Unsafe At Any Altitude Part I: The Night Before - September 10, 2001
Wednesday, 09 September 2009 16:25 Joseph Trento and Susan Trento
It had been a long day at Dulles International Airport. There was not a hint that this would be the last normal day in America for years to come. Adding to the exhaustion was an airport under seemingly endless reconstruction. In just a few years Dulles had gone from an underutilized white elephant to a facility serving more than twenty million travelers a year. Though Dulles was the first airport built from scratch for the jet age, it was located so far out in the Virginia countryside . it.s twenty-seven miles from the White House . that it took decades for Washingtonians to embrace it. Back in 1958 few envisioned that the suburbs of Washington would one day crowd it.
Dulles International Airport
Photo by David Benbennick
Travelers too hurried or too tired to pay attention routinely walked by the hundreds of foreign-born workers who handled security, cleaned the departure lounges and hallways, and staffed the shops and restaurants at Dulles. Voyagers passing through had no reason to observe that Dulles was like a small city. It had its share of homeless actually living in the nooks and crannies of the vast terminal; it also hosted criminals and those with something to hide, and workingmen and -women just trying to earn a living. As at most other large American institutions and businesses, foreign workers, legal and illegal, held jobs at Dulles that few citizens wanted. As September 10, 2001, wound down, one of those workers was Eric Safraz Gill. A slender man of medium height, impeccably dressed in an Argenbright Security blue blazer and a conservative tie, Gill was a legal immigrant from Pakistan working the evening shift as a checkpoint supervisor.
Al Qaeda.s plan to take the jihad to the crusaders. homeland should not have been a surprise to American authorities. There had been years of warnings of an Al Qaeda jetliner conspiracy. The CIA and National Security Agency (NSA), which routinely monitor all sorts of electronic communications, had been detecting Al Qaeda "chatter" through much of the spring and summer of 2001. And yet communication between the FBI and CIA about what the chatter meant was almost nonexistent. In addition, since 1995 the CIA had had access to a handful of Al Qaeda members in custody who had spoken of potential attacks using airplanes. In the early 1990s Osama bin Laden had a plan . Project Bojinka . to crash multiple airliners in the Pacific Rim on a single day. No one at the CIA or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made the leap from Project Bojinka to the idea of using airliners as missiles. The bomb builder arrested by Philippine authorities in Project Bojinka confessed in detail about the use of airliners in terrorist attacks, saying that another plan was to crash a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The executive branch of the US government took no action to warn the FAA or the airlines that terrorists had such plans.
Ever since 1976 the CIA had been betting everything on the decision to rely on the GID . the Saudi intelligence service . for intelligence on the region, which eventually included keeping track of Al Qaeda.s plotting. It was a curious decision, since much of the Saudi royal family had been funding Islamic extremism over the years through a network of Islamic charities around the world. In fact, one of Saudi Arabia.s leading funders of Islamic causes was spending the night of September 10 just a few miles from Dulles International. Eric Gill did not know when he took his dinner break that evening that what he had feared so much as a young man would engulf him in ways he could never have imagined.
Gill has an eye for detail. He remembers times, faces, even the weather. On September 10, 2001, he was stationed at the departure level of the swooping twelve-hundred-foot-long concrete-and-glass main terminal at Dulles, which looks as if it is floating over the lush green countryside of northern Virginia. At dusk, the xenon lighting gives the exterior of Eero Saarinen.s masterwork a sense of energy even as the interior starts to quiet with the evening slowing of takeoffs and landings.
Twilight gave way to darkness as Gill returned from his dinner break at a little past 8 pm. Gill had just returned to his post at the West Checkpoint on the main level. Right next to the checkpoint, with its magnetometers and X-ray machines, was a plain door with an electronic lock that could be opened with an all-access airport identification card. The door allowed police and other airport employees to get into the secure areas quickly without having to wade through the passenger lines. There was such a door next to the checkpoint at both the west and east ends of the terminal.
On September 10, Gill was standing near the side door watching the passenger lines and observing and supervising the entire screening process. Because of the door.s close proximity to the West Checkpoint, security for it came under Argenbright.s jurisdiction. This doorway was so important because going through it meant you.d cleared the last serious hurdle to boarding any aircraft or getting to any secure area at Dulles. Once through the doorway, you could exit into the postscreening area with cleared passengers; you could then make your way to a mobile lounge that took passengers out to the planes parked at a series of midfield terminals, or you could walk downstairs where some commuter aircraft had gates adjacent to the main terminal. The difference in entering through the employees. door was that you also had the choice of going down the stairs to secure employee-only areas. At Dulles this side door was not normally used by ramp workers, mechanics, or cleaning crews. It was mostly for police and security people. Ramp workers normally cleared security downstairs behind the airport.s baggage area.
The stairwell from the side door led to Door 8 on the lower level. Hundreds of airport workers accessed their workplaces in the secure areas of Dulles through Door 8. Behind that door, an Argenbright Security guard was the last line of defense to make certain that no one without proper identification got through. Like the upstairs checkpoints, Door 8 was also under constant video surveillance. However, bags and parcels carried by employees going through this door were never opened or searched.
Security footage of the 9/11 hijackers being screened.
Upstairs, on the evening of September 10, Eric Gill kept an eye on the employee door to prevent "badge piggybacking" . a lax practice in which a single worker would swipe his ID card through the electronic lock and then allow several colleagues to come in without swiping their own cards. Part of Gill.s job was to make sure that only one certified employee got through the door at a time.
At 8:15 pm Gill noticed a group of five men approaching the checkpoint in a strange manner. They looked like airport employees . three of the men wore the striped shirts and blue pants of United Airlines ramp workers, and they had the appropriate green A all-access pass that would enable them to open the side door. However, instead of coming straight toward the side door as most airport workers would, the men came in at an angle next to one of the X-ray belts. There they simply stopped and looked for a few moments, as if they were examining security procedures at the checkpoint.
"Normally," says Gill, "people who had legitimate business would just keep walking because they knew where they were going and what they were doing . . . Because they hesitated, I became suspicious."
One of the group, an Arab-looking man in his late twenties, swiped his electronic pass and held the door open for the others. At this point Gill walked over and asked them if he could be of help. That is when he noticed that two of the five, though neatly dressed, were not in uniform and had no airport identification.
Gill politely told them that they were not entitled to enter the secure area unless they had their own IDs with them. He then asked who they were and what business they had that required using this entrance. When he did not get an answer, Gill told the two who did not have identification that they had to turn around and go back. "I said, .You have to go back again. . . . They said they had IDs and were all going inside."
At this point Gill.s colleague Nicholas DeSilva came on the scene and witnessed the rest of the encounter. Meanwhile, seeing the men close up, Gill realized that the United uniforms worn by three of them "were very dirty." Gill had never seen United management tolerate such dirty or ragged-looking employees. Furthermore, after fifteen years at Dulles, "This was the first time I had seen these faces, and they were trying to escort these two guys without ID through there, and that worried me," Gill recalls.
Gill refused to let the men in uniform escort the others through. "After I refused the escort, they got angry with me and they started to become rude," he recalls. "They said, .We have IDs, we can go through here, and we can take them in.. And I said to them, .Well, you have an ID, I can take only those who have IDs with them through the side door. All others who have no IDs will have to go back out and through the main security checkpoint.." At that point the one who had swiped his ID to let the others through "came close to me and he started abusing me." Gill recognized the man.s accent as Middle Eastern.
When Gill and DeSilva continued to block their way, the others joined in the abuse. "They told me to fuck off," says Gill. "One said, .We are important people you don.t know and we should be allowed to go through here.. He said, .You make your own rules.."
The incident was unpleasant but not that surprising. Over the years Gill had been abused by a number of passengers and employees impatient with security procedures. "It was part of the job," Gill explains. What did surprise him was what the men did next. Instead of the two without identification proceeding through the screening checkpoint, all five retreated. Gill watched intently as they walked straight ahead toward the escalators that led downstairs to the baggage levels. Because no FAA security warnings had been issued to the airlines and then to Argenbright, there was no reason for Gill or his colleagues to take any further action that night. Had the men been more physically threatening, he might have reported the incident to the airport authorities. But rudeness and trying to piggyback on a friend.s ID was not unusual enough to warrant a report.
