Nine Sept. 11 terrorists under scrutiny that day

No explosives in bags, men allowed to board

March 03, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Nine of the 19 terrorists who hijacked four jetliners Sept. 11 had been singled out for special scrutiny that morning under aviation-security guidelines, government officials said yesterday.

But because their baggage contained no explosives, the hijackers were allowed to board. None of the nine were questioned, nor was there any reason for them to be under the standards that existed Sept. 11, the officials said, adding that things might be different if hijackers tried a similar plan today.

On Sept. 11, two hijacked planes destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another slammed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. Altogether, about 3,000 people were killed.

All that happened even though "the system was working as it was supposed to that day," said an official familiar with aviation regulations. By that, she meant that the system was geared to prevent bombs from being smuggled on board in luggage.

"It's the Pan Am 103 mentality," Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, said yesterday, referring to the bombing of that flight over Scotland in December 1988. Mica is chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The suspicions and searches of Sept. 11 were first reported in The Washington Post yesterday. Although details were sketchy, they seemed to tell a story not of ineptitude but of security procedures circumvented by terrorist tactics.

Six of the nine hijackers had been picked out for scrutiny because they met criteria set by the Federal Aviation Administration calling for their checked-in luggage to be examined by explosive-detecting devices or searched by hand. The other three drew attention because of irregularities in their tickets or identification documents, the officials said.

But because their baggage passed inspection and the document irregularities were apparently minor -- and because airport security workers did not know that two of the 19 were wanted by the FBI as suspected terrorists -- the deadly plot was carried out to near-perfection.

The only "disappointment," from the terrorists' point of view, was that the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, apparently after the hijackers struggled with passengers, rather than striking some landmark. The hijackers did not use firearms, which might have been detected, but apparently wielded box-cutter knives of the type that were then allowed on board but are now banned.

One official said she did not know which of the 19 men were selected and at which airports. The jets that toppled the twin towers took off from Logan International at Boston; the one that struck the Pentagon took off from Dulles just outside Washington, and the jet that crashed in Pennsylvania left from Newark International.

The agency is reluctant to talk about the criteria that led to the inspection of baggage, but some of them have become well known -- paying for a ticket with cash instead of a credit card, or buying a one-way ticket to a far-off destination, for instance. Investigators have said that at least some of the Sept. 11 hijackers paid cash for one-way tickets.

Since Sept. 11, the FAA has broadened its criteria for selecting passengers whose luggage should be inspected. It has also broadened the standards for passengers to be given extra searches at gates, over and above the standard walk-through. Under today's standards, all 19 hijackers would meet the criteria for extra scrutiny, said the official familiar with aviation security. Congress has also approved stricter requirements for security personnel.

But the official and Mica agreed that the hijackings also showed the need for agencies to share intelligence and computer information.

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