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Context of 'December 2000: FBI and FAA Claim Threat of Terrorists Targeting US Aviation Is Low Despite Information Suggesting Otherwise'

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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


Terry Turchie.
Terry Turchie. [Source: FBI]Freeh’s FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Terry Turchie, testifying before a classified meeting of a House of Representatives committee, says, “FBI investigation and analysis indicates that the threat of terrorism in the United States is low.” Summarizing the terrorist threat, he fails to mention al-Qaeda or Islamic militants of any kind, and instead considers the “serious terrorist threat” to be coming from “animal-rights and environmental extremists” and “right-wing groups.” In December 2000, the FBI will tell Congress that the threat of terrorists targeting US aviation is low (see December 2000). In contradiction to this, Louis Freeh, FBI Director from 1993 to early 2001, will testify after 9/11 that “Before the end of 1999, the FBI and the intelligence community clearly understood the foreign-based al-Qaeda threat regarding targets within the United States. Congress and the Executive were fully briefed as to this threat analysis…” [US Congress, 7/26/2000; US Congress, 10/8/2002]

Entity Tags: US Congress, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Terry Turchie, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The FBI and FAA jointly publish the yearly National Intelligence Estimate report mandated by Congress. It reads, “FBI investigations confirm domestic and international terrorist groups operating within the US but do not suggest evidence of plans to target domestic civil aviation. Terrorist activity within the US has focused primarily on fundraising, recruiting new members, and disseminating propaganda. While international terrorists have conducted attacks on US soil, these acts represent anomalies in their traditional targeting which focuses on US interests overseas.” This differs from assessments in previous years that suggested there were groups targeting domestic aviation. The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will conclude that assessment is “relatively low… notwithstanding historical intelligence information to the contrary.” [US Congress, 9/18/2002]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

On the evening of September 11, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the military decline to comment on whether fighter jets were launched to intercept any of the hijacked aircraft earlier in the day. Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, refuses to say whether the agency requested military intercepts. Major Barry Venable, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), similarly says he does not know whether the FAA asked NORAD to send up jets to intercept the errant aircraft. Lt. Col. Margaret Quenneville, a spokeswoman for the 102nd Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, which operates from Otis Air National Guard Base at Cape Cod, refuses to comment on whether the fighter wing was requested to intercept the hijacked airliners. [Cape Cod Times, 9/12/2001; Cape Cod Times, 9/12/2001] Several days later, it will be revealed that two F-15s were indeed launched from Otis around the time the first WTC tower was hit, and three F-16s were launched from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia shortly before the time the Pentagon was hit (see September 14, 2001). [CBS News, 9/14/2001; Cape Cod Times, 9/16/2001; North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/18/2001] But as late as September 15, the New York Times is reporting, “The Federal Aviation Administration has officially refused to discuss its procedures or the sequence of events on Tuesday morning, saying these are part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry.” [New York Times, 9/15/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Margaret Quenneville, Barry Venable, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Laura Brown

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tells the 9/11 Commission it has already given the Commission all the documents it asked the FAA for. John Farmer, head of the Commission team investigating what happened on the day of 9/11, finds this hard to believe, as the boxes of material the FAA has provided do not contain many tapes or transcripts of FAA communications on the day of the attacks. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 201] Later interviews of FAA staff will reveal there is a mountain of evidence the FAA is withholding from the Commission (see September 2003).

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Federal Aviation Administration, John Farmer

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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