9/11 panel hears of air security holes

By SHAUN WATERMAN   |   May 22, 2003 at 8:55 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- The blue-ribbon panel tasked with discovering how the Sept. 11 hijackers were able to kill about 3,000 people was told Thursday that the aviation security system in place at that time was well known to be full of holes, but that -- through a combination of inertia and industry lobbying -- too little was done to fix it.

An official, who had been responsible for testing aviation security prior to the attacks, said that he "react(ed) with 'shock and awe' every time I hear people with expertise say that 9-11 was unpredictable."

Bogdan Dzakovic, who worked for the Federal Aviation Administration's elite Red Team, was one of four experts and officials to give evidence to the ten-member commission at what is only it's second public hearings since getting going at the beginning of the year.

But the woman who headed the FAA -- then responsible for security on airliners -- denied that her agency could have predicted or should have been prepared for the attack, in which planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I was not aware of any information about (planes) being used as weapons that was credible," former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey told the bipartisan committee.

Incredulous, panel member and former House intelligence committee member Tim Roemer recited a litany of warnings, threats and uncovered plots in the years leading up to Sept. 2001, "Why didn't the FAA do more to try and assess whether this (kind of plot) might be done in the United States?" he asked.

Garvey responded that the threat information the FAA had received "was focused on threats overseas."

But saying that her agency received sometimes hundreds of items of intelligence every day, Garvey, who has since resigned, admitted, "There may have been something in that pile I didn't see."

Garvey maintained that all the security procedures in place at the time were followed on that fateful day, and said the hijackers -- who appear to have carried out "dry runs" in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11 -- cleverly exploited gaps in the system.

There were plenty for them to choose from.

U.S. aviation security had "a lot of weaknesses that a lot of people knew about," Kenneth Mead, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation, told the commission, referring to numerous reports from internal and external watchdogs that warned of lax screening of passengers and luggage, poor security and inconsistent standards.

He said that this was -- in part -- due to pressures from the airline industry to keep passengers moving as quickly as possible. These pressures "manifested themselves as significant weaknesses in the security system that we and others repeatedly found during audits and investigative work," he said.

He highlighted the lack of any effective punishment for airlines that broke the security rules, since they regarded the FAA's fines "as a cost of doing business."

Earlier Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the panel that many security improvements congress tried to implement after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland were blocked or delayed by "complaints from industry."

"Time after time, Congress moves in a certain direction only to have its goals obstructed by industry complaints (or) special interests..." he said.

James C. May, from the Air Transport Association, a group that represents the big airlines, admitted that "it wouldn't surprise him," to learn that the industry had behaved like that at the time."

Dzakovic also blamed what he called "general incompetence," for the failure to upgrade security in the face of the 1988 bombing and the crash of TWA 800 in 1996. But he said there was another, more significant factor in the culture of the federal government.

"Our job was to dig up dirt," he said, alluding to the Red Team's role of finding flaws in airport security. "You don't get very far in the federal government by bringing up dirt all the time."

Dzakovic also opined that there were still serious weaknesses in the system, despite the establishment of the new Transportation Security Administration and the hiring of over 55,000 new passenger screeners. Citing a dossier of local media reports he and representatives of the victims' families had compiled, he said, "if TV reporters around the country are breaching security with this kind of regularity, it suggests that things are not as they should be."

"Do you believe the system today is still unsafe?" asked the panel's deputy chairman, Lee Hamilton. "Yes," replied Dzakovic.

There was confusion during Garvey's testimony about the exact sequence of events in the first minutes after the hijackings, and in particular the time at which NORAD -- the part of the military that defends U.S. airspace -- was notified of the hijacking of flight 77, which was later crashed into the Pentagon.

"That it not consistent with the timeline as I recall it," she told panel member Richard Ben-Veniste, after he asked her why it had taken the FAA nearly 30 minutes to notify NORAD that flight 77 had suddenly turned from its course.

She promised to refresh her recollection and get back to the commission.

In a statement issued Thursday evening, the FAA said that -- within minutes of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center -- they had set up a teleconference, which "the U.S. Air Force liaison to the FAA immediately joined ... and established contact with NORAD on a separate line."

"The FAA shared real-time information ... about the unfolding events" with NORAD, the statement says.

Nonetheless, representatives of the victims' families said they were angry about Garvey's defensiveness, and asked why she had not refreshed her memory about the timeline.

"With someone like that running the FAA," Stephen Push, who lost his wife Lisa aboard flight 77," it's no wonder 9-11 happened ... She just kept fobbing off the questions."

An FAA spokeswoman said Garvey had not expected to be asked about the timeline. "She was asked to talk about the state of aviation security before Sept. 11," said Laura Brown, "we understood that the panel tomorrow would deal with the events of the day itself."

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