The 9/11 Commission's Seventh Hearing: Borders, Transportation, and Managing Risk

Updated on June 3, 2018

"Money often costs too much." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

This hearing discussed topics that were part of my 39-year career as a stewardess/flight attendant. Because I was very familiar with both the Boeing 767 and 757 (the plane types that crashed on September 11, 2001), it was heart breaking visualizing those crews and knowing their fate. Amazingly, even though the situation on board all the planes was dire, those crew members that contacted ground personnel made it very clear that these were not typical hijackings, and by doing so, those in charge were able to make an early decision to clear the airways across our nation. This action incredibly took less than an hour from the time of the first crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

The two-day seventh hearing began at 9:00 a.m. on January 26th, 2004 in Washington D.C. Commission chairman, former governor of New Jersey, Thomas H. Kean began the session stating the Seventh Hearing would be sharing important facts about immigration and aviation security systems that were in place on September 11, 2001. After Thomas Kean spoke, former Indiana representative Lee Hamilton added it was time to share with the public and families that lost loved ones information about the 9/11 attacks.

The first day’s agenda included, in order:

  1. Entry of the 9/11 hijackers into the United States,
  2. Border security systems prior to 9/11
  3. The border screening incident in Florida
  4. Three 9/11 hijackers: identification, watchlisting and tracking
  5. Visas and watchlisting at the present time
  6. The response to September 11th on the borders

That morning, several hours were spent on missed opportunities surrounding the incidents of September 11th, such as failing to put suspected terrorists on watchlists to prevent them from entering the U.S. Time was also spent on government agencies not sharing information that might have helped prevent the attacks.

Commission staff researchers covered an overall view of the misconnects between the different intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but as a flight attendant, I found the third topic that morning very intriguing: “The Border Screening Incident in Florida.”

On Monday, August 4th, 2001, Jose Melendez-Perez an immigration inspector at Orlando, Florida’s International Airport kept passenger, al-Qahtani from clearing U.S. immigration when he arrived on Virgin Atlantic’s Flight 15 from London’s Gatwick Airport. The reasons were (1) his paperwork was not filled out properly, (2) he had no return ticket or hotel reservations, (3) he was arrogant and very evasive with his answers. Government officials told CNN that there was evidence that Mohamed Atta was at the airport to pick up this person and that he made an international phone call while at the airport. The inspector said, “al-Qahtani gave him the creeps and acted like a hitman.” Investigators later speculated that this individual could have been the 20th hijacker, but no hard evidence existed that indicated there were supposed to be 20 hijackers. Circumstantially, American Flight 11, United 175 and American 77 all had five terrorists on board, but United Flight 93 only had four. He was very fit, dressed in black, with piercing dark eyes. His hatred toward us was probably very evident. He likely was one of the muscle hijackers because each flight had only one individual trained pilot. al-Qahtani was sent back to London the day he arrived with connection from London to Dubai. (Note 2)

Al-Qahtani was later captured in Afghanistan but escaped. He was recaptured again and ended up in Guantanamo, Cuba. His full name was later disclosed as Mohammed Abu Nasir al-Qahtani, who was a Saudi national. (Note 2)

After learning about al-Qahtani, I was curious what the FAA knew about the terrorist threat and what information they shared with the airlines. I was curious because looking back at the summer of 2001, I do not recall any special warnings. So on the second day the topic: “Aviation Security on 9/11: The Regulators” caught my attention. The “Regulators” in this case was the FAA. It was discussed that the FAA was not part of the U.S. intelligence community but did have a 24-hour operation that informed them of threats gathered from the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department.

The FAA did stress that prior to 9/11, no U.S. commercial aircraft had been bombed or hijacked in over a decade. In the late 1990s, the flying public was more concerned about poor maintenance on aircraft than having their safety jeopardized by terrorism.

Also, passenger demand was exceeding what the domestic airlines had available. Because of air traveler complaints about late departures, mechanicals, and needing more seats, Congress focused their attention on these issues and came up with a “Passenger Bill of Rights.” While these issues were being addressed, the hijackers were finding the flaws in our airline security system.

During this period, the biggest security threat within the FAA was explosives on airplanes. Because of their focus, they were working on a three-year mandate set by Congress to get better bomb detection equipment at all major airports and improving the passenger screening process. This process was based on FAA regulations, yet the individual airlines were responsible for paying.