At 10 pm, Eastern Daylight Time, Eric Gill finished his shift at the West Checkpoint and headed home to his apartment. After 10 pm the electronic door on the upper level was no longer covered by anyone. However, there was always an Argenbright guard on duty at Door 8 downstairs, where the West Checkpoint door led. Anyone coming through the upstairs door or through the lower-level employee entrance would be recorded on videotape. In addition, each key card used on the upstairs door was electronically logged.
On the night of September 10 Khalid Mahmoud was on duty at Door 8. On a normal night he would observe baggage handlers, maintenance people, and cleaning crews coming through his checkpoint. By 10 pm crews would be cleaning and preparing Dulles-based planes for flights the next day. Once a crew finished prepping a plane, it was officially sealed until accessed by the caterers and flight crew before takeoff. However, as Ed Nelson, Gill.s Argenbright supervisor, explains, "If someone wanted access to an aircraft, say to plant weapons, it would have been easy for the group Eric saw to come back after he got off duty and simply use the ID cards they had to activate the electronic lock and slip through."
As Eric Gill drove home, a curious set of events played out a few miles away at the Marriott Residence Inn in Herndon, Virginia. Several guests with strikingly similar interests had checked into the same hotel. The first guest to register was one of the most powerful Saudi funders of Islamic causes, Saleh Ibn Abdul Rahman al-Hussayen. Al-Hussayen had been on an extended trip to Canada and the United States on behalf of the Saudi royal family, visiting various Islamic charities he assisted in funding. US government investigators were already aware that al-Hussayen was a financial backer of a
The aftermath of American Airlines Flight 77's impact on the Pentagon.
Photo by Mark D. Faram, USN
Michigan-based group, the Islamic Assembly of North America, that had promoted the teachings of two Saudi clerics who preached violence against the United States. Many of the charities supported by al-Hussayen promoted Wahhabism, the Saudi-sponsored form of Islam practiced by some of the followers of Osama bin Laden and some members of Al Qaeda. He was in Herndon to meet with officials from several important Islamic charities the Saudis funded in northern Virginia.
Later that night three men who fit the description of the men who tried to piggyback through Eric Gill.s checkpoint came to the Marriott Residence Inn. They were part of the Al Qaeda team that would return to the airport for the early-morning American Airlines Flight 77 to Los Angeles. The Al Qaeda team had spent several days in Laurel, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, before relocating to the Marriott.
Though national terrorism chief Richard Clarke and his colleagues had believed for months that something awful was going to happen, they were unable to get the relevant government agencies to respond to what the intelligence was telling them. The CIA was not sharing information with the FBI. Clarke and his team were never told of the cozy relationship between the CIA and the Saudi GID.
There were two Saudi intelligence agents the CIA believed had been successfully placed inside Al Qaeda as double agents. The problem was that neither the CIA nor the GID had properly vetted the men. In fact, they were triple agents . loyal to Osama bin Laden. Saudi intelligence had sent agents Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi to spy on a meeting of top associates of Al Qaeda in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 5.8, 2000. "The CIA/Saudi hope was that the Saudis would learn details of bin Laden.s future plans. Instead, plans were finalized and the Saudis learned nothing," says a CIA terrorism expert who asks that his identity be withheld.
By the time the two Saudi agents entered Malaysia, the CIA was well aware of Khalid al-Mihdhar.s name, passport number, and birth information, since he had a US multiple-entry visa issued in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that would expire on April 6, 2000. The CIA knew these details because one of its own officers in the Jeddah consulate routinely approved visas for Saudi intelligence operatives as a courtesy. Under normal circumstances, the names of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi should have been placed on the State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and US Customs watch lists. The two men would have been automatically denied entry into the United States. Because they were perceived as working for a friendly intelligence service, however, the CIA did not pass along the names. If it had, Eric Gill and his colleagues in Newark and Boston might have stood a chance at preventing what was planned for the morning of September 11.
Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawah al-Hazmi, his brother Salem al-Hazmi, and their colleagues in terror Majed Moqed and Hani Hanjour, were ready. They returned for their last night.s sleep on earth to the Marriott Residence Inn, where they could dream of what awaited them in paradise.
Late on the evening of September 10 Deepthi Suraweers of Gate Gourmet at Dulles removed the catering and food carts from an American Airlines Boeing 757 as the first step in preparing the plane for a morning flight to Los Angeles. The cleaning crew had not yet come on board to clean the aircraft and seal it for the night. To Suraweers everything on board seemed normal.
Aircraft parked at gates at Dulles Airport received no special security. All it took was an airport A pass to get access to an aircraft. Hundreds of Dulles employees as well as airline flight crews had such badges. There were no security cameras capturing images of staff entering and leaving aircraft from inside the gate area or from the tarmac.
At 6:30 am on 9/11, Jaime Ramos and a Gate Gourmet colleague arrived planeside with their catering truck and began loading lunches onto the plane for American Airlines Flight 77. Gate Gourmet, like most other operations at Dulles, relied on foreign-born employees. Everything seemed normal, according to Ramos. The only strange event was that six days earlier, another Gate Gourmet employee, Mohammed B. Elamin, had inexplicably disappeared, leaving his burgundy Volvo, minus license plates, parked in the Gate Gourmet parking lot with a note saying, "Give to charity." "Foreign nationals working low-wage jobs at Dulles came and went," according to Ed Nelson.
As Eric Gill went through his morning rituals of getting ready for another workday, his job at Dulles was not on his mind. Instead, Gill was busy helping his kids get ready for school before he and his wife, Roseline, headed for their second jobs, at a nearby Wal-Mart. Gill was pleased to walk outside and be greeted by a perfect late-summer day as he and his wife left for their jobs.
At the Marriott Residence Inn, the three Al Qaeda members had little time for breakfast before their rendezvous with two other team members. Nawaf al-Hazmi drove his 1988 Toyota sedan the short distance from Herndon to Dulles and pulled into row G of the main day parking lot at 7:25 am. The team did not worry about being discovered.They were so confident that they left behind a car full of evidence, including instrument-panel diagrams for a Boeing 757, a box cutter, flight-school manuals, and a piece of paper with "Osama 5895316" written on it. In addition, credit cards, a personal address book, and checkbooks would later assist FBI agents in discovering the conspiracy that they had been missing for so many months.
First to check in at the upstairs ticket counter were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Majed Moqed. Eighteen minutes later the diminutive would-be pilot, Hani Hanjour, and the two brothers, Nawaf and Salem al-Hazmi, checked in.
It did not take long for Hani Hanjour, Khalid al-Mihdhar, and Majed Moqed to be flagged by CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), an FAA-approved automated system administered by the commercial airlines that scores each airline passenger.s profile to identify those who might endanger an aircraft. The system picks out passengers partly on the basis of where they are going and where they are coming from. It also sometimes selects passengers at random. In each case the passengers. names are matched against a watch list the government supplies the airline security directors, and these passengers are put through further screening. Meanwhile, an American Airlines ticket agent had already become suspicious of the al-Hazmi brothers because of their behavior. One of the brothers had no photo ID and seemed not to understand simple security questions. However, because the watch list was never complete or up to date given squabbling between the FBI and the CIA, the only thing that was done as a result was that the luggage of several members of the Al Qaeda team was held on the ground until the cabin crew confirmed that they had boarded as passengers on Flight 77. As the Dulles Airport closed-circuit camera.s videotape later revealed, all five hijackers passed through the Main Terminal.s West Checkpoint, where the encounter with Eric Gill had taken place the evening before.
