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Context of 'May 1, 2001-September 11, 2001: FAA Briefs Airlines on Security, But Only About Overseas Threats'

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TIPOFF is a US no-fly list of individuals who should be detained if they attempt to leave or enter the US. There are about 60,000 names on this list by 9/11 (see December 11, 1999). Apparently there had been no prohibition of travel inside the US, but on this day an FAA security directive puts six names on a newly created domestic no-fly list. All six are said to be associates of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, including his uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). On August 28, 2001, six more names will be added to this list. Apparently all 12 names are associated with al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremist groups. 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey will later note the discrepancy of the 60,000-name list with the 12-name list and comment, “seems to me, particularly with what was going on at the time, that some effort would have been made to make—to produce a larger list than [only 12 names].” [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] The FAA’s chief of security in 2001, Cathal Flynn, will later say that he was “unaware of the TIPOFF list” until after the September 11 attacks. 9/11 Commissioner Slade Gorton will say that this admission is “stunning, just unbeleivable,” and an “example of absolute incompetence” at the FAA. Other FAA officials will say they are aware of the larger list, but do not make much use of it. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 115] On the day of 9/11, two of the 9/11 hijackers will be on the 60,000-name TIPOFF list but not the 12-name domestic list, so airport security does not know to stop them from boarding the planes they hijack that day (see August 23, 2001).

Entity Tags: TIPOFF, Slade Gorton, Cathal Flynn, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Bob Kerrey, Al-Qaeda, Ramzi Yousef

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A series of top-secret security briefings are given to airport officials at the top 19 airports in the US. The airports warned include those at Boston, Washington, and Newark, which are eventually used by the hijackers. A 9/11 Commission Report on this later notes, “The briefings highlight the threat posed by terrorists in general and bin Laden in particular, including his threats against aviation. The renewed interest in hijacking by terrorist groups [is] also covered.” The briefings note that if “the intent of the hijacker is not to exchange hostages for prisoners, but to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, a domestic hijacking would probably be preferable.” But they also note that such a hijacking would be harder to carry out. Around the same time, the FAA distributes an unclassified CD-ROM presentation to airlines and airports. “The presentation cite[s] the possibility that terrorists might conduct suicide hijackings but state[s]: ‘Fortunately, we have no indication that any group is currently thinking in that direction.’” This briefing and presentation doesn’t lead to any upgrade in security or improved passenger screening at the airports. Apparently, the information isn’t widely shared with pilots, flight attendants, passenger screeners, and the like, and it doesn’t lead to any specific FAA advisories or actions. [New York Times, 2/10/2005; Newsday, 2/11/2005; New Jersey Star-Ledger, 2/11/2005] For instance, Dave Machett, a pilot who is president of the grassroots organization Airline Pilots Security Alliance, says that “Not one word” reached the pilots. “The flight crews were kept completely in the dark about this growing threat.” [Newsday, 2/11/2005] 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer comments, “The FAA deserves to be raked over the coals for ignoring the warnings and being more concerned about reducing air traffic congestion than dealing with possible terrorist attacks.” [New Jersey Star-Ledger, 2/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Federal Aviation Administration, Tim Roemer, Dave Machett

