The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States concluded its seventh public hearing Tuesday by exploring how the terrorists exploited aviation security weaknesses.
The commission's staff reported that FAA officials recognized the threat of a terrorist suicide hijacking as long ago as March 1998, but discounted the threat in 2000 and early 2001 when they told airlines and airports, "We have no indication that any group is currently thinking in that direction."
During the summer of 2001, the U.S. intelligence community went on a heightened state of security due to information received about possible terrorist attacks. FAA officials reacted to the alert by issuing security directives and information circulars to the aviation community, while telling airports and airlines that it did not have credible evidence of specific plans to attack U.S. civil aviation, the staff reported.
"Although several civil aviation security officials testified that the FAA felt blind when it came to assessing the domestic threat because of the lack of intelligence on what was going on in the American homeland as opposed to overseas, FAA security analysts did perceive an increasing terrorist threat to U.S. civil aviation at home," the staff said.
Former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who headed the agency when the attacks occurred, testified that although FAA officials knew the intelligence community was on a heightened state of alert, the agency's focus was on possible attacks abroad.
"In the summer of 2001, while there was a growing concern regarding the domestic threat, the FAA did not have any credible and specific information which indicated the type of attack we saw on Sept. 11 was planned or was possible in the United States," Garvey said. "The greater concern regarding the threat was internationally."
According to former Rep. Timothy Roemer, R-Ind., who serves on the commission, an internal FAA document developed in the summer of 2001 warning about terrorist attacks contradicts Garvey's assertion.
"A domestic hijacking will likely result in a greater number of American hostages but would be operationally more difficult to accomplish. We don't rule it out," Roemer quoted from the document. "If, however, the intent of the hijackers is not to exchange hostages for prisoners, but to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, then domestic hijacking would probably be preferable."
Additionally, Roemer said FAA officials published a new rule in the Federal Register on July 17, 2001 that said, "Terrorism can occur anytime, anywhere in the United States. Members of foreign terrorist groups, representatives from state sponsors of terrorism and radical fundamentalist elements from many nations are present in the United States. Thus, an increasing threat to civil aviation from both foreign sources and potential domestic ones exist and needs to be prevented and countered."
The commission's staff also reported "serious shortcomings" in the FAA's layers of defense that made the hijackings possible, particularly in the area of passenger screening.
For example, the commission found that nine of the 19 hijackers were flagged for secondary screening at passenger checkpoints, but still made it onto their planes, and at least two hijackers apparently brought utility knives aboard the planes. Previously, the hijackers were believed to only have box cutters. However, FAA guidelines at the time did not prohibit passengers from carrying pocket utility knives with blades shorter than four inches aboard planes.
"All 19 hijackers were able to pass successfully through checkpoint screening to board their flights," the staff said. "They were 19 for 19. They counted on beating a weak system."