The 9/11 terror attacks could have been stopped if airlines, airports and the Federal Aviation Administration had heeded intelligence warnings and fixed airport security holes, according to former federal security agents.
And 15 years after the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, both the government and the aviation system continue to neglect trouble in security and avoid accountability for failing to prevent the catastrophe, the agents suggest.
“Aviation security was given short shrift in the 9/11 Commission Report and, whether intentional or not, the net effect was to protect the airports and airlines from liability,” said Brian Sullivan, a former special agent with the FAA, which had responsibility for aviation security until it was replaced after 9/11 by the Transportation Security Administration. “Since the report was published, new information shows 9/11 could have been prevented.”
Sullivan alerted top FAA officials in Washington five times in the months before 9/11 about checkpoint security failures at Boston’s Logan airport, but the problems weren’t fixed. Hijackers passed through two Logan checkpoints on 9/11, commandeered two jets and crashed them into New York’s World Trade Center towers.
Three other former FAA special agents — Bogdan Dzakovic, Steve Elson and Sherry Moran —repeatedly told their supervisors about security deficiencies that endangered the traveling public, but also say the flaws weren’t addressed or corrected.
A host of documents and interviews obtained by American Media Institute show that these and many other problems with airport security have not been fixed in the decade and a half since 9/11. Interviews were conducted with FAA security officials, 9/11 Commission staff, lawyers in 9/11-related lawsuits and individuals who say they observed the actions of the 19 hijackers’ leader, Mohamed Atta, prior to the hijackings.
Among the facts not included in the 9/11 Commission Report:
Atta surveilled checkpoints at Logan before 9/11
American Airlines employee Stephen Wallace noticed Atta and a male accomplice photographing and videotaping a checkpoint on May 11, 2001, according to a Wallace’s 2007 testimony in a U.S. district court case. It was the checkpoint Atta and four other hijackers would later walk through on 9/11.
Wallace said he watched the men for about 45 minutes, as they also videotaped flight display monitors and talked loudly on a cellphone. When Wallace inquired what they were doing, one of the men cursed at him in Arabic.
“These two clowns are up to something,” Wallace told a Massachusetts State Police officer, as the two suspects, whom he described as “very nervous,” walked to another checkpoint and got in line with departing passengers.
Wallace instructed a carry-on bag screener to carefully observe the bags of Atta and his accomplice, as Wallace and the police officer stood behind the X-ray machine, he said. Wallace received a phone call from his airline during the screening and left to address another matter. Atta and his accomplice apparently proceeded on unchallenged.
The Massachusetts State Police was asked to comment but didn’t respond to AMI.
Former security screening supervisor Theresa Spagnuolo, whose company Globe Aviation Services provided security for American at Logan, said she saw Atta videotaping a checkpoint in May 2001, according to her interview six days after 9/11 with federal law enforcement officers.
Spagnuolo said she was bothered by the filming, but her supervisor told her it was a public area and nothing could be done.
An FBI chronology of the 9/11 hijackers’ movements indicates they were at Logan on other dates.
“The bad guys on 9/11 surveilled the airport security system diligently for a long time,” said Robert Cammaroto, who issued security directives to airlines and was the manager of the FAA’s Airports Policy Division.
Box cutters, mace and pepper spray were already prohibited
The 9/11 Commision Report does not mention that the crude weapons used by the hijackers to commandeer planes were prohibited items that should have been detected and confiscated by screeners at carry-on bag checkpoints. Such items were not allowed on aircraft, according to the airport checkpoint operators guide developed with the FAA.
Although box cutters were prohibited, FAA administrator Jane Garvey told the 9/11 Commission otherwise at a May 2003 hearing.
“We shouldn't make the mistake of thinking this tragedy was fundamentally about then-legal box cutters carried on the planes,” she said.
And the 9/11 Commission Report’s executive summary erroneously states that the hijackers used weapons “most likely permissible.”
The report omits statements about porous airport security
The 9/11 report omits statements about porous airport security given to the commission by numerous FAA officials and Mary Schiavo, a lawyer who was the Inspector General of the FAA’s parent agency, the Transportation Department, from 1990 to 1996.
“It was well-known long before Sept. 11, 2001, that the entire aviation security system could be skirted or breached at will,” Schiavo told the commission in May 2003. “Yet, astoundingly, the airlines and other aviation providers refused to implement better security.”
Schiavo provided the commission with a long, detailed statement pointing out airline, airport and FAA security failures, but none of her statements were included in the commission report.
Schiavo’s law firm represented 48 families of victims killed on the four hijacked flights, and all the families, she said, received monetary settlements from insurers of American, United and companies contracted to provide security at Logan, Newark and Dulles airports.
