FAA Was Alerted on al Qaeda in 1998, 9/11 Commission Concluded

New York Times

American aviation officials were warned as early as 1998 that Al Qaeda could “seek to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark,” according to previously secret portions of a report prepared last year by the Sept. 11 commission. The officials also realized months before the Sept. 11 attacks that two of the three airports used in the hijackings had suffered repeated security lapses.

    Federal Aviation Administration officials were also warned in 2001 in a report prepared for the agency that airport screeners’ ability to detect possible weapons had “declined significantly” in recent years, but little was done to remedy the problem, the Sept. 11 commission found.

    The White House and many members of the commission, which has completed its official work, have been battling for more than a year over the release of the commission’s report on aviation failures, which was completed in August 2004.

    A heavily redacted version was released by the Bush administration in January, but commission members complained that the deleted material contained information critical to the public’s understanding of what went wrong on Sept. 11. In response, the administration prepared a new public version of the report, which was posted Tuesday on the National Archives Web site.

    While the new version still blacks out numerous references to particular shortcomings in aviation security, it restores dozens of other portions of the report that the administration had been considered too sensitive for public release.

    The newly disclosed material follows the basic outline of what was already known about aviation failings, namely that the F.A.A. had ample reason to suspect that Al Qaeda might try to hijack a plane yet did little to deter it. But it also adds significant details about the nature and specificity of aviation warnings over the years, security lapses by the government and the airlines, and turf battles between federal agencies.

    Some of the details were in confidential bulletins circulated by the agency to airports and airlines, and some were in its internal reports.

    “While we still believe that the entire document could be made available to the public without damaging national security, we welcome this step forward,” the former leaders of the commission, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, said in a joint statement. “The additional detail provided in this version of the monograph will make a further contribution to the public record of the facts and circumstances of the 9/11 attacks established by the final report of the 9/11 commission.”

    Bush administration officials said they had worked at the commission’s request to restore much of the material that had been blacked out in the original report. “Out of an abundance of caution, there are a variety of reasons why the U.S. government would not want to disclose certain security measures and not make them available in the public domain for terrorists to exploit,” said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

    Commission officials said they were perplexed by the administration’s original attempts to black out material they said struck them as trivial or mundane.

    One previously deleted section showed, for instance, that flights carrying the author Salman Rushdie were subjected to heightened security in the summer of 2001 because of a fatwa of violence against him, while a previously deleted footnote showed that “sewing scissors” would be allowed in the hands of a woman with sewing equipment, but prohibited “in the possession of a man who possessed no other sewing equipment.”

    Other deletions, however, highlighted more serious security concerns. A footnote that was originally deleted from the report showed that a quarter of the security screeners used in 2001 by Argenbright Security for United Airlines flights at Dulles Airport had not completed required criminal background checks, the commission report said. Another previously deleted footnote, related to the lack of security for cockpit doors, criticized American Airlines for security lapses.

    Much of the material now restored in the public version of the commission’s report centered on the warnings the F.A.A. received about the threat of hijackings, including 52 intelligence documents in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks that mentioned Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden.

    A 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, a report prepared by intelligence officials, “highlighted the growing domestic threat of terrorist attack, including a risk to civil aviation,” the commission found in a blacked-out portion of the report.

    And in 1998 and 1999, the commission report said, the F.A.A.’s intelligence unit produced reports about the hijacking threat posed by Al Qaeda, “including the possibility that the terrorist group might try to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark.”

    The unit considered this prospect “unlikely” and a “last resort,” with a greater threat of a hijacking overseas, the commission found.

    Still, in 2000, the commission said, the F.A.A. warned carriers and airports that while political conditions in the 1990’s had made a terrorist seizure of an airliner less likely, “we believe that the situation has changed.”

    “We assess that the prospect for terrorist hijacking has increased and that U.S. airliners could be targeted in an attempt to obtain the release of indicted or convicted terrorists imprisoned in the United States.”

    It concluded, however, that such a hijacking was more likely outside the United States.

    By September 2001 the F.A.A. was receiving some 200 pieces a day of intelligence from other agencies about possible threats, and it had opened more than 1,200 files to track possible threats, the commission found.

    The commission found that F.A.A. officials were repeatedly warned about security lapses before Sept. 11 and, despite their increased concerns about a hijacking, allowed screening performance to decline significantly.

    While box cutters like those used by the hijackers were not necessarily a banned item before Sept. 11, some security experts have said that tougher screening and security could have detected the threat the hijackers posed. But screening measures at two of the three airports used by the hijackers – Logan in Boston and Dulles near Washington – were known to be inadequate, the commission found. Reviews at Newark airport also found some security violations, but it was the only one of the three airports used on Sept. 11 that met or exceeded national norms.

    Richard Ben-Veniste, a former member of the Sept. 11 commission, said the release of the material more than a year after it was completed underscored the over-classification of federal material. “It’s outrageous that it has taken the administration a year since this monograph was submitted for it to be released,” he said. “There’s no reason it could not have been released earlier.”

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