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 2005 (see February 10, 2005), it will be revealed that of the FAA’s 105 daily intelligence summaries between these dates, 52 mention bin Laden, al-Qaeda, or both. Most of the mentions are “in regard to overseas threats.” None of the warnings specifically predict something similar to the 9/11 attacks, but five of them mention al-Qaeda’s training for hijackings and two reports concern suicide operations unconnected to aviation. [Associated Press, 2/11/2005] One of the warnings mentions air defense measures being taken in Genoa, Italy, for the July 2001 G-8 summit to protect from a possible air attack by terrorists (see July 20-22, 2001). However, the New Jersey Star-Ledger is virtually the only newspaper in the US to report this fact. [New Jersey Star-Ledger, 2/11/2005] Despite all these warnings, the FAA fails to take any extra security measures. They do not expand the use of in-flight air marshals or tighten airport screening for weapons. A proposed rule to improve passenger screening and other security measures ordered by Congress in 1996 has held up and is still not in effect by 9/11. The 9/11 Commission’s report on these FAA warnings released in 2005 (see February 10, 2005) will conclude that FAA officials were more concerned with reducing airline congestion, lessening delays, and easing air carriers’ financial problems than preventing a hijacking. [Associated Press, 2/11/2005] The FAA also makes no effort to expand its list of terror suspects, which includes only a dozen names by 9/11 (see April 24, 2000). The former head of the FAA’s civil aviation security branch later says he wasn’t even aware of TIPOFF, the government’s main watch list, which included the names of two 9/11 hijackers before 9/11. Nor is there any evidence that a senior FAA working group responsible for security ever meets in 2001 to discuss “the high threat period that summer.” [New York Times, 2/10/2005]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11 Commission, US Congress, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FAA conducts 27 briefings for airline companies in this time period. However, each briefing only addresses hijacking threats overseas. This is despite the fact that from March to May, the FAA conducted briefings for US airports that raised concerns about hijackings in the domestic US, and even told airports that if hijackers wanted to end a hijacking with a suicidal “spectacular explosion” it would make more sense to do it in the domestic US (see March-May 2001). Also during roughly the same May to September time period, about half of the FAA’s daily intelligence briefings mention bin Laden or al-Qaeda, and one of those specifically referred to an al-Qaeda plot using planes as weapons. Even though some of these mentions are connected to domestic threats, airlines are only briefed about the overseas threats (see April 1, 2001-September 10, 2001). [New Jersey Star-Ledger, 2/11/2005; Newsday, 2/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On July 5, 2001, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke gave a dramatic briefing to representatives from several domestic agencies on the urgent al-Qaeda threat (see July 5, 2001). However, the warnings given generally are not passed on by the attendees back to their respective agencies. The domestic agencies were not questioned about how they planned to address the threat and were not told what was expected of them. According to the 9/11 Commission, attendees later “report that they were told not to disseminate the threat information they received at the meeting. They interpreted this direction to mean that although they could brief their superiors, they could not send out advisories to the field.” One National Security Council official has a different recollection of what happened, recalling that attendees were asked to take the information back to their agencies and “do what you can” with it, subject to classification and distribution restrictions. But, for whatever reason, none of the involved agencies post internal warnings based on the meeting, except for Customs which puts out a general warning based entirely on publicly known historical facts. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 258, 264] The FAA issues general and routine threat advisories that don’t reflect the level of urgency expressed by Clarke and others (see January-August 2001). FAA Administrator Jane Garvey later claims she was unaware of a heightened threat level, but in 2005 it will be revealed that about half of the FAA’s daily briefings during this time period referred to bin Laden or al-Qaeda (see April 1, 2001-September 10, 2001). [New York Times, 4/18/2004] Clarke said rhetorically in the meeting that he wants to know if a sparrow has fallen from a tree. A senior FBI official attended the meeting and promised a redoubling of the FBI’s efforts. However, just five days after Clarke’s meeting, FBI agent Ken Williams sends off his memo speculating that al-Qaeda may be training operatives as pilots in the US (see July 10, 2001), yet the FBI fails to share this information with Clarke or any other agency. [Washington Post, 5/17/2002; Clarke, 2004, pp. 236-37] The FBI will also fail to tell Clarke about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui (see August 16, 2001), or what they know about Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar (see August 23, 2001).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Customs Service, Nawaf Alhazmi, Al-Qaeda, Counterterrorism and Security Group, George J. Tenet, Condoleezza Rice, Andrew Card, Ken Williams, Richard A. Clarke, Khalid Almihdhar, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Anti-aircraft stationed around the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy.Anti-aircraft stationed around the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy. [Source: BBC]The G8 summit is held in Genoa, Italy. Acting on previous warnings that al-Qaeda would attempt to kill President Bush and other leaders, Italian authorities surround the summit with anti-aircraft guns. They keep fighter jets in the air and close off local airspace to all planes. [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/2001] The warnings are taken so seriously that Bush stays overnight on an aircraft carrier offshore, and other world leaders stay on a luxury ship. [CNN, 7/18/2001] No attack occurs. US officials state that the warnings were “unsubstantiated,” but after 9/11, they will claim success in preventing an attack. [Los Angeles Times, 9/27/2001] According to author Philip Shenon, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is involved in discussions about the precautions, and this is the only time she focuses on al-Qaeda threats in the summer of 2001. Shenon will add: “There is no record to show that Rice made any special effort to discuss terrorist threats with Bush. The record suggested, instead, that it was not a matter of special interest to either of them that summer.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 154]

Entity Tags: Condoleezza Rice, Philip Shenon, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A report by the 9/11 Commission on the FAA and 9/11 is publicly released. The fact that the report reveals nearly half of all FAA daily briefings between April and early September 2001 mentioned al-Qaeda, bin Laden, or both causes headlines (see April 1, 2001-September 10, 2001). However, the report was actually completed in August 2004 but was held up by the Bush administration. Some speculate that the publication of the report was delayed until after the November 2004 presidential election to help Bush get reelected. For instance, 9/11 victim’s relative Carol Ashley states, “I’m just appalled that this was withheld for five months. That contributes to the idea that the government knew something and didn’t act, it contributes to the conspiracy theories out there.” Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) asks for a hearing on whether the Bush administration played politics with the report’s release, but the Republican-controlled House of Representatives does not allow such a hearing. [Associated Press, 2/11/2005] Additionally, the released version of this report is heavily censored in some areas. The 9/11 Commission asserts that the whole report should be released, but the Bush administration is blocking their efforts to release the censored portions. Politicians, 9/11 victims’ relatives, open-government advocates, and others call for the release of the entire report, but to no avail. [New York Times, 2/11/2005]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Osama bin Laden, Henry A. Waxman, 9/11 Commission, Al-Qaeda, Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline


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