Sept. 11 hijackers were searched at Dulles airport

Three set off security alarms

all five received extra scrutiny

Panel criticizes Congress, White House

July 22, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A chilling security video recorded the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, shows that three of five hijackers set off a metal detector at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Airport screeners quickly checked them, apparently found nothing that raised suspicions and allowed the hijackers to board American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon less than 2 1/2 hours later.

All five hijackers aboard Flight 77 were selected for additional security screening, according to a previous report issued by the commission investigating the attacks. Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have piloted the plane, and two others were picked out by a computerized profiling system used by the airlines. The other two were selected because they provided inadequate identification information.

At the time, security procedures did not call for additional searches of passengers or their carry-on luggage. Instead, the hijackers' checked bags were held until it was confirmed that they had boarded the flight. That was to prevent an attacker from planting a bomb and then skipping the flight. The Federal Aviation Administration was not prepared to deal with suicide attackers.

The surveillance tape surfaced on the eve of the release of the Sept. 11 commission report, which found that the hijackers exploited "deep institutional failings within our government" over a long period.

The commission staff had described the Dulles video in detail in a report issued in January, telling how two of the hijackers set off magnetometer alarms and were checked again before being waved through. Minutes later, two more hijackers went through the same checkpoints, one of them again setting off an alarm but being double-checked and allowed to board.

The 575-page report does not directly blame President Bush or former President Bill Clinton for the mistakes and intelligence failures that preceded the attacks, according to administration officials familiar with the panel's findings.

But it is expected to cast a harsh light on the Bush administration, which has been portrayed during commission hearings as distracted by other issues and not focused on the terrorist threat in the months before the attacks.

Anticipating that criticism, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday, "If something had come to our attention that could have helped us prevent the Sept. 11 attacks from happening, the president would have moved heaven and earth."

White House officials and congressional leaders were briefed yesterday on the Sept. 11 commission's findings, and Bush is to receive a copy today.

The report sharply criticizes Congress for failures in its role as overall watchdog of the nation's intelligence apparatus, according to lawmakers and others who were briefed on the panel's findings, officials said. And to help prevent terrorist attacks, the panel will call for wholesale changes in the way lawmakers oversee intelligence and domestic security agencies.

The panel will propose that the House and Senate establish permanent committees on domestic security with jurisdiction over a range of activities that is now spread among dozens of competing committees, officials said.

The report will also recommend that the existing intelligence committees have much broader discretion over intelligence policy and spending while raising the alternative of a joint House-Senate intelligence panel.

Other details emerged about the panel's final report, including a recommendation that the government create a National Counterterrorism Center to absorb many existing operations, including the year-old Terrorism Threat Integration Center housed at the CIA.

Officials also said a proposed new national intelligence director would be subject to Senate confirmation.

In reconstructing the Sept. 11 attacks, the report describes the patience and determination of the hijackers and said they explored weaknesses in airline and border procedures, even taking test flights to see when cockpit doors were open.

But as the grainy video aired last night on television networks shows, the hijackers - despite their precautions - attracted the attention of authorities only to slip away and continue their mission.

The video shows hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Majed Moqed, dressed conservatively in slacks and collared shirts, entering the security checkpoint at 7:18 a.m. Each of them sets off the metal detector. They are asked to go through again. This time, only Moqed sets off an alarm. He is checked by a screener using a handheld wand. Nothing is found.

The pair were known to travel together and had paid cash for their tickets at the American Airlines counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Sept. 5.

Al-Mihdhar and fellow hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi had been known by the National Security Agency to have ties to al-Qaida since early 1999, and they were put on a terrorism watch list Aug. 24, 2001.

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