Fear of Flying


The staff report from the 9-11 Commission, declassified last week, raises the curtain on a Federal Aviation Administration whose disregard for security is downright ludicrous. Employees of the FAA had been warning for years of the disaster waiting to happen. The FAA’s top management not only ignored the warnings, but took steps to make sure the people issuing them shut up.

According to the staff report, in 2001 the agency’s security division prepared 105 intelligence summaries for the top brass between April 1 and September 10. Nearly half these mentioned Osama bin Laden by name, but for the most part the summaries said the threats were aimed at targets overseas. Of the 52 notices that mentioned Bin Laden, five discussed terrorists either training for hijackings or already having the capability to carry them out. Two talked about suicide operations, but not having to do with planes. One summary discussed defensive measures being undertaken at Genoa for the G8 summit.

The response of the FAA pooh-bahs to the commission staff’s inquiries is mystifying. “[FAA] Administrator [Jane] Garvey told the Commission that she was aware of the heightened threat during the summer of 2001,” says the staff report. “However, both FAA Deputy Administrator Monte Belger and his assistant told us in separate interviews that they were unaware of the threat posed by Usama bin Ladin and al Qaeda prior to September 11, 2001.” Is this just another case of high government officials botching the job, or is someone lying?

Long before the latest report was released, the FAA had been considered among the weakest of the “independent” regulatory agencies. After the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the feds sought to improve security, but the major carriers opposed most measures on the grounds that they were unnecessary, cost too much, and discomfited passengers. Time and again over the last decade, efforts were made to persuade the airlines to reinforce cockpit doors, but to no avail. In an ominous warning of things to come, an internal report from the early 1990s said, “Small knives (blade length of four inches or less), the most frequently employed weapon to hijack aircraft (in the U.S.), were used in three incidents.” Yet they remained legal to bring onboard, and were used by the 9-11 hijackers.

Another 1993 report showed that in a test, people without authorization broke through the San Francisco airport security system three out of five times—a failure rate of 60 percent. By 1998, out of 450 attempts by the so-called Red Team to breach security at the same airport, 446 succeeded—a failure rate of 99.11 percent. Testers in 1996 at the Frankfurt airport, where the bomb was placed on Pan Am Flight 103, broke through security in 13 out of 13 tries. The situation was so embarrassing that the FAA security chief ordered the group to end its mission, leaving the job of improving security in the hands of the airlines.

In exasperation, Red Team leader Bogdan Dzakovic went over his supervisors and, citing the numerous failures in the system, pleaded with Administrator Jane Garvey. “The U.S. faces a potential tidal wave of terrorist attacks,” he wrote. Garvey never replied.

One internal airline memo accurately described the results investigators had been getting: “They managed to get by passenger X-ray screening repeatedly (7 times), having on them a gun sealed under their belt-buckle. Also, having an automatic Mac machine gun under their jacket on their back.” The team “repeatedly” succeeded in getting a laptop with a gun inside through screening. They readily entered airline private lounges and put dummy bombs in passengers’ carry-on luggage. They snuck with ease onto Skychef food trucks and put bombs in the food containers, receiving only a cheery “hello” from the drivers—if one happened to be awake.

The Red Team renegades wanted people at the FAA or the Department of Transportation, its parent, to pay attention to what was going on, meeting with the chief criminal investigator for DOT. According to fellow Red Team leader Steve Elson, that man would say only, “The whole FAA is so corrupt, I don’t know where to begin.”

Dzakovic and Elson took the case to the media, with one TV station after another carrying the story. In April 2001, Deborah Sherman of Boston’s Fox News conducted her own investigation of Boston’s Logan Airport and repeatedly broke through security. Her probe apparently coincided with a similar one by Mohammed Atta, who at the time was conducting surveillance of Logan in planning the 9-11 attack. A tape of the program was hand-delivered to the office of Senator John Kerry. There was no response.

After 9-11, the Red Team was disbanded. Dzakovic got whistle-blower status and continues to speak out on the issue. Elson quit in disgust and went back to school.

The 9-11 gun

The serious government interest in 9-11 now is not who is to be held responsible but how to make sure the airlines get off the hook. Shortly after the attack, the companies turned to Capitol Hill for a bailout. Now they are faced with lawsuits from victims’ families, and a key question will be whether any of the hijackers had smuggled a gun aboard one of the planes. It’s one thing to move through security with a legal box cutter in a pocket—quite another to make it through with a firearm. The presence of a gun would clearly illustrate a lack of security. And if a gun had been planted aboard a plane, it could be an indication that Al Qaeda had breached our security system even further than previously supposed.

On 9-11, in the hours after the attacks, the FAA issued an executive summary of what went on aboard Flight 11, which hit the World Trade Center. “At approximately 9:18 a.m., it was reported that the two crew members in the cockpit were stabbed. The flight then descended with no communication from the flight crew members,” the report read. “The American Airlines FAA Principal Security Inspector (PSI) was notified by Suzanne Clark of American Airlines Corporate Headquarters that an onboard flight attendant contacted American Airlines Operations Center and informed them that a passenger in seat 10B had shot and killed a passenger in seat 9B at 9:20 a.m. The passenger killed was Daniel Lewin, shot by passenger Satam al Suqami. One bullet was reported to have been fired.”

That afternoon, say Dzakovic and Elson, an FAA security officer in Washington saw the word “gun” on a bulletin board set up to keep staff members abreast of what was going on in the agency’s command center. The FAA subsequently changed its report, removing the reference to a gun, and the 9-11 Commission concluded there had never been one.

However, on Flight 93, passenger Tom Burnett, a medical executive, had called his wife, Deena, and, in one version of the call, said, “They’ve already knifed a guy. There is a bomb on board. Call the FBI.” Deena immediately called emergency officials. Another version of the call had Burnett saying, “One of them has a gun.” Tom’s call to Deena was not recorded, but Deena’s call for help was; on the tape, she says Tom told her: “They just knifed a passenger and there are guns on the plane.” Deena later told the London Times, “He told me one of the hijackers had a gun. He wouldn’t have made it up. Tom grew up around guns. He was an avid hunter and we have guns in our home. If he said there was a gun on board, there was.”

The Rushdie connection

The FAA maintains it had no foreknowledge of an attack by Al Qaeda within the U.S., but there is a continuing series of suggestions that the federal authorities, including the FAA, did in fact know something was about to happen.

One little noticed example concerned novelist Salman Rushdie, who told the London Times after 9-11 that he believed U.S. authorities had known of an imminent terrorist strike when they banned him from taking domestic flights in Canada and the U.S. shortly before the attacks. According to the Times account, the FAA made an emergency ruling on September 3, 2001, to prevent Rushdie from flying unless the airline adopted new and costly security measures. The airline refused. The author’s publisher said it was told by the FAA that U.S. intelligence had given a warning of “something out there,” but gave no details. The FAA confirmed it had stepped up security measures around Rushdie, but would not say why.

Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti