9/11 Hijackers Used Mace And Knives, Panel Reports
By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 28, 2004; Page A01
The hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, blasted Mace or pepper spray at flight crew members and passengers to keep them away from the cockpits and wielded knives in their orchestrated takeovers of the aircraft, according to a report issued yesterday by the commission investigating the attacks.
The report provides the most comprehensive picture yet of the what it called the "common strategy" the terrorists used to commandeer the four airliners that were flown into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. At a hearing yesterday, the 9/11 commission played publicly for the first time dramatic portions of a taped phone call from American Airlines flight attendant Betty Ong, revealing the fear and confusion aboard Flight 11 after the hijackers stabbed at least two crew members before crashing the plane into the North Tower.
In a separate report yesterday, the 10-member bipartisan commission revealed that nine of the 19 hijackers had been flagged by the Federal Aviation Administration's computer passenger screening system before boarding their flights. The system alerts airport security screeners to more thoroughly check passengers who buy one-way tickets or pay with cash. FAA procedures at the time called the luggage of the "selectees" to be screened for explosives.
According to the report, three of the five hijackers aboard Flight 11 were designated selectees by the computer system, known as CAPPS, but one hijacker had checked no luggage and screeners scanned the bags of the other two for explosives. All five hijackers aboard American Flight 77 -- which crashed into the Pentagon -- were selectees and their luggage was held before they were confirmed on the aircraft, and no further screening was done.
One hijacker aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was flagged and his bag was screened for explosives before being loaded onto the plane, the report said. No terrorists aboard United Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower, were flagged.
In its report on what happened aboard the jets, the commission concluded that the hijackers made bomb threats on at least three of the four planes and shot pepper spray on at least two flights. Passengers calling from cell phones noted the use of box cutters on only one flight, the report said. The commission also said it was skeptical of an earlier report that a gun was aboard one plane.
At yesterday's hearing, the commission focused on evidence gathered from at least 11 passengers and flight crew members who communicated with family members, employers and friends from the doomed flights. The hearing culminated with the taped calls from Ong, the American Airlines flight attendant, who used an onboard phone.
The commission, which has been hampered by obstacles since its creation in late 2002, announced yesterday that it will publicly press for a two-month extension of its statutory deadline, May 27. Any extension, which must be approved by Congress and the White House, would push the commission's work further into the presidential campaign.
The White House and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have said they would oppose any extension. But Kristen Breitweiser, widow of World Trade Center victim Ronald Breitweiser, said she hopes the appeal from the commission will changes their minds.
Commission member Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said, "We need this extension in order to thoroughly sift through all the facts, carefully evaluate a set of recommendations and not have a rush to judgment."
The report said the various calls from passengers and flight crew members indicated that they were aware that their planes had been hijacked but were unable to confirm that a terrorist was in the pilot's seat because many of them had been moved to the backs of the aircraft.
Posted on Wed, Jan. 28, 2004
Panel: FAA Downplayed Suicide Scenario
WASHINGTON - The Federal Aviation Administration focused on the danger of explosives aboard planes rather than a suicide hijacking before the Sept. 11 attacks even though its own security officers warned terrorists might try to crash an airliner, a federal panel said.
The FAA's Office of Civil Aviation Security considered the risk of a suicide hijacking at least as early as March 1998, says the preliminary report by The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which was released Tuesday.
The commission report acknowledges there was no specific intelligence indicating suicide hijackings would occur but says the FAA still had a responsibility to protect the flying public against such a threat.
The commission wrapped up two days of hearings that focused on aviation and border security lapses. The panel, which has been investigating the Sept. 11 attacks for a year and has held seven public hearings, wants Congress to extend its May 27 deadline by at least two months, saying it needs more time to review all the material.
At Tuesday's hearing, the commission provided documents showing the FAA was aware of the possibility of suicide hijackings but did not pass the information along to airlines.
In a presentation to airline and airport officials in early 2001, the FAA discounted the threat of a suicide hijacking because there was "no indication that any group is currently thinking in that direction." And when the agency issued a terrorism warning to air carriers in July 2001, it noted the risk of explosives inside luggage but did not mention suicide hijackings.
At a commission hearing, panel member Timothy Roemer read from an FAA document published in the Federal Register on July 17, 2001, stating that terrorism could occur "anytime, anywhere" in the United States and cautioning that the risk "needs to be prevented and countered."
"The dots are connected and they're large," said Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "Why didn't they result in a change in policy?"
Cathal L. Flynn, former associate administrator of civil aviation security at the FAA, responded that the agency only had a generalized sense of the risk and that security efforts were hampered somewhat by poor communication with the FBI.
"It isn't that we disregarded them. There were disconnects," he said. "How would you coerce a pilot to fly into a building that's got people in it? ... How would you do that? The notion of a full-fledged al-Qaida member being a pilot ... did not occur to me."
Executives from United Airlines and American Airlines told the commission they rely on the FAA and federal agencies to provide guidance on aviation security as well as counterterrorism efforts. They proposed a more integrated security plan to improve coordination among federal agencies.
Other preliminary findings disclosed Tuesday by the commission:
_Nine of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers had been stopped by the airlines for additional security screening.
_Weaknesses in airport screening of carry-on baggage in the 20 years prior to 2001 were rampant and widely reported in popular literature, which the hijackers apparently read and used to their advantage.
The 10-member, bipartisan commission was established by Congress to study the nation's preparedness before Sept. 11 and its response to the attacks, and to make recommendations for guarding against similar disasters.
On Tuesday, the panel also formally asked Congress to extend its deadline for a final report by at least two months, or to July 26, citing a need for full analysis of reams of documents and interviews with government officials about the disaster.
"As much as we have learned about the enemy, there is much more we need to learn about them," said former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, the panel's vice chairman.
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