WASHINGTON — Nine of the 19 hijackers responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks were flagged that morning by a computerized airline passenger screening system as being a potential threat to U.S. aircraft, a federal panel investigating the attacks said Tuesday. However, because the system was meant to alert officials to threats from explosives in checked baggage, not the passengers themselves, none of the nine flagged as potential threats were physically inspected or questioned before boarding the plane, the panel said.
The computerized system, known as CAPPS (computer assisted passenger prescreening system) “did nothing to alert people at the checkpoints,” Cathal Flynn, former FAA associate administrator of civil aviation security, said during testimony before the commission Tuesday. The system, “doesn’t lead to identification of any persons as terrorists,” Flynn said.
The CAPPS system is slated for an overhaul and this summer a prototype of the new system, CAPPS II, which draws information from various public and private databases to better flag potential threats to airline security, will be tested by the Transportation Security Administration. The system is controversial and has drawn criticism from privacy advocates because of the amount of personal information it uses from private databases to help profile passengers.
CAPPS II “will replace a system that is compromised, broken, if you will,” said James Loy, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, “with all the privacy concerns addressed.”
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, dubbed the “9/11 Commission,” said Tuesday that as early as 1998 the FAA’s Office of Civil Aviation Security considered the possibility of suicide hijackings by terrorists, either flying a plane into a building or crashing one into an airport. Previously the commissioned disclosed that the National Intelligence Council, in 1999, also warned that terrorists might use airplanes in suicide missions.
Administration officials insisted for months after the attacks that the U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement agencies had been blind-sided because there was never any indication that such suicide attacks were possible.
The panel Tuesday said that by early 2001 the FAA discounted the likelihood of such attacks, thinking that a bomb smuggled onto a plane in checked luggage was a bigger risk.
“The notion of a fully fledged member of al-Qaida being a pilot and pulling people out of the cockpit didn’t occur to me,” Flynn said, adding that not giving such a scenario more thought “is my regret.”
The commission acknowledged Tuesday that prior to the 9/11 incident no specific intelligence had been gathered to indicate a specific or credible threat but still held the FAA accountable for making contingency plans to deal with such a situation.
"Without actionable intelligence information, to uncover and interdict a terrorist plot in the planning stages ... it was up to the other layers of aviation security to counter the threat," the report said.
The commission also was told that the FBI had discounted the threat of terrorists’ using airplanes in suicide missions.
“The FBI actually ran those two [suicide terrorist] threats to ground and discredited them,” said Claudio Manno, assistant administrator for intelligence at the Transportation Security Administration. “They told us that it was not credible.”
FBI 'blind spot'
Such input from the FBI highlighted a “blind spot,” as one commissioner called it, in the FAA’s ability to assess a terrorist threat because of reluctance by the FBI to interact with the FAA.
“I did insist on getting better information, and I got to the point where I was running a risk of making them [the FBI] angry,” Flynn said Tuesday, adding that his pushing and prodding the bureau for more information “was clearly irritating them.”
Manno said the FAA was getting more information out of the CIA and the State Department in 2001 than the FBI. The FBI “could tell us what’s happening on a street in Kabul” but couldn’t tell them “what’s going on in Atlanta,” Manno said.
But Manno softened his critique of the FBI by noting that in 2001 the bureau was “primarily an investigative unit” and that “if they came across something they assessed to be specific and credible in their investigations, we were fairly confident they would provide that to us.”
Another communication rift occurred between lists kept by the FAA and the State Department of persons known to be of such significant risk to commercial aviation that they are automatically banned from flying. The State Department’s list contained 61,000 names, the commission noted Tuesday, while the entire “no fly” list of the FAA was comprised of a dozen people.
“I can’t understand why there aren’t more efforts … to reach out to the State Department and start to bring those names over and keep those people from flying,” said Commissioner Timothy Roemer.
“A lot of times the information was classified and it was simply very difficult to get clearance … to get that information,” Manno said. “Did we go and say we want all 61,000 of these names? No we didn’t do that,” Manno said.
Visa red flags
The 10-member, bipartisan commission was established by Congress to study the nation’s preparedness before Sept. 11 and its response to the attacks, and to make recommendations for guarding against similar disasters.
On Monday, the first day of a two-day public hearing, the commission said U.S. authorities missed some obvious signs that might have prevented some of the Sept. 11 hijackers from entering the country.
Government officials have said the 19 hijackers entered the country legally, but the panel said its investigation found at least two and as many as eight had fraudulent visas. The commission also found examples in which U.S. officials had contact with the hijackers but failed to adequately investigate suspicious behavior.
For example, Saeed al Ghamdi was referred to immigration inspection officials in June 2001 after he didn’t provide an address on his customs form and had only a one-way plane ticket and about $500. Al Ghamdi was able to persuade the inspector that he was a tourist.
The panel also found that at least six of the hijackers violated immigration laws by overstaying their visas or failing to attend the English language school for which their visas were issued.
And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, exploited the fact that customs officers did not routinely collect fingerprints to obtain a visa, even though federal authorities in New York indicted him in 1996 for his role in earlier terrorist plots. He never entered the country and was apprehended after the attacks.
The commission said part of the problem was a lack of coordination among immigration officials and a focus on keeping out illegal immigrants rather than keeping out potential terrorists.
The commission detailed other government missteps prior to September 2001:
- Three of the hijackers, al Ghamdi, Khalid al Mihdhar and Hani Hanjour, submitted visa applications with false statements about never previously applying for a visa, something that could have been easily checked.
- One hijacker, Ziad Jarrah, entered the United States in June 2000 on a tourist visa and then enrolled in flight school for six months. He never filed an application to change his status from tourist to student. Had the immigration officials known, it could have denied him entry on three subsequent trips.
Also Monday, the commission said it can’t finish its final report by the May 27 deadline imposed by Congress and asked for an extension of at least two months. The Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders have said they oppose such a move.
Commissioners decided they needed more time because the group had been bogged down by disputes with the administration and New York City authorities over access to documents and witnesses, according to a person familiar with the commission who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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