Circular Logic

While all the media heat has lately been on the FBI and CIA, Osama bin Laden surely has another federal agency on his thank-you card list: the Federal Aviation Administration. To pull off the September 11 attacks, the terrorists needed an easy mark, and thanks to the FAA, they got one.

The agency charged with safeguarding airports and civil aviation was plenty nervous about terrorism. Classified documents that I've obtained from a federal law-enforcement source prove this. The FAA, however, didn't act on its concerns and, worse, failed to comply with President Bill Clinton's sweeping orders to improve air security in 1997. The sad truth is that, had the FAA done even a barely passable job rather than pander to the industry it is supposed to regulate, the World Trade Center might -- just might -- still be standing.

Let's start with what the agency knew before September 11. While that question may take years to answer fully, I've obtained a few clues. Shortly after the attack, a federal law-enforcement officer supplied me with an FAA "information circular" -- a classified warning issued to security personnel at airports and airlines. In the document, which was issued December 8, 1998, the FAA warned that terrorists might be planning "a hijacking at a metropolitan airport in the eastern United States" in retaliation for missile strikes against al-Qaeda forces in Sudan and Afghanistan. I reported this on September 20, but the news was basically ignored until the media's recent bull rush on pre-September 11 intelligence. Two weeks ago, the 1998 circular made the Associated Press wire and the front pages of the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

Three additional circulars, supplied to me by the same confidential source, provide new information about the agency's old concerns. In one dated April 17, 1996, the FAA warned that the Iranian-backed terror group Hizballah and its "suicide schools" were possibly planning attacks on the United States. The group, according to the circular, has a history of "virulent anti-American terrorism, including some of the worst assaults against civil aviation during the 1980s." The circular ends with the vague statement that there is no "specific or credible information to indicate that U.S. civil aviation has been targeted." Perfect government doublespeak -- be afraid, but the fear is not credible. And, most important, don't feel compelled to actually do anything about those nonfears. I'm surprised they didn't add a line encouraging security guards to go shopping.

Another circular, issued May 13, 1996, cautioned that terrorists were likely planning U.S. terror attacks in retaliation for the incarceration of Musa Abu Marzuq, a leader of the Palestinian terror group Hamas. Again, the FAA noted there was no "specific or credible" threat to civil aviation but added that "we cannot discount the possibility of random acts of anti-American violence."

Two months later, on July 18, 1996, the FAA issued yet a third secret warning: Suspected terrorists might be testing airport security both in the United States and abroad. Three "suspicious" incidents involving U.S. flights from "major European airports" had occurred that year. In the first one, a man told screeners that his father had worked at the Iranian embassy and offered his bags to be searched. Strange indeed. While authorities looked through his luggage, which contained an "unusual assortment of items, including electronic equipment," two of the man's companions "watched with great interest." The screeners apparently believed the joint was being cased. In the second instance, a traveler took photos of an airport x-ray machine, and, in the third, an Iranian tried to pass through security with fireworks taped to his body.

The four-page alert also lists these other happenings:

In 1992, individuals "possibly associated with terrorist organizations" tested security devices, including x-ray machines and metal detectors, at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

In 1993, an Iranian traveler somehow gained access to a U.S. aircraft's flight deck. Rather than hijack the plane, however, he asked crew members "suspicious, technical questions about their aircraft, its security systems, and baggage-handling procedures." That same year, another Iranian tried to smuggle "harmless but suspiciously wired objects" past European airport screeners.

In 1994, a man "possibly associated with terrorist organizations" used a wheelchair to circumvent metal detectors at an unnamed "major U.S. international airport" in an attempt to test the effectiveness of hand-held security devices, such as wands.

The FAA issued several more circulars in the months before September 11, according to a recent AP story, including one warning of a potential hijacking in the U.S. But even beyond the FAA's internal communiqués, the warning signs were obvious. Middle Eastern extremists, after all, have a long history of bombing and hijacking airplanes (remember the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland?), and they made no secret of their ambition to hit America on its own turf.  

