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Context of 'October 8, 1998: FAA Warns of Al-Qaeda Threat to US Civil Aviation'

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Bruce Butterworth.Bruce Butterworth. [Source: Mineta Transportation Institute]John O’Neill, a senior FBI agent, tells congressional staffers there are no threats to aviation in the US. The staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked the FBI, the director of central intelligence, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a briefing about threats to civil aviation. O’Neill goes to the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, to respond to this request on behalf of the FBI. Cathal Flynn, the FAA’s associate administrator for civil aviation security, who goes on behalf of the FAA, will later recall that at the briefing, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers ask, “What are the indications—or what are the threats—to aviation?” In response, according to Flynn, “John O’Neill said there are none.” [9/11 Commission, 9/9/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] Bruce Butterworth, the FAA’s director of civil aviation security operations, who is apparently at the briefing, will similarly describe O’Neill’s response. He will say he “recalled FBI agent John O’Neill’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee wherein he was unwilling to corroborate FAA claims about credible threats to civil aviation.” [9/11 Commission, 9/29/2003 pdf file]
FBI Has Learned of 'Indications' of Threats to Aviation - Flynn finds O’Neill’s response to the Intelligence Committee staffers odd, since, he will say, the FBI has learned of a “few indications” of possible threats to aviation, such as a suspicious individual trying to get “a job with airport access” at Los Angeles International Airport. He writes a note to O’Neill, reminding him about this incident. But, according to Flynn, O’Neill “looked at the note” and “still didn’t say anything, didn’t change what he had said.” As the two men are leaving the briefing, Flynn asks O’Neill about the incident and O’Neill tells him there was “nothing to it.” [9/11 Commission, 9/9/2003 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004]
O'Neill Is the FBI's 'Most Committed Tracker of Osama bin Laden' - It is unclear when this briefing takes place. It presumably occurs sometime between July 1995 and September 2000—the time period during which Butterworth is the FAA’s director of civil aviation security operations. [9/11 Commission, 9/29/2003 pdf file] According to Flynn, O’Neill is “the head of antiterrorism for the FBI” when the briefing is held. [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] This suggests that it takes place sometime between January 1995 and January 1997, when O’Neill is chief of the counterterrorism section at the FBI’s Washington headquarters. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/11/2006] During his time working for the FBI, O’Neill becomes “the bureau’s most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] Journalist and author Murray Weiss will write that O’Neill “had reiterated since 1995 to any official in Washington who would listen” that “he was sure bin Laden would attack on American soil.” [Weiss, 2003, pp. 360]

Entity Tags: Senate Intelligence Committee, John O’Neill, Cathal Flynn, Bruce Butterworth

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FAA issues the first of three warnings this year to US airports and airlines urging a “high degree of vigilance” against threats to US civil aviation from al-Qaeda. It specifically warns against a possible terrorist hijacking “at a metropolitan airport in the Eastern United States.” The information is based on statements made by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic leaders, and intelligence obtained after the US cruise missile attacks in August. All three warnings come in late 1998, well before 9/11. [Boston Globe, 5/26/2002]

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

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

US Army Lieutenant General Michael A. Canavan is appointed associate administrator for civil aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a position that includes being the “hijack coordinator” (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 11/2000] In early 1998, Canavan participated in reviewing a CIA plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees the military’s counterterrorism operations and covert missions. He objected to the plan, saying it was too complicated for the CIA and “out of their league.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 113] The plan was later canceled (see 1997-May 29, 1998). It is not known if Canavan’s appointment at the FAA is related to his prior involvement in counterterrorism or to any intelligence that al-Qaeda might target civil aviation. He will leave the post in October 2001, after only 10 months, reportedly after clashing with other FAA officials. [Los Angeles Times, 10/13/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Mike Canavan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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