Up in Boston two Argenbright competitors went through roughly the same process with two other Al Qaeda teams . with the exception that Logan Airport had no video cameras to record the screening of passengers. Between 6:45 and 7:40 am Mohammed Atta, Abdulaziz al-Omari, Satam al-Suqami, Wail al-Shehri, and Waleed al-Shehri checked in and boarded another American Airlines plane (Flight 11), which was also bound for Los Angeles. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:45. Across Logan Airport at the United Airlines terminal, Marwan al-Shehhi, joined by Fayez Banihammad, Mohand al-Shehri, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, and Hamza al-Ghamdi, went through security to yet another flight to Los Angeles, United Flight 175.
Like the American Airlines representative at Dulles, United.s representatives at Logan also had problems communicating with the Al Qaeda team. The ticket agent had trouble getting the basic security questions answered. She remembers going over the questions several times. The security checkpoints at Logan for American Flight 11 were operated by Globe Security. At the United gate, the checkpoint was supervised by Huntleigh USA. None of the screening companies involved in the attacks was under US ownership on 9/11.
Mohammed Atta had been targeted by CAPPS in Portland, Maine, on his way to Boston. Three members of his team . Satam al-Suqami, Wail al-Shehri, and Waleed al-Shehri . had their baggage pulled in Boston. Atta.s team was cleared by Huntleigh screeners, however, and got on board. That flight pushed back from the gate at 7:40.
A Screening Checkpoint at Boston Logan International Airport. Taken 2007.
Photo by TSA
As at Logan, the Argenbright-managed checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport.s United terminal had no video cameras to record the screening of passengers. Between 7:03 and 7:39 am, Saeed al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Nami, Ahmad al-Haznawi, and Ziad al-Jarrah checked in at the United Airlines ticket counter for Flight 93 to San Francisco. The Al Qaeda team cleared security without incident, and the four men got on board the jetliner between 7:39 and 7:48, taking their seats in first class. But this team was one man short. Mohamed al-Kahtani had been refused entry into the United States by an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent at Orlando International Airport in August.
Meanwhile, back at Dulles, when Majed Moqed and Khalid al-Mihdhar appeared at the West Checkpoint, both men put their carry-on bags on the belt leading to the X-ray machine and went through the magnetometer. Both set off the magnetometer.s alarm as they walked through. Following procedure, the Argenbright screeners diverted them to a second magnetometer. Al-Mihdhar cleared this machine without setting it off and was waved through the checkpoint. Moqed once again set off the metal detector, and so, as both Argenbright and FAA procedure called for, he was taken out of line and given a personal screening with a hand wand. The screener had to be careful not to use the wand too close to the terminal.s concrete floor, however, or the metal rebar in the floor could cause its alarm to sound. Moqed passed and was cleared to proceed to the midfield terminal to board American Airlines Flight 77. Eight minutes later Hani Hanjour went through screening at the same checkpoint. Hanjour also had two carry-on bags. He passed through the checkpoint without incident. Less than a minute later, Nawaf and Salem al-Hazmi arrived at the checkpoint. Salem al-Hazmi cleared the magnetometer and the carry-on X-ray. His brother Nawaf triggered the alarms for both magnetometers and was subjected to a hand-wand screening. The Argenbright screener also tested the shoulder strap of Nawaf.s carry-on bag with an explosive trace detector. Having passed all tests, Nawaf al-Hazmi was the last member of the Dulles Al Qaeda team to be cleared.
Not a single utility knife or box cutter was detected on any of the hijackers by the Argenbright screening team at Dulles or by the security screeners at Logan or Newark that morning. Later the staff of the 9/11 Commission would report: "Our best working hypothesis is that a number of the hijackers were carrying permissible utility knives or pocket knives." A member of the 9/11 Commission staff testified that the hijackers had purchased two Leatherman utility knives that were not discovered in the belongings they left behind. The box-cutter theory first emerged because of the box cutter found in the Dulles team.s car. The assumption that the hijackers used knives with blades shorter than four inches emerged because, under the FAA guidelines in force at the time, even if the screeners had discovered such weapons, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, "The item would [have been] returned to the owner and permitted to be carried on the aircraft." It is likely that the Dulles hijack team managed to get weapons aboard Flight 77 after the incident with Gill the night before. Did Al Qaeda have cohorts working behind the scenes at the airport with access to the planes? This question has serious implications. There was no shortage of foreign-born Muslims working at Dulles. The passenger screeners at Dulles were 87- percent foreign-born, the majority from Muslim countries.
Illustrating the difficulties this had posed in 1999 Argenbright Security became embroiled in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint. The complaint came from a Muslim rights group with ties to organizations that would later be examined for terrorism financing. The formal EEOC complaint was based on Argenbright Security.s refusal to allow female employees to wear traditional Muslim head coverings. United Airlines had received complaints from some passengers uncomfortable with female screeners. attire in the wake of Al Qaeda.s 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. Seven female screeners refused to change their mode of dress . one of them said, "I.m angry. This is my religion". and they were dismissed. Four of the seven came from Sudan, a country that was on the State Department.s terrorist list and that provided a haven for Al Qaeda and bin Laden. The other three came from Egypt and Afghanistan, both of which had ties to bin Laden and his cohorts. Egypt was the birthplace of the infamous Muslim Brotherhood, a senior organization to Al Qaeda.
The EEOC complaint was drafted by a lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR is a controversial group. Soon after Osama bin Laden was named as being behind the African embassy bombings, CAIR protested US retaliatory attacks in Afghanistan and called for the removal of a billboard with bin Laden.s picture and the caption enemy no. 1, which overlooked a well-traveled Los Angeles road. Ironically, CAIR.s executive director, Nihad Awad, stood next to President Bush at the Islamic Center in Washington, where Bush pleaded for Americans to "respect" Muslims and Islam.s teachings of "peace." Awad was invited by the Bush White House to Bush.s September 20 speech to Congress and was seated near the First Lady.
Congressman David E. Bonior (D-MI), who represents a heavily Arab district, aligned himself with CAIR over the Argenbright complaint. "This incident raises a larger issue: that of widespread and systematic discrimination against Muslims and Arab Americans in airports all across the country," Bonior said in a March 1999 House speech. Copies of CAIR.s booklet, An Employer.s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices, were available through Bonior.s Michigan office. Bonior also pressed Jane Garvey, FAA director in the Clinton administration, to end all profiling of Arabs and other Muslims at US airports.
A month later, in April 1999, Argenbright Security agreed to settle the case by rehiring the women, giving them back pay and an additional $2,500 each, and agreeing to a sensitivity program on Muslim issues for all employees. Argenbright Security also gave each woman a written apology. As a result of the lawsuit, airline, security, and airport management feared provoking Muslim employees. All seven successful Muslim complainants still worked as Dulles screeners on 9/11.
Several of the women were not content with the written apology or the financial settlement. They wanted Frank Argenbright personally to apologize to them on television. A former FAA inspector at Dulles, Steve Elson, told the conversative WorldNetDaily in 2001, "Airport-security contractors can.t win. On one hand, the government slams them for hiring foreigners. But if they don.t hire them, or [if they] fire them, the government nails them for discrimination . . ."
As for security on board airliners, it was virtually nonexistent. Ironically, it was William Webster . former director first of the FBI, then of the CIA . working as a paid lobbyist for the airline industry, who pressed Congress not to require proposed FAA safeguards in the wake of the December 1989 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The proposed FAA rules would have vastly improved security. Matching baggage with passengers; improved coordination among government agencies; more sophisticated profiling . all the proposed reforms were rejected by Congress. After TWA 800 crashed off Long Island, Vice President Al Gore headed a commission that attempted to revive the rule changes. But when it became clear that that crash was not caused by terrorism, the impetus to improve security collapsed. The airline industry had successfully fought the changes again, arguing that security was the government.s responsibility.
