Officials 'Never Thought of an Airplane Being Used as a Missile'

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) Friday that, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, aviation security officials had not considered that a hijacker might commandeer an airplane for any reason other than taking hostages.

"I don't think we ever thought of an airplane being used as a missile," Mineta declared.

But former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who now serves on the commission, challenged Mineta's claim. Roemer noted that there was consideration within intelligence agencies that terrorists might plan an attack such as the one carried out on 9/11.

"Wouldn't you view it as a failure of our intelligence community not to tell the secretary of transportation that there was such a conceivable threat, that the people like the Coast Guard and the FAA should be thinking about?" Roemer asked.

"We had no information of that nature at all," Mineta replied.

"There was nothing in those intelligence reports that would have been specific to anything that happened on the 11th of September," Mineta said. "There was nothing in the preceding time period about aircraft being used as a weapon or of any other terrorist types of activities of that nature."

But those statements directly contradict documentation compiled by aviation security analyst Andrew Thomas in his new book Aviation Insecurity: The New Challenges of Air Travel .

"With all due respect to Secretary Mineta, either he's incredibly in denial or just simply not the sharpest tool in the woodshed," Thomas told \b Friday. "There were clearly - well before 9/11, years before 9/11 - numerous instances where we knew of both al Qaeda and other terrorist groups threatening or actually putting into place the hijacking of commercial airliners and slamming them into targets on the ground."

Al Qaeda started planning suicide hijackings years earlier

Thomas details a 1995 warning from Philippine authorities to the FBI about a plot by the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, and an accomplice, Abdul Murad.

"During intense and often brutal interrogations by Philippine authorities, Murad told of detailed plans to simultaneously blow up several planes over the Pacific Ocean," Thomas wrote, "while he and another suicide hijacker would each carry out kamikaze suicide attacks on the CIA and the Pentagon, respectively."

Yousef later bragged of the plot to federal agents transporting him back to the U.S. after his arrest in Pakistan later in 1995.

"Yousef reportedly told FBI agent Brian Parr and other agents guarding him that he had narrowly missed several opportunities to blow up a dozen airliners in the Pacific in one single day," Thomas wrote, "and carry out a suicide attack on CIA headquarters."

Retired FAA agent warned 9/11-type attacks were possible

In a May 7, 2001, letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), retired FAA Special Agent Brian Sullivan wrote that the FAA needed to change its security focus from hijackings to take hostages to the possibility of terrorists targeting airliners for much more sinister purposes.

"While the FAA has focused on screening for handguns, new threats have emerged, such as chemical and biological weapons," Sullivan wrote. "Do you really think a screener could detect a bottle of liquid explosive, a small battery and a detonator in your carry-on baggage?

"And with the concept of jihad ," Sullivan continued in an ominous foreshadowing, "do you think it would be difficult for a determined terrorist to get on a plane and destroy himself and all other passengers? The answers to these questions are obvious."

A second incident detailed by Thomas happened much closer in time to the 9/11 attacks.

"In June of 2001, there was a threat against the Group of 8 Summit in Genoa, Italy," he recalled. "And the government took that so seriously that they stationed anti-aircraft batteries around the city to prevent European airliners from being hijacked and slammed into the building."

The threat gained credibility after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the French newspaper Le Figaro that he had viewed a videotape on which Osama bin Laden "spoke of assassinating President Bush and other heads of state in Genoa...using an airplane stuffed with explosives."

Official warnings prior to 9/11 not delivered to airlines

Thomas also chronicled a series of intelligence communications in the days, weeks and months prior to 9/11.

"On June 28, 2001, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice received an intelligence summary warning that a significant al Qaeda attack in the near future was 'highly likely,'" Thomas wrote.

One week later, on July 5, Thomas claims National Security Council terrorism chief Richard Clarke convened a White House meeting of the Counter-terrorism Security Group (CSG).

Later that same day, Clarke met with Rice and President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card. A third meeting that day included the CSG and representatives of the FBI, FAA and INS.

"Clarke told them, 'Something spectacular is going to happen,'" Thomas wrote.

But Thomas's research indicates that the warnings became even more frequent and specific as the now-ominous 9/11 date approached:

    July 18, 2001: The FAA warned the airlines to "exercise the highest level of caution;"
    July 31, 2001: The FAA advised airlines that terrorists were "planning and training for hijackings;"
    August 17, 2001: The Immigration and Naturalization Service detained Zacarias Moussaoui, now known as the "20th hijacker" of the 9/11 attacks, for suspicious activity at a Minnesota flight school; and
    September 4, 2001: The FBI informed the FAA of the circumstances surrounding Moussaoui's arrest. The FAA did not alert the airlines.

"So the evidence was clear, the writing was on the wall, the dots were connected and, with all due respect, again, to Mr. Mineta," Thomas concluded, "he's just being disingenuous."

Mineta maintains, as have other administration officials, that the government did not have enough information prior to the 9/11 attacks to have prevented them.

Thomas believes that the problem on Sept. 11, 2001, was not that the aviation security system failed, but rather that the aviation security system was - and still is - designed for failure. He recommends focusing on "bad people rather than bad things" through stricter access control and limited use of passenger profiling.

"The need to look at certain passengers differently than others from a security perspective only makes sense," he wrote. "A World War II veteran simply does not pose the same level of potential threat as a young man traveling from a troubled country.

"To try to argue this point," Thomas believes, "is silly."

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