5 hijackers flew despite red flags

January 28, 2004|By Tom Brune | Tom Brune,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - By 7:35 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, all five hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77 had been tagged by a passenger pre-screening program as "a risk to aircraft safety," and four had set off magnetometer alarms at airport checkpoints, according to staff reports presented yesterday to the independent 9/11 panel.

But even after those red flags and further screening at Dulles Airport in Virginia, all five were allowed to board Flight 77, which they hijacked with box cutters and pepper spray and then crashed into the Pentagon.

The story of Flight 77 reveals an aviation security system that was too easily defeated and too rooted in assumptions that screening should be for explosives and weapons and that suicidal hijackings were not likely, the staff reported.

Among the problems:

The no-fly list circulated among the airlines included only 12 names on Sept. 11, 2001, compared with 61,000 on the State Department's TIPOFF suspected terrorist database. It also did not include the names of the two hijackers that appeared on a separate intelligence watch list.

The federally approved computer-assisted passenger pre-screening program identified nearly half the 19 hijackers as flight risks - the five on Flight 77 and four others - but that meant only that their luggage would be screened for explosives.

Magnetometers set off alarms for four hijackers at Dulles, but none of the screeners apparently found any banned weapons, such as a knife with a blade more than 4 inches long.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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