Before September 11th, a system was in place called the “Civil Aviation Security System.” This system made the individual airports responsible for:

  1. Incoming intelligence information (from the FAA)
  2. Passenger pre-screening
  3. Airport access control
  4. Passenger checkpoint screening
  5. Passenger checked baggage screening
  6. Cargo screening
  7. On board security (Note 3)

I was curious what the FAA had learned from their intelligence briefings. First, even though they were given information on threats, they did not possess any credible or specific intelligence about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s exact plans and dates. They did, however, have information in their documents in the late 1990s that bin Laden and his group were interested in hijackings and the use of airplanes as a weapon. The FAA’s Office of Civil Aviation Security had information back to March of 1998. This information was apparently set aside because in 2000 and early 2001 they briefed the airlines and airports that there was no indication that any group at that time was a threat. The FAA did, however, know about Zacharias Moussaoui who was singled out as a possible terrorist by instructors at the Pan American International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minnesota, but his intentions were not known at this point. He was later arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for overstaying his visa.

Then, in the summer of 2001, the FAA heightened the security threat alerting the air carriers about potential terrorists. These threats were interpreted by the FAA to be more likely to happen overseas, but again the focus was still on bombs being brought aboard U.S. aircraft. In mid-July 2001, the FAA acknowledged there were terrorist groups in the U.S., but their emphasis was still on improving passenger check point experience and improving bomb detection. No new anti-hijacking security measures were implemented. Their advice was to be more cautious and aware.

Because incoming intelligence information was not specific enough, the FAA depended on the interagency system that was in place to handle this looming threat. However, the guidelines were vague. For example, box cutters were not allowed, but knives less than 4 inches long were permitted. These guidelines were interpreted by the individual screeners. During this time, the hijackers were aware that airline protocol was to not upset the hijacker so the plane could eventually land safely and took advantage of this knowledge.

As I learned more about the responsibilities of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) within the structure of the airline industry, it became clearer that they walked a fine line between the safety regulations that protected the flying public and the labor force while promoting the aviation industry. The message that often overrides most issues is profitability. Money is the ruler! Money blurs the picture when it should be clearer to those managing the situation. This is perhaps illustrated by the fact that the dominant color in the last two rows of the seventh hearing was gray. It was gray because these were airline lawyers from both United and American, and their purpose was to protect their airlines against financial losses. Unfortunately the labor force was not a priority.

As the day continued, the testimony of Andrew Studdert, former Chief Operating Officer of United Air Lines, informed the commission that after September 11th United turned over millions of passenger records, which included names, addresses, travel destinations, and credit card numbers to the FBI. The next to testify was Gerald Arpey, CEO of American Airlines. On September 11, 2001, Arpey was the Executive Vice President of Operations, responsible for emergency response. At the hearing, he told the 9/11 Commission that he had given thousands of pages of documents to the Commission, which included the procedures for ground and inflight security training. He also made employees available for interview and made available Boeing 757 and 767 airplanes. He continued by saying that the FAA was responsible for the security procedures. He talked about Betty Ong’s call. Even though Amy Sweeney’s name was mentioned by Arpey, only Betty Ong’s call was heard by the Commission later in the day.

As the grieving airline families attended these hearings hoping for detailed information, they had to have been disappointed over a lack of focus on the flight crews. For example, on the second day, 2.5 hours were spent on the FAA and their responsibilities and 1.5 hours were spent on aviation security. However, only 30 minutes was spent on the four flights and only 30 minutes on the acts of bravery in the sky. In that hour, they did mention several of the crew members and a few of the passengers, but only to acknowledge they had contacted their companies or their families.

They also talked about the hijackers’ methods and that each flight had only one qualified pilot. Of the four hijacker pilots, the one with the most flight time was Hani Hasan Hanjour, the pilot of American Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon. The least qualified was Ziad Jarrah, who did have a private license and had logged only 100 hours of simulator training. He had no commercial pilot certification or a multi-engine rating. He was the pilot of United 93, the Plane that crashed near Shanksville, PA. Interestingly, the most qualified pilot was the one that had to execute the most radical maneuvers into the Pentagon. It is also interesting that this aircraft flew over 30 minutes undetected because of poor radar coverage in some areas.