No settlement money was paid directly by airlines, airports or security companies because soon after 9/11, Congress gave them immunity from liability.
FAA security officials became frustrated when Garvey and her associate, Cathal Flynn, did nothing to address their concerns, according to AMI interviews with Dzakovic, who led the FAA’s Red Team that conducted undercover airport security tests worldwide, and fellow Red Team member Elson.
Garvey did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Flynn told AMI that “the 9/11 Commission Report is the authentic word,” then hung up the phone.
The FAA, in a written statement, said these allegations were addressed in the Commission Report, even though the report makes no mention of Dzakovic, who calls the report “a whitewash.”
Shortly after 9/11, Flynn, Garvey and Condoleezza Rice, then-president George W. Bush’s national security advisor, said in public statements that they couldn’t imagine suicidal hijackers using aircraft as weapons.
But Flynn should have been able to put the straws together, according to John Hawley, a former FAA intelligence operations specialist, because they received daily intelligence briefings about terrorist activity and threats to civil aviation, including numerous warnings and incidents that indicated aircraft might be used as weapons.
FAA officials were aware, Hawley said, that hijackers of an Air France flight in Algiers in 1994 reportedly planned to crash the hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower.
The 9/11 Commission Report relegated evidence of major security problems at Logan checkpoints to a footnote
A former FAA agent pointed out lax security at Logan to FAA leadership, and a Boston TV station twice reported security problems at the airport before 9/11, the footnote says.
Sullivan, who retired from the FAA in 2001, was the agent. He says that from May through August 2001, he notified Garvey three times — twice on the FAA administrator’s hotline.
Boston’s FOX 25 TV station broadcast on May 6, 2001 — five days before Atta was spotted videotaping American Airlines checkpoints — that its reporters carried a knife undetected through Logan checkpoints during a test. FOX reported that officials of Massport, which operates Logan, promised to rectify the problems, but the station later found the same problems.
In a statement to American Media Institute, Massport spokesman Matthew Brelis said: “After an unprecedented congressional investigation by a commission with virtually unlimited investigatory authority, years of intensive discovery, hundreds of depositions and millions of pages of documents produced, the federal court in New York found no legal or factual basis for a claim against Massport.”
He declined further comment because the company is being sued by World Trade Center Properties.
FAA agents covertly conducted weekly passenger checkpoint tests at Logan, including the ability of screeners to find mock weapons and conduct proper searches.
“There was a consistent high degree of test failures,” says former FAA security agent Sherry Moran, who worked for the FAA from 1987 to 2003 and then with TSA until her retirement in 2011.
But FAA supervisors at Logan “would discourage reporting high failure rates” and told agents not to make tests too difficult for the X-ray screeners, Moran says. Agents were told not to place mock weapons in positions hard to detect within carry-on bags and not to surround mock weapons with many other items that could disguise the weapons.
"What mystified me after 9/11 is that all the results we found every day at Logan were documented,” Moran says, “but none were in the 9/11 report.”
The report doesn’t discuss the security programs of American and United airlines, whose four jets were hijacked on 9/11
Janet Riffe, the FAA’s principal security inspector for American Airlines on 9/11, told commission staff that the company didn't believe there was a domestic security threat and didn't want to spend money. She said the airline had an exceptional international security program but that its domestic program was lacking.
But Schiavo told the commission American’s security “was so bad” that it was fined $3.4 million by the FAA between 1998 and 2000. United Airlines was fined $3 million “for lax security” during those same years, she added.
American would not answer specific AMI questions about 9/11, including why its screeners didn’t detect the hijackers’ prohibited weapons.
“We will refer you to the report issued by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission),” American said in a written statement. “We are not going to have any other comments for you regarding your questions.”
United Airlines also would not answer specific questions about its security on 9/11, including why its screeners didn’t detect the hijackers’ prohibited weapons.
“Any questions regarding security or events that led up to that day are part of the public record and have been widely reported,” said United spokesman Charles Hobart. “United participated extensively in the investigations surrounding these events and we welcome you to contact the FAA or other authorities for any additional information.”
Throughout the airline industry prior to, and on, 9/11, air carriers’ approach to security was “deny, decry and delay,” Cammaroto says. They “denied there was a problem, decried the solution when we came up with it and delayed as long as possible to implement it.”
Airlines are no longer responsible for checkpoint security — a duty transferred after 9/11 to the Transportation Safety Administration.
Yet Red Teams from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General last year successfully smuggled mock explosives or weapons past checkpoint screeners in 67 of 70 tests at big U.S. airports.
“The safety of airline passengers and aircraft could be compromised” by TSA’s “inadequate oversight”of its maintenance contract for airport screening equipment, Insp.-Gen. John Roth testified in June before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.