Mohammed Atta (top) and Marwan al-Shehhi (bottom)
Addressing the issue of illegal and expired student visas was probably the biggest step the government could have taken to prevent 9/11. Half a million foreign students were in the United States despite repeated warnings that there was no effective system to track them. The problem was recognized by the FBI and the Justice Department in the late 1990s as the prospect of terrorism finally penetrated the bureaucratic mind-set. Justice asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service to start CIPRIS (Coordinated Interagency Partnership Regulating International Students) to make certain terrorists were not posing as students. The idea was that CIPRIS would issue all foreign students ID cards and put them into a database. CIPRIS would then track a student.s admission and course of study with his or her school, allowing the Treasury Department to determine if tuition and expense money came from Islamic charities or other suspected terrorist funding sources. If a student was not verified as attending the school he or she claimed to attend, the visa would be immediately revoked.
When INS announced the program in Atlanta in 1998, colleges and trade schools bitterly protested having to report on students. The INS immediately cut funding for the program from $11 million to $4 million. The Justice Department still wanted full national implementation by 1999. That.s when the Association of International Educators convinced twenty-one senators to sign a letter that killed the registration program. If the program had been implemented, Hani Hanjour, who entered the country on a student visa in 1997 but never attended school, would have not been allowed back into the United States in 2000. Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi had changed their status in the United States from tourist to student, because they knew that student visas were not treated seriously by the INS. When Atta was stopped for a routine traffic check in Broward County, Florida, in April 2001, if CIPRIS had been in operation, he would have been arrested and deported.
Once on their respective aircraft, the Al Qaeda teams quickly defeated what little security was in place. There was no air marshal on any of the four hijacked planes. A Federal Air Marshal program did exist, but it was almost exclusively directed to sensitive international flights and was very small in scope.
The airlines called their last layers of defense "Common Strategy." Captain Edmond Soliday, who was vice president of safety and security for United Airlines on 9/11, says that the Common Strategy "was based on a false assumption . that the intent was to take the airplane and escape with it or hold it hostage with passengers . . . that.s why small knives were permitted. Law enforcement always envisioned having to storm a parked plane . not deal with a fully loaded and fueled plane being used as a guided missile." Flight crews were ordered not to be heroes . not to try to stop a hijacker. Every aspect of the strategy was aimed at placating the hijacker and getting the plane down on the ground safely, where it could be stormed by law enforcement teams. In fact flight crews received special training on how to persuade passengers not to be heroes, and on how to identify passengers who might decide to take on a hijacker.
On September 10 the last of the vague warnings reached the airline security officials from the FAA. For Ed Soliday and the other security chiefs at the nation.s airlines, the warnings from US intelligence funneled through the FAA were becoming more frequent. Between April 1, 2001, and September 10, 2001, fifty-two warnings mentioning bin Laden or Al Qaeda had seen sent out. But according to an aviation security chief, these warnings were all but useless, "because they were not specific enough to act on . . . These were cover-your-ass warnings by the government."
Inside the airlines the one thing that could have helped was being fought by airline management. Putting air marshals on board would have required giving up first-class seats, which was something the major airlines were not willing to do. "The dirty little secret of the airline industry was that these seats almost never sold for their full advertised price and were used to lure corporate clients," one security official for a major airline says. "Had we encouraged Congress to require the airlines to allow the sky marshals to fly, there would have been some defense. But they had their lobbyists fighting it in Congress and the Office of Management and Budget and tying it up because they were worried about lost revenue."
All the CIA.s bizarre intelligence alliances, the airline industry.s lobbying and self-interest, and the bureaucratic incompetence of the corporate and government partnership were about to exact a price on the flying public.
Unsafe At Any Altitude Part III: Hell Over Earth
Monday, 14 September 2009 16:39 Joseph Trento and Susan Trento
Everything seemed routine on American Airlines Flight 11 as it took off from Boston bound for Los Angeles. Captain John Ogonowski and First Officer Thomas McGuinness got the Boeing 767 off the runway at 7:59 AM. They were joined by nine flight attendants even though there were only eighty-one passengers on board. A quarter hour later Flight 11 had climbed to twenty-six thousand feet on its way to its assigned altitude of twenty-nine thousand. About the time the seat belt signs were turned off in preparation for breakfast service, the Al Qaeda team went into action.
The 767 climbed to thirty-five thousand feet, as instructed by ground controllers, but without acknowledging the order. Boston Center tried to contact the aircraft, but this, like all subsequent communication attempts, was not acknowledged. Two alert and courageous flight attendants in the coach cabin, Betty Ong and Madeline "Amy" Sweeney, broke training and did something they were not supposed to do. Each grabbed an AT&T airphone and dialed an American Airlines office on the ground. Ong got through to the Southeastern Reservations Office in Cary, North Carolina. At 8:19 she said, "The cockpit is not answering, somebody.s stabbed in business class . and I think there.s Mace . we can.t breathe . I don.t know, I think we.re getting hijacked."
At 8:21 the American employee who took Ong.s call, Nydia Gonzalez, alerted the American Airlines operations center in Fort Worth. Fort Worth instructed the dispatcher responsible for the flight to contact the plane. At 8:23 the American dispatcher tried and failed. Six minutes later the air-traffic-control specialist at American.s operations center contacted the FAA.s Boston Air Traffic Control Center.
Ong whispered into the airphone that two men sitting in the second row (Wail al-Shehri and Waleed al-Shehri, according to the flight manifest) had stabbed both flight attendants in the first-class cabin as they were preparing for breakfast service. The hijackers, according to Ong, then forced their way through the locked but flimsy cockpit door.
About this time Mohammed Atta, trained to fly the jet, and Abdulaziz al-Omari began to move toward the cockpit from their seats in the business-class cabin. As Atta and al-Omari started to move, a passenger named Daniel Lewin, an Israeli army veteran, realized what was going on. But as he tried to stop the two men, who were in the row in front of him, Lewin was stabbed by Satam al-Suqami, who was seated in the row behind him.
The hijacking team then moved ruthlessly and efficiently through the first-class cabin, spraying passengers with pepper spray to force them back to the tourist cabin. The hijackers yelled out that they had a bomb. Ong.s emergency call lasted nearly half an hour as she relayed the tragedy playing out on board to the reservations center in North Carolina. At 8:25 the Al Qaeda team attempted to speak to the passengers. However, ignorant of how the communications system worked, they inadvertently transmitted the message over the plane.s radio instead of the public address system: "Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you.ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet." Because of their error, the control tower at Logan heard the transmission, but no one in the plane.s cabin did.
Amy Sweeney got her call through to the American Flight Services Office in Boston at 8:25 am. At 8:29 she was cut off after she told the ground someone was injured. At 8:32 she successfully got through again and kept relaying reports.
At 8:26 Ong told the ground that the aircraft was "flying erratically." Just after that report Atta turned the 767 south. By getting seat numbers from Ong, American Airlines was able to figure out the identities of the Al Qaeda hijackers. Sweeney reported that one of the stabbed flight attendants was seriously wounded and was on oxygen, while the other flight attendant.s wounds seemed minor. At 8:38 Ong reported that the plane was again flying erratically. Sweeney told the ground that the hijackers were Middle Easterners and that one spoke excellent English while another was barely comprehensible. At 8:41 Sweeney said that passengers in coach believed there was a routine medical emergency in first class. The other uninjured flight attendants were finding medical supplies as Ong and Sweeney talked to the ground. At 8:41 air-traffic controllers declared Flight 11 hijacked.
The radar track put Flight 11 on a rapid descent toward New York City. The controllers ordered all other flights out of the way. At 8:44 the ground lost the phone connection with Ong. At about the same moment Sweeney told Boston, "Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent . . . we are all over the place." Officials on the ground asked Sweeney to look out the window to see if she could figure out where the plane was. In an increasingly tense voice she said, "We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low . . . Oh my God we are way too low." The phone cut off. A moment later Mohammed Atta steered the big jetliner across the East River and between the skyscrapers toward his target.
People in Lower Manhattan looked up, startled by the roar of the aircraft. At 8:46:40 the American flight sliced into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. As the plane came apart against the glass, concrete, and steel, its jet fuel ignited and created a conflagration that would begin to soften the steel superstructure of the building.
