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the summer of 1998, the government had received other warnings about plans to use airplanes for terrorism.

The Federal Aviation Administration got an intelligence report that a group of Arab terrorists planned to get a plane filled with explosives in Libya and fly it into the World Trade Center. U.S. intelligence agencies received a separate report that said bin Laden might try to fly an explosive-laden plane into a U.S. airport and detonate it.

Those reports and several others provided lots of clues about the Sept. 11 attacks. So why didn't the FAA or the airlines do more to prevent them?

Officials say some reports were discredited because they could not be corroborated. Some apparently never got to the FAA. Others were dismissed because CIA analysts considered truck and car bombings more likely or because they did not believe hijackers could fly a plane into the U.S. without detection.

Government officials say they alerted the airlines about hijackings and many other possibilities. But those alerts weren't given much urgency because the information was so vague.

The FAA provided 15 "information circulars" about security threats to airlines and airports last year, including at least one that mentions bin Laden. But there were so many that airline officials grew numb to them.

"Those information circulars were always nonspecific, especially to any domestic flight," said John Hotard, a spokesman for American Airlines. "There were also quite a few of them issued, which tended to be somewhat confusing and repetitive."

The FAA also sends "security directives," more urgent messages that require a specific action, but there were only a handful before the attacks. The agency has not said whether any were related to bin Laden or Sept. 11.

The FAA, the primary agency for aviation security until the Transportation Security Agency was created in November, could have ordered precautions such as reinforced cockpit doors, more air marshals or additional scrutiny of certain types of passengers. The agency might also have changed its 30-year-old directions on how pilots handle hijackings, which emphasized cooperation and appeasement.

But there's been virtually no criticism of the FAA. Members of Congress and safety experts who have criticized the agency on other issues say the FAA is not at fault for failing to prevent the attacks.

"It's not their responsibility," said Rep. John Mica, the Orlando area Republican who chairs the House aviation subcommittee. "The FAA is not an intelligence-gathering agency."

Says Douglas Laird, a consultant who formerly headed security for Northwest Airlines, "I don't fault the FAA as much as I fault the intelligence community for not being more forceful with the FAA."

With hindsight, the clues are chilling.

In addition to the much-publicized case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, the congressional report reveals intelligence items that have not been discussed publicly before.

In the Newark case in 2000, the man simply appeared in the FBI office and began spouting details about his involvement in the hijacking plot.

Some details were different from what happened Sept. 11. The man said they would hijack the plane in the United States and try to fly it to Afghanistan. They would blow it up if they were unable to reach that country, he told the agents. The man passed a polygraph test, but the FBI was unable to verify his story or identify others involved in the plot.

Likewise, the CIA told the FBI and FAA in 1998 about the tip that Arabs might fly a plane from Libya into the World Trade Center. CIA analysts regarded the tip as far-fetched, according to a U.S. intelligence official, but passed it on because of the high-profile target.

The tip had no connection to al-Qaida or bin Laden. The FBI and FAA decided the threat was not serious because of doubts that a 747 from Libya could fly undetected into New York.

FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said the agency did the best it could with the information provided by the CIA and FBI.

"We are customers of the intelligence community," Trexler said.

Laird, the former security director at Northwest Airlines, said even if the FAA had more specifics predicting the nature of the attack, the airlines would have balked at making costly modifications to cockpit doors. "I'm afraid everybody has responsibility for this one," he said. "We're all guilty to some degree."

The Air Transport Association, the main airline trade group, says it is satisfied that the FAA did everything it could.

"The FAA provided the information to us in the best form it was made available to them," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for association. "I don't fault the FAA at all."

-- Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com.

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