Was aviation security given the short shrift in the 9/11 Commission report?

On October 6th, 2014, the New York Post ran a story about Mohamed Atta conducting surveillance at Boston's Logan airport on May 11, 2001. Although the 9/11 Commission had this information when they were developing their report, they conveniently gave it no mention.

Immediately after the 9/11 Commission report was published, I wrote a letter to Commissioner Kean which highlighted several items which were provided to the commission's staffers, but inexplicably left out of their final report.

The following are examples:

* The Massachusetts Governor’s Special Advisory Task Force on the Massachusetts Port Authority (Carter Commission report), with its findings relative to FAA, airline and Massport security shortcomings in the lead up to 9/11.

* The April ‘01 memorandum from the Massachusetts Port Authority’s Director of Security, Joe Lawless, to his leadership, which cited terrorist ties to Logan Airport and the need to address known vulnerabilities there.

* The Counter Technology Inc report on Logan’s security, six pages of which were critical of Massport’s leadership vis a vis security, but were removed from the original report after a meeting with Massport’s General Counsel.

* The Logan Airline Managers Council (LAMCO), in conjunction with the FAA’s Federal Security Manager at Logan, rejecting Joe Lawless’s proposal for the Mass State Police to begin undercover testing of screening checkpoints in July ’01.

* Jane Garvey, the head of the FAA, failing to react after an FAA Administrator’s Hotline complaint in the summer of ’01 regarding security concerns at Logan, which included a hand delivered tape of a Boston television station's May 6, ’01 expose’ of security shortcomings, to include the very same screening checkpoints which would be exploited by the terrorists on 9/11.

Fortunately, all these items were later included as exhibits in the 9/11 wrongful death and property damage litigation and subsequently given extensive media coverage. The 9/11 Commission may not have found them important enough to be included in their report, but the plaintiffs' attorneys certainly found them important enough to be included in their filings.

As the litigation continued, more and more information, some of which the Commission had and some which it didn't, became available as a result of legal discovery. Probably the most significant of that were the reports of Mohamed Atta's surveillance at Logan airport on May 11th and September 9th of '01 and the dismal state of security, especially checkpoint screening, in the lead up to 9/11. Again, the media did what the 9/11 Commission didn't, and reported that information to the American public. This helped give the 9/11 victims' families their day in the court of public opinion, since Judge Alvin Hellerstein never allowed them to present their evidence at trial. Not a single wrongful death case ever went to trial. As an aside, the New York Post also reported (Sep 9, 2007) on Judge Hellerstein's callous treatment of the 9/11 victims' families.

Here are two more glaring examples of the Commission's efforts to minimize coverage of aviation insecurity. First they omitted the findings of a US Office of Special Counsel '03 report confirming gross mismanagement of the FAA's Red Team, resulting in a substantial and specific danger to public safety. The Red Team conducted covert security testing at major US airports. The rates of security failures was found to be extremely high. But, the 9/11 Commission left this out of their report. Then, the Commission failed to submit their aviation security staff monograph (Four Flights and Civil Aviation Security) until the very last day of its existence. As a result, it wasn't released to the public until January 28, 2005 and when it was, it was heavily redacted. A second version wasn't released until September 12, 2005 and portions of that remain redacted to this day.

Now let's take a closer look at the 9/11 Commission Report itself. One of the major problems with the report is that assumptions and conclusions were based upon incomplete, questionable and in some cases inaccurate information. In the 9/11 wrongful death and property damage litigation, Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled that the staff monographs, staff statements and the 9/11 Commission report itself were inadmissible as evidence because several of the commission's findings were based upon sources not completely trustworthy or acceptable in American courts.

When the commissioners made their report, it was based upon information available to them at the time. Now we have a significant body of new information uncovered during legal discovery over the past ten years. It is quite possible, even likely, that this new information might very well have altered their assumptions and conclusions had it been available to them when they formulated their report.

In addition to failing to report about Mohamed Atta conducting surveillance at Logan airport in the spring of '01, the 9/11 Commission also left out, played down or simply didn't have much of the information which we now have about the poor state of airport and airline security in the lead up to the September 2001 attacks.

Let's look at some examples.

The report mentions security problems at Boston's Logan Airport in the months leading up to the 9/11 hijackings in a single footnote, where it lists a local television expose in May '01 that revealed security checkpoint failures and an August '01 e-mail to the FAA security Chief, Michael Canavan, pointing out security concerns at Logan. The station had teamed with former FAA Red Team member Steve Elson and carried prohibited items undetected through the very same checkpoints at Logan that the terrorists would go through on 9/11. The report said that the station returned a few weeks later and found the same problems, despite airport, airline and FAA authorities being made aware of the security shortcomings. Instead of detailing these security shortcomings in their report, the 9/11 Commission simply gave it a passing reference in a footnote on page 451.

On 9/11, checkpoint screeners failed to detect box cutters, mace and pepper spray used by the hijackers to commandeer planes, despite alarms and individual hand wanding. The FAA prohibited these items on aircraft. The 9/11 Commission Report says that these weapons were used, along with small knives, but doesn't mention that they were illegal. It only says that knives with blades under 4 inches were permissible. Later, in their staff monograph, they do mention that mace, pepper spray and box cutters were not permitted on aircraft, but the staff monograph didn't get anywhere near the distribution that the 9/11 Commission Report did, so the public was left unaware that prohibited items got by airline screening and made it onto the aircraft. Why is this important? Because, if prohibited items made it onto the aircraft, the airlines could possibly be held liable. So, once again we see information downplayed which would have been helpful to the plaintiffs in their litigation against the airlines.

We know for a fact that the government didn't want to see lawsuits against the airlines. That is clearly evidenced by the law establishing the Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) which included a provision prohibiting those who opted for the VCF from suing the airlines. It was again evidenced during the Zacharias Moussaoui trial, when TSA lawyer Carla Martin was accused of coaching witnesses in an attempt to reduce airline liability. So, it is easy to understand why the 9/11 Commission would have also minimized airport and airline culpability.

Other contributing factors were most likely George Bush Jrs close ties to American Airlines; concerns about embarrassing the government (FAA/Bush administration); and conflicts of interest amongst several of the Commissioners due to long standing ties to the aviation industry.

Now I suppose some might argue that the events of 9/11 are open to opinion and discussion, but the 9/11 Commission report obviously needs to be revised and updated, if for no other reason than to incorporate significant information uncovered during legal discovery over the past ten years. In addition, what new information will be revealed when the 28 redacted pages of the Joint Congressional Intelligence Inquiry and 27 boxes of secret information now held by the FBI's Tampa office are finally made available to the public? Will Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks be confirmed? And what about the remaining redactions in the last aviation security staff monograph? Once they are removed, will airport and airline security shortcomings in the lead up to 9/11 become clearer?

In the interim, the chorus of voices calling for the 9/11 investigation to be reopened is becoming louder and louder. Perhaps, after this weeks elections, there will be an opportunity to set the record straight.

Brian F. Sullivan

FAA Special Agent (Ret)

More on Aviation Security Being Given the Short Shrift


If insufficient emphasis was devoted to accountability, one could also suggest that a more detailed examination of the specific failings of aviation security might support the families' call for accountability. If the emphasis of the report could be weighted in terms of units of effort, with ten representing the total product, about seven to eight of those units were devoted to intelligence failures and about two to three units were devoted to the aviation security system. None of the 13 chapters is devoted exclusively to a detailed examination of the policies and practices surrounding the security system in place on the morning of the attacks. Rather, that indictment of security shortcomings is disbursed throughout the report.