At 8:14, just as American 11 was being taken over, Captain Victor Saracini and First Officer Michael Horrocks piloted United Flight 175 off the runway at Logan. United 175 was also a 767, also bound for Los Angeles; it carried seven flight attendants and fifty-six passengers. At 8:33 United 175 reached thirty-one thousand feet, the seat belt sign was turned off, and the flight attendants began to serve breakfast. It was about this time that Captain Saracini and First Officer Horrocks radioed the ground to report a suspicious transmission they had picked up from American 11. That would be the last transmission from United 175.
The Al Qaeda team attacked with knives and Mace sometime between 8:42 and 8:46. The nightmare playing out on American 11 was repeating itself on United 175. A passenger and a flight attendant in the rear of the plane independently used onboard phones to report that members of the crew had been stabbed. A flight attendant reported that Saracini and Horrocks had been murdered. Once again the passengers in first and business class were forced to the back of the plane.
The September 11th attacks.
At 8:47 the aircraft changed beacon codes twice within sixty seconds. Four minutes later it abandoned its assigned altitude. New York air-traffic controllers began a frantic effort to contact United 175. At 8:52 Lee Hanson in Easton, Connecticut, received a phone call from his son Peter, who was aboard the hijacked plane. "I think they.ve taken over the cockpit . an attendant has been stabbed . and someone else up front may have been killed. The plane is making strange moves. Call United Airlines . Tell them it.s Flight 175, Boston to LA." Peter.s father called the Easton Police Department. At the same time, a flight attendant called the United office in San Francisco. He said the flight had been hijacked, both pilots were dead, a flight attendant had been stabbed, and he thought the hijackers were flying the plane. United dispatchers tried unsuccessfully to reach the cockpit. At 8:58 United 175 changed its heading to New York City. A minute later passenger Brian Sweeney failed to reach his wife, Julie, so he left a message on their home answering machine that the plane had been hijacked. Sweeney left a message for his mother, Louise, that the flight was hijacked and passengers were considering storming the cockpit to take back control. At the same time, Lee Hanson received another call from Peter. "It.s getting bad, Dad . a stewardess was stabbed . . . They seem to have knives and Mace . . . They said they have a bomb. It.s getting very bad on the plane. Passengers are throwing up and getting sick. The plane is making jerky movements. I don.t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don.t worry, Dad . if it happens, it.ll be very fast . . . My God, my God." Before the call cut off Lee Hanson had heard a woman scream.
The calls from their sons caused Lee Hanson and Louise Sweeney to turn on their television sets. The picture showed the North Tower of the World Trade Center in flames. At 9:03:11 they watched their sons die as United 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
The national command authority was in total disarray. President Bush and his national security staff had been ignoring warnings about a major terrorist attack since June. The president himself was in a Florida classroom when he was notified of the attacks. The vice president was at the White House. It soon became apparent no military or executive agency had any plan for responding to such an attack. America.s vulnerability was complete.
Flight 77 was supposed to have left Dulles for Los Angeles at 8:10 am, but it did not get off until 8:20. The 757, piloted by Captain Charles F. Burlingame and First Officer David Charlebois and staffed by four flight attendants, carried a light load, just fifty-eight passengers. At 8:46 American 77 arrived at its assigned altitude of thirty-five thousand feet. The breakfast service started. A few minutes later the Al Qaeda team went into action, following much the same pattern as the others.
At 8:54 American 77 began to deviate from its route, turning due south. A few minutes later the plane.s transponder was turned off, effectively cutting off active radar contact. FAA controllers in Indianapolis tried and failed again and again to reach the cockpit. The dispatchers at American Airlines failed as well. At 9 am American executives were told they had a second plane in trouble. All American flights in the northeast corridor were grounded. It was only when American learned that United 175 was also down that they sent out a nationwide order to stop all flights.
Renee May called her mother from Flight 77. She said her flight was being hijacked by six individuals who had moved passengers to the rear of the plane. Her mother notified American Airlines. Also on Flight 77 was the right-wing political commentator Barbara Olson. Just before 9:26 am she called her husband, Ted, who was the Bush administration.s solicitor general. She told him the hijackers had both knives and box cutters. The hijackers were not aware of her phone call, she continued, which she was making from the back of the plane. Olson.s call was cut off. Her husband tried to call Attorney General John Ashcroft but could not get him. Barbara Olson managed to call her husband back. This time she said the pilot had announced the flight had been hijacked. Her husband asked her where she thought the plane was. She looked out the window and said they were over a residential area. Ted Olson broke the news to his wife of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Barbara Olson took the news calmly.
At 9:29, when Flight 77 was forty miles west of Washington and flying at seven thousand feet, the autopilot was disengaged. Inside Dulles terminal radar controllers spotted the image of a plane flying eastbound at a very high rate of speed. At 9:34 Reagan Airport officials called the Secret Service and warned that an aircraft of unknown nature was closing in on Washington, DC. By that time Flight 77 was just seven miles from the White House and five miles west-southwest of the Pentagon. An emergency evacuation order was given to the White House staff, and people began to pour out of the building. The plane then began a wide swooping turn and dropped to twenty-two hundred feet, with the pilot now aiming the plane toward his target. Hani Hanjour, slender and small, used his almost effeminate hands to push the throttles to maximum power and dive.
At 9:37:46 Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at a speed of 530 miles per hour, puncturing the outside wall in a fireball and piercing and burning ring after ring as people in the building and on the plane were incinerated. The secretary of defense felt the thump as the huge building shook. As a final insult, the plane had hit a recently rebuilt section of the Pentagon that housed intelligence operations.
The United States had just suffered an intelligence failure greater than any since Pearl Harbor. Phone calls were going back and forth among members of the intelligence community asking that the Operation Bojinka debriefing files from 1995 be pulled. Already the president was flying from military base to military base after leaving the grammar school in Florida.
Frank Argenbright was in the AHL boardroom finalizing a deal with Clay Perfall. The two men were discussing how best to time the announcement to the media in order to get the stock to jump. "All of a sudden," Argenbright recalls, "the receptionist ran in with the news that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. We brought a TV into the boardroom in time to see the second plane hit the other tower. We were still sitting there shocked and horrified when the newscasters broke in with word that the Pentagon had been hit. Clay Perfall . . . was from Washington; his family lived near the Pentagon, so he was in an absolute panic to get back home." With all air traffic grounded, Perfall rented a car and began the ten-hour drive to Washington.
United Airlines Flight 93 took off half an hour late from Newark.s Liberty International Airport en route to San Francisco. It had the lightest passenger load of all the planes targeted that day. Besides Captain Jason Dahl, First Officer Leroy Homer, and five flight attendants, there were just thirty-seven passengers. Flight 93 was originally set to depart at 8 am, but local air-traffic control delayed the departure, disrupting part of Osama bin Laden.s plan. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, the hijackers had planned to take flights departing within half an hour of one another.American 11 at 7:45, United 175 and 93 at 8, and American 77 at 8:10. Three of the flights had actually taken off within fifteen minutes of their planned departure times. United 93 should have left the ground at about 8:15, after a few minutes of taxiing. In fact, it didn.t take off until 8:42. Even so, the flight crew were unaware of the other hijackings. As the commission reported: "Around 9:00, the FAA, American, and United were facing the staggering realization of apparent multiple hijackings. At 9:03, they would see another aircraft strike the World Trade Center. Crisis managers at the FAA and the airlines did not yet act to warn other aircraft. At the same time, Boston Center realized that a message transmitted just before 8:25 by the hijacker pilot of American 11 included the phrase, .We have some planes.."