It was mentioned that both the Boeing 757 and 767 had equipment in the cockpit that when programmed could navigate the airplane automatically. This system was the Flight Management Computer. The “black box” on American flight 77 showed that it had been programmed for a route to Reagan International Airport after it was hijacked. Time was also spent on the public’s ability to acquire aircraft operating manuals and simulator programs. Financial records showed the hijackers had purchased a Boeing flight deck video and a flight simulator software program. They continued with the fact that the knives that killed the crew were less than 4 inches in length and that a bomb or what appeared to be bomb was mentioned on all the flights except American flight 77. They also said that the passengers were all moved to the back of the plane and that on American Flight 11 and United Flight 175, that mace or some sort of pepper spray had been used in Business Class area.

After spending 30 minutes on these details, the Hearings moved to the “Acts of Courage” that September morning. This topic was about the bravery of the crews, but the only crew member whose actions were highlighted in-depth was flight attendant Betty Ong on American Flight 11. Four and half minutes of her total 23-minute conversation were shared that afternoon. These minutes were her conversation with Nadia Gonzales, the manager of the Southeast Area reservations in Raleigh, NC.

Even though Betty Ong was incredible, the very first responder that morning was Captain John Ogonowski, the pilot of American Flight 11. His action was not discussed as part of the “Acts of Courage” section. For whatever reason, the government did not want to share with the public that he was the one holding down the “push to talk” button in his cockpit. That enabled the cockpit conversation to be broadcast over the airways in real time. That dialogue included hijacker Atta saying, “We have some planes.” This statement was heard by FAA headquarters in Reston Virginia. It was also heard by other aircraft including United Flight 175 which was the second flight to hit the Towers that morning. His voice was recorded by the Boston Center, but the tape was removed by the FBI later that afternoon. Fortunately, a couple of Christian Science Monitor reporters had already interviewed two of the controllers and learned about Ogonowski’s actions and the information that was heard in the Control Center. After the fact, the FAA contacted the Boston Center and told them not to discuss that portion of the incident. (Note 4)

Besides Betty Ong and John Ogonowski on Flight 11 was Amy Sweeney. She called the flight service office in Boston on one of the in-seat telephones. After being disconnected on her first call, she was able to connect with Michael Woodward, a flight service office supervisor. She and Michael had been friends for over 10 years, and unlike Betty’s call, her 20 minutes of information was not questioned over and over again. Why was Amy Sweeney’s call ignored at the Seventh Hearing, even though the her courage was acknowledged by the FBI with the award of the Director’s Award for Exceptional Public Service? Also Amy Sweeney was honored in 2002 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with both Senators Kennedy and Kerry in attendance at Faneuil Hall in Boston, MA.

They ended their two-day session with “Risk Management” and dedicated an hour to this topic. The information for that hour was from James Loy, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. The hearing ended with closing comments from Chairman Keen and Vice Chairman Hamilton. The hearing ended at 4:30 p.m.

Despite all the information that was discussed during the Seventh Hearing, the results fell short of what was desired by the families and spectators in the room that day. Many of the topics that would have given greater insight into our nation’s tragedy were topics that for whatever reason were not examined or allowed to be discussed. The hearing topics were chosen by Phillip Zelikow, the Commission Staff Director and a person closely connected with both Bush presidents and who worked on George W. Bush’s transition team. It took over a year to get the hearings approved. The new Bush administration did not have terrorism as a top priority. It went from #1 under Clinton to #7 under Bush and Ashcroft. In fact Attorney General Ashcroft had told the FBI Acting Director Tom Pickard that he did not want to hear anything more about terrorist activities during the summer of 2001. Interestingly, that was not mentioned at the hearings. The hearings were meant to be bipartisan and as a result, the members were careful to avoid what might be viewed as blame for the tragedy. So when the people at the hearing were being interviewed and placed their hand on the Bible and were told to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, much of the information shared only touched the surface of how this could have happened and who was responsible. The depth of Al Qaeda’s plan was never fully explored and so much more could have been shared with the American people.

Enduring Sadness
Enduring Sadness

Notes

  1. The 9/11 Commission report, seventh hearing.
  2. www.cnn.com/2004/US/01/26/911.commission/index.html
  3. The 9/11 Commission Seventh hearing Staff repot entitled. “The Aviation Security System and the 9/11 Attacks
  4. Sheehy, Gail, “Stewardess ID’d Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show.” The New York Observer. https://ratical.org/ratville/CAH/M.A.Sweeney.html

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