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.