It was true that no one in the United States had ever dealt with multiple hijackings. Project Bojinka was a distant memory. At 9:07 the Boston Center asked that the Herndon FAA send out a message warning all pilots in the air that there might be attempts to breach the cockpit. Herndon FAA failed to send out the warning message. When the 9/11 Commission later interviewed FAA personnel, they said it was not the FAA.s responsibility to send such a message. American Airlines also did not send any warnings to its other pilots. The only one who acted was United dispatcher Ed Ballinger. He took responsibility and transmitted warnings to sixteen transcontinental flights he was monitoring. His e-mail message: "Beware any cockpit intrusion . Two a/c [aircraft] hit World Trade Center." The message was sent out at 9:23:59.
Flight 93.s trip to San Francisco had been perfectly normal for forty minutes. At 9:24 Ballinger.s warning was received in the cockpit. At 9:26 the pilot, Jason Dahl, asked via e-mail link, "Ed, confirm latest mssg plz . Jason." Two minutes later Al Qaeda supplied the clarification: At 9:28 am, while the plane was over eastern Ohio, the team stormed the cockpit. The first hint most of the passengers had that something was wrong was when the plane descended seven hundred feet in just eleven seconds. Then FAA air-traffic control in Cleveland received a pair of radio transmissions from the crew. During the first broadcast, either the pilot or the first officer called "Mayday," and there were the startling sounds of a fight going on in the background. Half a minute later the captain or first officer could be heard screaming, "Hey, get out of here . get out of here . get out of here."
At 9:32 Ziad Samir al-Jarrah, the Al Qaeda pilot, announced, "Ladies and gentlemen: Here the captain, please sit down keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So, sit." Al-Jarrah disengaged the autopilot and began to head back east. With them in the cockpit was one of the female flight attendants, who was being held captive after she had tried to stop the hijackers.
As on the other hijacked flights, members of the cabin crew and passengers used personal mobile phones and airphones to call people on the ground. These calls were critical in giving passengers the information that would prevent this Al Qaeda team from carrying out its mission. At 9:39 the FAA.s Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center overheard the hijackers. second announcement . that there was a bomb on board, that the plane was returning to the airport, and that passengers should remain seated. Like the Al Qaeda team on American 11, this team had not mastered the communications system, and the message that was supposed to go to the passengers was instead broadcast to air-traffic controllers.
The Al Qaeda team was aware that passengers were telephoning but did not seem concerned. It was a huge mistake. The hijackers did not realize that once passengers understood that the previous planes had been used as missiles rather than as hostages, they would have nothing to lose by trying to disrupt Al Qaeda.s mission.
Ten phone calls were made from Flight 93. All those passengers said the hijackers had knives and were claiming to have a bomb. The callers reported that at least one passenger was stabbed and two others were on the aircraft floor, probably dead. Another caller said the bodies were those of the pilot and first officer. For the first and only time in the day.s four hijackings, a passenger reported that he believed the hijackers had a gun. Then callers from the plane began to tell people on the ground that there were plans to rush the terrorists and retake the aircraft. At 9:57 the passengers ended their conversations with loved ones as the revolt began. One woman ended her message: "Everyone.s running up to first class. I.ve got to go. Bye." The passenger revolt went on for several minutes. Al-Jarrah banked the airliner sharply to the left and right in an attempt to throw the attackers off balance. At 9:58:57 al-Jarrah told another Al Qaeda member to block the cockpit door. At 10 am he started to pitch the nose of the plane up and down to halt the assault. But nothing could stop the passengers from trying to break through the cabin door. Al-Jarrah asked, "Is that it? Shall we finish it off?" Another hijacker responded, "No. Not yet. When they all come, we finish it off." One of the passengers yelled, "In the cockpit. If we don.t we.ll die!" Another cried, "Roll it!"
Wreckage from United 93.
Al-Jarrah suddenly stopped the pitching and said, "Allah Akbar! Allah is great!" He then asked, "Is that it? I mean, shall we put it down?"
His colleague said, "Yes, put it in it . . . pull it down."
At 10:02:23 another hijacker yelled, "Pull it down! Pull it down!" Al-Jarrah turned the controls hard to the right and rolled the airliner onto its back as the hijackers shouted "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" The passengers had won. United 93 crashed into the ground instead of its original target, the Capitol in Washington. United 93 disintegrated as it hit a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles an hour. The passengers had heroically ended a horrendous morning.
When word of the World Trade Center attacks reached the airport, panic spread throughout the complex. The FAA ordered Dulles locked down; no one could enter or leave. FBI agents and Immigration and Naturalization agents were swarming. "I am standing by the glass doors we have just shut near the East Checkpoint," Ed Nelson recalls. "This FAA guy runs by me and says there are several more planes in the air ready to do mass destruction. He yelled, .We just got word that one was on its way from Dulles en route to the White House.. Within a minute later the Pentagon is hit. There are seven more planes in the air to go to different destinations. Minutes later Pennsylvania is hit . . ."
Civilian and military personnel inspect the damage to the Pentagon on September 12, 2001.
Photo by the US Government
Nelson, who is genetically wired to talk to everyone in his path, "knew something wasn.t adding up" at Dulles on the afternoon of 9/11. For Nelson nothing the FBI and INS agents were asking his people made sense. "They were not asking about the hijackers . they were focusing in on what my screeners might have done wrong. It was as if they were working off a script," he says.
According to FBI agents assigned to Dulles that day, who agreed to speak only if their names and office assignments were not published, that is precisely what they were given by supervisors at several Washington-area FBI offices. "The orders came from headquarters through the local Washington-area FBI field offices and the Joint Task Force on Terrorism. The teams of agents were told to .get the screeners to admit they had violated FAA recommended procedures,." one of the FBI supervisors says.
Nelson remembers first seeing the FBI agents within an hour or two of the attacks. The security tape at the main terminal.s West Checkpoint was the first target for the bureau. "They pulled the tape right away . . . they brought it to me to look at it. They went right to the first hijacker on the tape and identified him. They knew who the hijackers were out of hundreds of people going through the checkpoints. They would go .roll and stop it. and showed me each of the hijackers . . . It boggles my mind that they had already had the hijackers identified . . . Both metal detectors were open at that time and lots of traffic was moving through. So picking people out is hard . . . I wanted to know how they had that kind of information. So fast. It didn.t make sense to me."
Nelson.s instincts were valid. The CIA had finally given the FBI information it had been deliberately withholding for more than a year . including information about two of the Flight 77 hijackers. These two men were the same ones, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who had attended the Al Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur twenty-one months earlier. The CIA and the FBI were supposed to be working together on a task force called STATION ALEC to track down the bin Laden network. Jack Cloonan, one of the FBI.s top agents on the task force, says: "As each month went by in 2000, the bureau was being deprived from seeing more and more intelligence." What the CIA did not know is that when al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi moved to San Diego in the summer of 2001, their benefactors included an FBI informant and a Saudi intelligence officer, and they were getting funding from bank accounts tied to then Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar.s wife. The prince is a close friend of the Bush family.
But apart from identifying the hijackers on the checkpoint tape, the agents were focusing not on them but on Argenbright.s security procedures. Ed Nelson says: "One agent looking at the tape with me said, .It really didn.t look like he hand-wanded him down to the ankle. Did he really check that bag good enough with the hand wand?. I told them about technology and about how there are steel bars in the floor if you get too close. At that time we could not take shoes off of people. All we could do was feel the shoe. If it has a steel tip you can.t feel anything."
As Nelson was trying to manage through the crisis, he was noticing that employees were missing. He soon realized they were being questioned by the INS. "I would get a phone call from the INS office in the airport requesting that we send this person down and then another person down, and . . . they were not coming back . . . Hours and hours would go by. Nobody would call. I would finally get a call saying, .Don.t expect this guy to come back, don.t expect this one to come back . he.s gone, she.s gone.. They were just taking my employees from the airport down to DC and locking them up. But," Nelson adds, "I never got a phone call saying this person was deported back to his country."
Eric Gill got the news of the hijackings on his car radio as he and his wife were arriving at Wal-Mart for their second jobs. "When I called the airport," he recalls, "there was no answer. I was trying to find out if I should come to my job in the afternoon."
