The 10-member independent commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks
has been revealing details of a report it plans to issue later this year. In
a second day of hearings Tuesday, commission members, former government and aviation
officials, and airline representatives, described a system unprepared for the
events that unfolded before and on September 11.
The 19 hijackers who took over four commercial airliners on September 11
had carefully studied gaps in security, especially weaknesses in pre-boarding
screening at airports.
In the months before the attacks, the hijackers staged rehearsals, boarding
U.S. domestic flights to ensure that their plan would work. Commission staff
member Bill Johnstone recalls the result. "All 19 hijackers were able to pass
successfully through checkpoint screening to board their flights," he said. "They
were 19 for 19, 100 percent. They counted on beating a weak system."
Before September 11, regulations were in force that prevented knives more
than four inches in length from being carried in aircraft.
However, smaller knives were permitted. In perhaps the most chilling part
of Tuesday's hearing, a sharp silver metal folding knife called a "Leatherman" was
passed down the line of commissioners, described here by commission member
Richard Ben Veniste.
"We've seen this morning, this 'Leatherman' tool which contains blades of
four inches, and which has the ability to lock into place," he said.
Commission investigators say that before September 11, two hijackers purchased
such knives which were not later found in belongings left behind.
Former FAA administrator Jane Garvey, said aviation security had focused
on threats to international flights. The hijackers, she added, took advantage
of previously-held assumptions:
"These [assumptions] included the fact that politically-motivated hijackers
would release passengers after landing at a safe haven, and that together with
such hijackings, explosives presented the biggest threat to the system," she
said. "The events of September 11 certainly challenged those assumptions. A
system that had proven effective for the preceding 10 years could no longer
be relied upon."
While there were growing concerns about threats to domestic aircraft, Jane
Garvey said the FAA did not have credible or specific information indicating
the type of attack on September 11 was being planned or even possible.
A preliminary report released by the commission this week contains information
that appears to contradict accepted views of how the hijackers entered the
Passports used by as many as eight of the men, according to the commission, "showed
evidence of fraudulent manipulation." Investigators identified at least one
suspected al-Qaida member who may have intended to join the September 11 attacks
but was turned away by an alert immigration inspector.
On Tuesday, Claudio Manno, who was in charge of intelligence in the FAA at
the time of the September 11 attacks, pointed to one weakness in the system
at the time. "Prior to September 11, 2001 FAA did not receive a daily flow
of raw reports and finished intelligence from the FBI," he said.
In the most riveting moment of this seventh hearing of the commission, recordings
were played for the first time of telephone conversations between Betty Ong,
a flight attendant aboard Flight 11, one of the hijacked aircraft, and the
ground: "[I'm] number three in the back, the cockpit is not answering, somebody
is stabbed in business class, and I think there is mace, that we can't breathe.
I don't know, I think we're getting hijacked," she said.
One of the airline representatives on the ground speaking with Betty Ong
was Nydia Gonzalez. "Betty, we are here to commemorate you," she said. "Your
acts of courage on September 11th will never be forgotten."
Members of the commission and the public were visibly shaken after the recordings
were played in the hearing room.
This week's public hearing was the seventh of the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, referred to as the 9-11 Commission.
"The airlines were responsible for the safety of their passengers, and for
implementing key aspects of the civil aviation security system," said Commission
chairman, Thomas Keane. "On September 11, that system failed and we are charged
by statute to find out why."
However, the job of the commission created by Congress in 2002, has not been
easy. The Bush administration initially opposed it, and investigators have
had trouble obtaining some of the classified information they have sought.
Commission members are pushing for an extension of a May 27 deadline for
issuing of the final report.