The feds knew that 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Ahmed Yousef planned to blow up U.S. aircraft. A terrorist group in Manila admitted to having the same ambition. In 1995, a Middle Eastern man confessed to the FBI that he planned to fly a hijacked plane into CIA headquarters. And in 1999, Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was arrested at the Canadian border with a car full of explosives he allegedly planned to use to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.

No wonder the FAA was nervous. Yet its circulars were nothing but lip service. The agency didn't require airlines or airport authorities to act. To mandate any additional measures, the agency would have had to issue higher-level warnings, known as "security directives." These, according to aviation consultants, are rare.

Even when President Clinton ordered the FAA to improve security, the agency failed to do so.

When TWA Flight 800 fell into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 aboard, speculation (later discounted) abounded that it was the work of a terrorist's bomb or missile. In response, Clinton chartered a commission, chaired by Al Gore, to make the skies safer. Interestingly, the FAA circular warning about security testing was issued the day after TWA Flight 800 crashed.

In 1997, the commission came back with numerous recommendations, including better scrutiny of baggage and better profiling of passengers' travel habits to detect potential terrorists. Clinton ordered the FAA, along with the Department of Transportation, to make the changes. The agencies, however, didn't do it. "Several of the [September 11] terrorists bought one-way tickets and paid for them in cash to travel to their destinations," Gore commission member and retired Air Force Gen. John Michael Loh wrote in Aviation Week magazine after the attacks. "The profiling system we envisioned would have raised red flags in these cases, requiring the terrorists to face additional questions when they arrived at the airports.... The FAA failed to put in place a profiling system that could have prevented these attacks."

The FAA had many excuses, ranging from technological problems to bad relations with contractors, but as Loh points out, such excuses "ring hollow" in light of September 11. The agency also neglected to file required annual reports on its progress in improving security -- likely because there was none. While Loh notes that the DOT also deserves blame, "the major failure is one of leadership at all levels of the FAA."

The Washington, D.C., activist group Public Citizen, in a report issued in October, came to a similar conclusion, finding that the FAA converted the Gore commission's recommendations into "watered-down rules more favorable to the [airline] industry." In the report, which has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, Public Citizen also notes that the FAA's mission statement includes promoting the airline industry -- an obvious conflict of interest for an agency charged with enforcing federal rules.

To explain why FAA failed us, Public Citizen followed the money, finding that from 1997 through 2000, the airline industry spent some $63 million on Capitol Hill, much of it to fight stricter security measures. Many of the industry's lobbyists are former government officials and members of Congress. And the airlines spent another $11 million on campaign contributions. No wonder they needed that $15 billion bailout.

You can't really blame the airlines, though, ruled as they are by stockholders and the almighty dollar. Profit margins and good morals rarely coexist peacefully. It was the government's job to keep the airline industry in check, and that didn't happen.

Thankfully, the FAA will soon be put out of the business of security. Congress passed a new aviation security law mandating that by the end of 2002, a new entity, called the Transportation Security Administration, will conduct screening at airports. Last Thursday, President Bush announced in his televised address that TSA will eventually fall under the proposed Department of Homeland Security.

The fundamental problem, however, has never really been addressed: The airlines and their cash wield too much influence in government. And Bush, who worships at the altar of consumerism, has done little to put them in their place. The airlines and their government watchdogs have proven completely untrustworthy. They ignore warnings, fight good security measures, and then, when 19 hijackers traipse onto four of their planes and kill thousands of people, they hit up the country for a big bailout.

You'd think the airlines would be contrite now, paying penance. Nuh-uh. American Airlines CEO Don Carty, whose company owned jets that slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, recently pooh-poohed new security measures, saying, "The likelihood of a terrorist choosing aviation as the venue for future attack is very low."  

When it comes to air security, the ultimate challenge for Bush isn't so much terrorism; it's whether he will ever put a collar on airline titans like Carty, money and commerce be damned.

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