Gill and his wife, Roseline Safraz, who then ran a CTX machine that checks luggage for explosives, drove from Wal-Mart that afternoon to the locked-down terminal. Gill could not believe what he was seeing. The lower level of the terminal near the baggage-claim area was teeming with INS agents rounding up his colleagues and taking them away. FBI teams, along with Department of Transportation investigators, were questioning Argenbright workers not about what they had witnessed but about what they had done.
Eric Gill.s sense of foreboding began to build as he, like Ed Nelson earlier in the day, got the impression that the agents were following a script that had nothing to do with finding out how the hijackers had proceeded.
"When I came to Dulles I thought that these guys who tried to get through the night before could be involved," Gill recalls. He immediately went to his supervisor, Chandresh Patel, and told him that his colleague Nicholas DeSilva was also present at the checkpoint when the incident took place. Patel called the FBI and arranged for Gill and DeSilva to be interviewed immediately. Gill and DeSilva were separated during their interviews downstairs in the Customs area. Gill.s interview team, a male and a female FBI agent, interrogated him for about two hours. It was clear to the agents that Gill had seen something important, but inexplicably they never showed him the videotape of the hijackers going through the checkpoint that morning to see if any of the five men he had encountered the previous night were in fact the same people. The FBI had no hesitation about showing the video to other Argenbright employees that afternoon, but they never showed it to Gill. DeSilva has a poor memory for faces but he did confirm that the incident took place.
Two days later the FBI team brought some pictures to Gill.s home. "Unfortunately," says Gill, "they were just photocopies of poor quality and hard to see. They said they were in a hurry to find out what actually happened." Even though the quality of the images was poor, Gill recognized one of the Dulles hijackers and a short, dark-skinned man who was later identified as one of the Logan hijackers.
"The picture was bad . . . but I told them he looked like he could be the one who had been dressed in a ramp uniform with the ID card on the night of the tenth," Gill says. Had the agents brought Gill better-quality photographs or showed him the Dulles video, they might have learned a great deal more from him. Instead, after that second interview the FBI lost interest in what Eric Gill had to say.
Gill later learned that the man who could have corroborated part of his story, Khalid Mahmoud, had been inexplicably thrown out of the country. Mahmoud, who was still on Door 8 at Dulles after Eric Gill left work on the night of the tenth, was among the scores of Dulles workers swept up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Neither Ed Nelson nor Eric Gill ever saw or heard from Mahmoud again. Nelson says he was told by the FBI that Mahmoud simply would not be coming back to work. The FBI confiscated the 9/10 and 9/11 videotapes of the checkpoints and security doors. It also confiscated the logs of the electronic lock, which would reveal whose ID was used for the piggybacking attempt that led to the confrontation with Gill. Ed Nelson was unable to get access to the logs, and the FBI has not released the information they contained.
The rousting of foreign employees at Dulles scared both Eric and Roseline Gill. Two weeks after the hijackings, Eric was at Wal-Mart reading the National Enquirer during his break. "I was . . . reading the story on 9/11," Gill says. "They had color pictures of the hijackers with the story. I was with my wife on my break and I said, .I recognized two of them.. She said, .Are you sure?. I told her, .I am pretty sure.. The good thing I have is face memory. Even if I don.t remember the name, at least I always remember faces." Roseline Gill thought her husband should speak up, and he was prepared to tell the FBI when they next interviewed him. But to his surprise, they never came back.
Fearful that speaking out would endanger his family, Gill remained silent. He did not even bring the matter up with Ed Nelson or Steve Wragg, who ran Argenbright.s station at Dulles. Instead, along with thousands of others working at Dulles, he quietly went through new fingerprinting and received a new identification card.
Watch our interview with Gill in Unsafe at any Altitude.
Gill had more than a passing familiarity with extreme Islam. He was a religious refugee lucky to have left the Middle East with his life. The son of a well-educated Pakistani family, Gill got on the wrong side of the Islamic fundamentalists when he converted to Christianity and became a priest in the Anglican Church of Pakistan. By 1986 he had attracted enough fundamentalist enemies at home to be reassigned to Dubai, where he became part of an underground network financed by the Methodist Church of England to save the lives of Muslims who converted to Christianity and were being targeted by Islamist extremists.
It was when Gill participated in the rescue of a young Pakistani woman named Ramah that he personally became a serious target for the fundamentalists. When Ramah.s Muslim elders demanded that she return to her home village for punishment, Gill and his fellow Christians understood what that meant: Ramah would face death for her conversion and her defiance of her family. Gill and his colleagues weighed their options, concluding that Ramah.s devotion to Christ was real, and she deserved protection. "This was not like the Taliban in Afghanistan but the even more extreme Sipa-e-Sahaba," Gill recalls. They.re a very fundamentalist Muslim group who are against Christians and especially against those who became Christians. They were giving a lot of problems to the church there . . . We wanted to support her because she was so much devoted to her faith and remained Christian. So we took her out of sight and took her to Dubai." Gill.s underground network was eventually able to get her a Canadian visa, but it took quite awhile.
By this time it was clear to his church elders that Gill himself was in the sights of Sipa-e-Sahaba and could not live safely anywhere in the Middle East. The United Methodist Church agreed to sponsor Gill into the United States, where he successfully sought asylum because of religious persecution.
Gill understood when he entered the United States that his personal history and culture would be of little interest in his new country. "For me it was a source of strength to draw on," he says, as he was put through the economic and emotional hazing that happens to most new immigrants. He knew his education and experience in Pakistan didn.t matter. He would have to start again. "If I did well, then it would be the new life that would define me in my new country."
Failure was unacceptable for Eric Gill. He was a classic modern immigrant, well educated and willing to work as many jobs as it took to get a share of the American dream. His religious calling as a pastor was behind him. In early 1989, six months after arriving in the United States, Gill received papers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that allowed him to work legally in his newly adopted country.
For Gill and others in his situation, the challenge was to find employers willing to hire foreigners brand new to the country for jobs that did not involve harsh manual labor. Argenbright Security supplied passenger-screening and other security services to airlines. Gill learned that the starting jobs at Argenbright paid little more than minimum wage, but that working conditions were usually good and the work was reliable. Gill took a job as a checkpoint screener, and after a few days of training he was put to work at Dulles. He had joined the massive workforce that guards the civil aviation structure throughout the country. Gill.s intelligence and work ethic impressed his bosses. He was promoted to a supervisory position just three months after he was first hired. By September 10, 2001, Eric Gill was a veteran Argenbright supervisor and, in the eyes of his fellow immigrants at Dulles, an example to be emulated.
Frank Argenbright, the founder of the company, had come from a more modest background than had Eric Gill. Argenbright had built a billion-dollar company by marshaling thousands like Gill into a low-wage but highly motivated workforce that could provide low-cost security for the airlines. His formula was so successful that in just over twenty years his company became the largest aviation security firm in the United States, with 40 percent of the market. There were high turnover rates as employees moved on to better jobs, but Argenbright took particular pride in the fact that his screeners had never been responsible for a serious security incident by allowing weapons through. Argenbright.s methods were so successful in the United States that he was invited to revamp screening in Europe after the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. By 1999 he helmed the largest aviation security company in the world.
In December 2000 a British-based outfit called Securicor bought Argenbright Security. For Eric Gill, the main difference was that the new owners were less personal in the way they treated employees. All the little extras that had made Argenbright Security different from the other screening companies were being cut. Whenever Frank Argenbright came through an airport his company served, employees like Gill would a get a personal hello, and they would get a personal note on a holiday card each year. For Gill, it was a matter of respect. The fresh carnation that Argenbright insisted every employee wear each day was no longer handed out under Securicor. Gill was also sorry to learn that Securicor would not be continuing the annual awards dinners honoring Argenbright.s best. Gill had won his share of these "110 Percent" awards. After fifteen years with Argenbright, Gill was one of the most experienced security officers at Dulles.
Every day Gill reminded himself that had he returned to Pakistan instead of coming to the United States, he would probably be dead. Many of his fellow Christians had been slaughtered in his native country, which was now a center for anti-Western Islamist activities.
