Since suicide hijackers crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, government officials have repeated in media reports that the country had been caught completely by surprise. U.S. intelligence officials have declared that they knew terror was planned but expected assaults on American interests in Europe -- not in New York City and Washington, D.C.
The truth, however, may be more complicated. While federal authorities likely had no intimate knowledge of the attack beforehand, the Federal Aviation Administration did warn top airline and airport security personnel of a "potential hijacking threat in the eastern United States" on December 8, 1998. An alert that was sent to aviation officials on a strict "need-to-know" basis states the FAA had "received information that unidentified individuals, who are associated with a terrorist organization, may be planning a hijacking at a metropolitan airport in the eastern United States."
That terrorist organization, the document indicates, may well have been al Qaeda, which is run by Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the New York and D.C. attacks. "We believe the threat is current," officials wrote in the alert. "There is a general increase in tensions in the Middle East, as well as the potential for retaliation for U.S. cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, and the FAA recommends a high degree of vigilance."
Those missile strikes were ordered on August 20, 1998, by former President Bill Clinton and aimed at bin Laden in retaliation for the suicide bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Thirty members of bin Laden's organization were reportedly killed, but the prime target was missed.
FAA south regional spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen refuses to comment on the two-page alert, officially called an "information circular," which expired January 31, 1999. "We don't discuss specific security measures," says Bergen, adding that even she isn't authorized to see FAA-issued alerts. "We have a lot of information that we give airports and airlines on a need-to-know basis. We don't want to give any perpetrators any suggestion of what we might be doing."
All FAA information circulars, which number an estimated 15 to 20 per year, are restricted from public view by law. Unlike FAA's "security directives," which have more-specific information on threats and demand certain security measures by air carriers and airports, circulars make no direct order. They are distributed to airlines' corporate security directors, senior management officials, and other security personnel. Managers and "security elements" at airports are also notified. At the bottom of the circular, in bold print, is written: "For Use by Aviation Security Personnel Only. Unauthorized Dissemination of This Document or Information Contained Herein Is Prohibited."
A confidential source in the federal government supplied New Times with the document last week because the source felt that the FAA and intelligence community were being disingenuous when expressing total surprise that domestic airliners had been hijacked. "That alert should have changed the way the airlines were doing business, but it did nothing," says the source, who has worked in various airports across South Florida. "I think they are covering their asses by saying they didn't know anything about this."
It is unknown whether the 1998 alert was directly related to last Tuesday's disaster. It has been widely speculated that the attack had been planned for more than two years, though information from the current FBI investigation seems to indicate that a concerted effort by the hijackers didn't begin on American soil until mid-2000. The seeds of the plot, according to The Washington Post, seem to date back to November 1998, when two of the suspected hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, formed a terrorist cell in Hamburg, Germany. Two of the other suspected hijackers, Hani Hanjour and Waleed Alshehri, attended flight schools in the United States in 1997.
Since the disaster, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has given no clue that the FAA knew of any terrorist hijacking threat on the East Coast or anywhere else. "Our national transportation system has become a target," Mineta said Sunday during a press conference. "This past week requires a new system... that will move passengers safely and efficiently."
Veteran aviation security consultant Marvin Badler says the FAA's information circulars are all too often virtually ignored by the airlines and airports. Badler, who lives in Boca Raton and is a former head of security for El Al Israel Airlines, was unaware of the 1998 East Coast threat. "That document should have been taken a lot more seriously than it seems to have been taken," he says. "But if they would have started with a higher level of security that has always been needed, then nobody would have to listen to alert notifications in the first place."
Rarely has any FAA alert surfaced publicly. After EgyptAir flight 990 crashed off the East Coast in 1999, the Associated Press obtained an information circular warning that a bomb would be "used" on a flight departing from Los Angeles or New York. Although the EgyptAir disaster is still under investigation, no evidence has been found to indicate that a bomb was on board. In 1989 an FAA circular warning that three Palestinians were planning a hijacking of an American aircraft in Western Europe was leaked to a London newspaper, causing much controversy about whether citizens have a right to know when a credible threat is made against airlines or airports. A Congressional subcommittee met after the 1989 leak to discuss whether the public should be informed of aviation threats, but there ultimately was no change in policy; FAA alerts remain a secret today.
Badler says that, while the secrecy may have helped the airlines avoid accountability for their woeful security levels, he agrees that terrorist threats shouldn't be made public. "They would produce panic, and people wouldn't want to fly," he says, adding that U.S. intelligence would also be compromised. "We can't live like that."