Sunday, October 24, 2004

Sam Brinkley on the 9/11 Probe -- January 27, 2004

Online NewsHour: 9/11 Probe -- January 27, 2004: "9/11 PROBE

January 27, 2004
Today the federal commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11 wrapped up two days of testimony on what occurred that day. Terence Smith reports on the findings.

TERENCE SMITH: A simple pocketknife: This is the weapon the 9/11 Commission now believes the hijackers used on all four flights.
SPOKESMAN: Our best working hypothesis is they were carrying were carrying permissible -- under the regulation in place at the time -- permissible utility knives or pocket knives. We know at least two knives like this were actually purchased by the hijackers and have not been found in the belongings the hijackers left behind.

TERENCE SMITH: Commission staffer William Johnstone said such knives were not on the list of banned items at the time.

WILLIAM JOHNSTONE: Mace, pepper spray and tear gas were categorized in the operations guide as hazardous materials, and passengers were not allowed to take items in this category onto an airplane without the express permission of the airline. On the other hand, pocket utility knives, which were defined as those with less than a four-inch blade, were expressly allowed onto aircraft.

TERENCE SMITH: Those knives were part of a U.S. air security and inspection system that failed to stop a single hijacker. And that, said Johnstone, was part of the terrorists' plan.

WILLIAM JOHNSTONE: All 19 hijackers were able to pass successfully through checkpoint screening to board their flights. They were 19-for-19, 100 percent. They counted on beating a weak system.

TERENCE SMITH: Later, Commissioner Slade Gorton asked Jane Garvey about the knife policy. Garvey headed the Federal Aviation Administration the day of the attacks.

JANE GARVEY: If you go back to 9/11 and you think about the atmosphere in an airport, there were ... knives were very commonplace. Knives were used as part of a meal service in the airlines. If you were to stop at a security or a souvenir shop even beyond the secure area, it is possible that you could purchase a pocket knife and so forth.

From the security intelligence experts, from the law enforcement people, the greater threats as has been indicated even by the staff report, the greater threats were from larger, more lethal weapons and from explosives. Clearly with the benefit of hindsight as you pointed out we have a different view.

TERENCE SMITH: The commission's air security criticisms are part of its newly released staff reports, the first reports since the commission began its work last year. Yesterday, staff executive director Philip Zelikow described how the terrorists also exploited weaknesses in the U.S. immigration system.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: The 9/11 hijackers included among them known al-Qaida operatives, who could have been watch-listed, presented passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner, presented passports with suspicious indicators of extremism, made detectable false statements on their visa applications.

TERENCE SMITH: Also testifying: A U.S. customs agent at the Orlando airport, Jose Melendez- Perez. In August 2001, the agent refused entry to passenger Mohammed al-Qahtani. U.S. officials now think hijacker Mohammed Atta was at the airport waiting to meet al-Qahtani, a man who may have been the 20th hijacker.

JOSE MELENDEZ-PEREZ: My first question to the subject through the interpreter was why he was not in possession of a return airline ticket. The subject became visibly upset and in an arrogant and threatening manner, which included pointing his finger at my face and stated he did not know where he was going when he departed the United States. The bottom line, he gave me the chills.

TERENCE SMITH: This afternoon, there was new information on what may have transpired on the hijacked planes. Staff member Sam Brinkley said the attackers apparently took control of the front sections on all four flights.

SAM BRINKLEY: Some of these reports included the presence of mace and/or pepper spray in the cabin, and indications that a passenger had difficulty breathing. We believe this indicates that the terrorist created a sterile area around the cockpit by isolating the passengers and attempting to keep them away from the forward cabin in part by using mace or pepper spray. Pepper spray was found in Atta's checked luggage that was recovered at Logan Airport. The hijackers used the threat of bombs. This was reported for all but Flight 77. They also used announcements reported for Flights 11, 77 and 93 to control the passengers as the aircraft supposedly flew to an airport destination.

TERENCE SMITH: Later, the commission heard a 9/11 phone conversation between Nydia Gonzalez, an American airlines reservations manager, and Betty Ong, an American flight attendant on one of the hijacked planes.

BETTY ONG: My name is Betty Ong. I'm number three on Flight 11. Our number one got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who. We can't even get up to business class right now because nobody can breathe. Our number one is stabbed right now. Our number five. Our first class passengers ... our first class galley flight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. We can't get to the cockpit. The door won't open.

TERENCE SMITH: Gonzalez relayed the conversation to a member of the American Airlines' emergency response team.

NYDIA GONZALEZ: Apparently they might have sprayed something so they're having a hard time breathing or getting in that area. What's going on, Betty? Talk to me. Betty, are you there? Betty? Do you think we lost her? OK, we'll stay open. I think we might have lost her.

TERENCE SMITH: The commission's staff report said the FAA discounted the danger of suicide hijackings because, in agency's words, "There was no indication that any group is currently thinking in that direction.""