Ed Nelson says, "I never received a phone call from anyone beyond watching the tapes with the FBI that first day, and I ran the security checkpoints . . . I never heard from the 9/11 Commission." Every single employee who worked at Dulles checkpoints saw the tape of the Al Qaeda team in the immediate aftermath of the hijackings, Nelson adds, except for Eric Gill and Nicholas DeSilva.
Long after the FBI lost interest in Eric Gill, he was finally shown accurate pictures of the hijackers by Steve Wragg. On the FBI Web site www.fbi.gov/pressrel/penttbom/penttbomb.htm, Wragg had found pictures of each of the terrorists categorized under the specific flight hijacked. Wragg, long experienced in airline security, sat next to Gill and watched as he went through the pictures. Under American Airlines Flight 77 . the one that crashed into the Pentagon . Gill recognized Nawaf al-Hazmi as one of the men he saw the evening of September 10.
Then, clicking on United Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles, Eric pointed to Marwan al-Shehhi. Wragg says, "He did this before the pictures of the remaining three hijackers appeared on the screen." Gill told Wragg, "I do remember these two faces especially because . . . al-Hazmi abused me . . . that.s why I can always remember him. Yeah, both of them were in the group of five people and these two were wearing IDs and uniforms also . . . I remember al-Shehhi, he was the first one who came in and showed me his ID."
A source in the FBI, who asked not to be named, says that one reason Gill was not taken seriously was that the bureau had trouble understanding why and how one of the United 175 hijackers would have been at Dulles the night before his early-morning flight from Boston. Complicating the FBI.s problem was the fact that there were no cameras at the checkpoints at Logan. If Gill was correct about what he saw, then that raises questions about the entire post-9/11 investigation.
Both Nelson and Gill are convinced that the three men Gill did not recognize were not investigated by the FBI or any other government agency in the wake of the hijackings. Gill believes they may have been "Al Qaeda collaborators and no effort was made to catch them." Nelson is more direct: "There were just way too many loopholes at Dulles then." Gill was never shown the ID pictures of airport employees who might have been the ones he confronted on the tenth.
Almost eighteen months later Gill finally heard from the government again. The staff of the 9/11 Commission interviewed him, but only over the phone. He tried again to explain the significance of what he had seen. "I did explain to the agents that we had a camera on the West Checkpoint when they came through. They could have compared the pictures with the guys who came through the checkpoint the next day but again they didn.t do it."
A high-level source at American Airlines says their security people were aware of the Eric Gill incident: "I believe the reason the FBI did not pay attention to Gill was because first he was from Pakistan, and second because his information was not consistent to the theory they had developed of what happened."
Why a Boston hijacker might have been at Dulles could have something to do with Saleh al-Hussayen, the Saudi benefactor of Islamic charities who coincidentally was staying at the same Marriott Residence Inn where the Dulles hijackers spent their last night. According to testimony from an FBI agent in a 2004 terrorism financing trial of al-Hussayen.s nephew, Saleh al-Hussayen had a long history of arranging for financing of charities the US government suspected of having terrorist connections. Al-Hussayen arrived in the United States on August 20, 2001, and, according to the FBI, actually was taken on a tour of the World Trade Center. He visited Manhattan, Canada, Detroit, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and returned to northern Virginia on September 6.
One of the FBI agents who worked on al-Hussayen for the Joint Task Force on Terrorism speculated that the Saudi, who later was put in charge of the most holy of all Islamic shrines in Mecca, "may have had some connection to the attacks and is likely to have met with those funding the hijackers if not the hijackers themselves" while on the trip. The agent pointed to the fact that al-Hussayen and his wife initially checked into another hotel in Herndon on September 6, but then moved to the Marriott Residence Inn.
The FBI finally got around to interviewing al-Hussayen on September 17 at the Marriott Residence Inn. During the interview the agents began to ask him whom he had met with while staying at the hotel. According to sworn testimony by an FBI agent in the nephew.s trial, "The uncle exhibited signs of physical distress and actually fainted to the ground during the course of the interview. He was subsequently brought to a local hospital and examined by a physician there . . . The agent conducting the interview spoke directly with the attending physician, who told the agent he could find nothing wrong with the patient and in the opinion of the agent, she felt the attack was feigned."
The next day the FBI agent returned to the Marriott Residence Inn to try again to interview al-Hussayen about the events of 9/11. The agent found him unhelpful. After she left, al-Hussayen contacted the Saudi embassy, which in turn contacted the FBI. Former Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar, a personal friend of al-Hussayen, was already deeply involved in evacuating bin Laden family members and others from the United States after the attacks.
The next day another FBI agent, who was much less aggressive, was dispatched for yet another interview. That agent reported back that he could uncover no additional information. The first FBI agent on the case was adamant that al-Hussayen should not be permitted to leave the country until questions about 9/11 were resolved. Because of pressure from Prince Bandar on the Bush administration, however, the agent.s supervisors overruled her, and on September 19 al-Hussayen was allowed to fly to Saudi Arabia. He had never answered the FBI.s 9/11 questions.
Rear Admiral Cathal Flynn has the look of a warrior. Born in Ireland, six and half feet tall, a former navy SEAL, Flynn had the job of protecting civil aviation for most of the Clinton years. Before becoming associate administrator for security at the FAA, he had been the top navy counterintelligence official and played a major role in the infamous Jonathan Pollard spy case.
In the hours after the Al Qaeda attack Flynn received many calls from journalists. None was as memorable as that from Seymour "Sy" Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter. Hersh, not known for being either low-key or subtle, was particularly direct with Flynn, who had been a source for him on the Pollard case. With a certainty uniquely his own, Hersh told the admiral, "The guns were put onto the plane by the ramp workers."
Flynn had not learned of Eric Gill.s encounter the evening before the hijackings, and neither had Hersh. Flynn, in his deep baritone voice, told Hersh that as far as he knew there were no pistols used in any of the hijackings. Hersh countered, "Those ramp workers aren.t even checked." Flynn knew Hersh was right about ramp-worker security. He told Hersh, "Sy, why would they go through the process of ramp workers doing this rather than just take these things onto the plane by themselves?" According to Flynn, Hersh was adamant: "There were pistols and they were put onto the plane by the ramp workers." Flynn, who is not easily intimidated by anyone, especially reporters, asked Hersh, "Who told you that?" Hersh replied, "The FBI."
Flynn was not surprised. He sensed that the FBI had gone into defense mode even as the wreckage was still smoking and was trying to deflect blame for the disaster. Flynn knew a lot about how government employees reacted when they were put on the defensive. But he understood that what Sy Hersh was saying went to the heart of the vulnerability of commercial airline security. Six hundred thousand employees had access to the back of America.s airports. There was a deep, underlying fear among security people who understood how starkly the elaborate, sometimes arbitrary security required of passengers contrasted with the haphazard system for airline and airport employees and contractors.
Sy Hersh remembers the conversation with the admiral. "But my source was not the FBI," he says, "it was the INS." It is not unusual for reporters to disguise sources when asked by other officials where they got their information. After all, if you tell the wrong person, it could be an easy matter for him or her to track down and silence your original source.
Khalid Mahmoud, who was guarding the downstairs door of the West Checkpoint at Dulles the night Eric Gill turned those five men away, "was interviewed by the INS in the hours after the hijacking and then immediately deported," according to an agent who worked for the INS at the time. While an FBI team was interviewing Gill and Nicholas DeSilva, the INS was already interviewing Khalid Mahmoud. "That is how the INS knew about the incident," the INS source says. An FBI source who asked not to be identified says, "That is probably how the information got to Hersh."
The sources who most threatened the Justice Department.s story that the screeners were responsible for 9/11 were Eric Gill and Khalid Mahmoud. If Al Qaeda had access to the aircraft at Dulles . or at any of the other airports . ahead of time and could have placed weapons on board, that meant that anything the screeners did or didn.t do was irrelevant.