FAA had warnings before Sept. 11 on possible attacks

Report says officials failed to heed terrorist threat

February 10, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - In the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal aviation officials reviewed dozens of intelligence reports that warned about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, some of which specifically discussed airline hijackings and suicide operations, according to a previously undisclosed report from the Sept. 11 commission.

But aviation officials were "lulled into a false sense of security," and "intelligence that indicated a real and growing threat leading up to 9/11 did not stimulate significant increases in security procedures," the commission report concluded.

The report discloses that the Federal Aviation Administration, despite being focused on risks of hijackings overseas, warned airports in the spring of 2001 that if "the intent of the hijacker is not to exchange hostages for prisoners, but to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, a domestic hijacking would probably be preferable."

The report takes the FAA to task for failing to pursue domestic security measures that could have altered the events of Sept. 11, 2001, such as toughening airport screening procedures for weapons or expanding the use of air marshals. The report, completed in August, said officials appeared more concerned with reducing airline congestion, cutting delays and easing airlines' financial woes than with deterring a terrorist attack.

The Bush administration has blocked the public release of the full classified version of the report for more than five months, officials said, much to the frustration of former commission members who say it provides a critical understanding of the failures of the civil aviation system.

The administration provided both the classified report and a declassified, 120-page version to the National Archives two weeks ago and, even with heavy redactions in some areas, the declassified version provides the firmest evidence to date about the warnings that aviation officials received concerning the threat of an attack on airliners and the failure to take steps to deter it.

Among other things, the report says that leaders of the FAA received 52 intelligence reports from its security branch that mentioned bin Laden or al-Qaida from April to Sept. 10, 2001. That represented half of all the intelligence summaries in that time.

Five of the intelligence reports specifically mentioned al-Qaida's training or ability to conduct hijackings, the report said. Two mentioned suicide operations, although not connected to aviation, the report said.

A spokeswoman for the FAA, the agency that bears the brunt of the commission's criticism, said yesterday that the agency was well aware of the threat posed by terrorists before Sept. 11 and took substantive steps to counter it, including the expanded use of explosives detection units.

"We had a lot of information about threats," said the spokeswoman, Laura J. Brown. "But we didn't have specific information about means or methods that would have enabled us to tailor any countermeasures."

She added: "After 9/11, the FAA and the entire aviation community took bold steps to improve aviation security, such as fortifying cockpit doors on 6,000 airplanes, and those steps took hundreds of millions of dollars to implement."

The report, like previous commission documents, finds no evidence that the government had specific warning of a domestic attack and says that the aviation industry considered the hijacking threat to be more worrisome overseas.

"The fact that the civil aviation system seems to have been lulled into a false sense of security is striking not only because of what happened on 9/11 but also in light of the intelligence assessments, including those conducted by the FAA's own security branch, that raised alarms about the growing terrorist threat to civil aviation throughout the 1990s and into the new century," the report said.

In its previous findings, including a final report last July that became a best-selling book, the 9/11 commission detailed the harrowing events aboard the four flights that crashed on Sept. 11 and the communications problems between civil aviation and military officials that hampered the response. But the new report goes further in revealing the scope and depth of intelligence collected by federal aviation officials about the threat of a terrorist attack.

The FAA "had indeed considered the possibility that terrorists would hijack a plane and use it as a weapon," and in 2001 it distributed a CD-ROM presentation to air carriers and airports that cited the possibility of a suicide hijacking, the report said. Previous commission documents have quoted the CD's reassurance that "fortunately, we have no indication that any group is currently thinking in that direction."

Aviation officials amassed so much information about the growing threat posed by terrorists that they conducted classified briefings in mid-2001 for security officials at 19 of the nation's busiest airports to warn of the threat posed in particular by bin Laden, the report said.

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