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9/11 panel: FAA had early al Qaeda warnings

From Phil Hirschkorn

Former 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste
September 11 attacks

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Dozens of Federal Aviation Administration memos warned of al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden in 2001, but the agency didn't order new security measures before the September 11 attacks, a newly released declassified report by the 9/11 commission says.

The FAA's security branch generated 105 so-called daily summaries between April 1 and September 10, 2001, the report said. Fifty-two of those summaries mentioned bin Laden or al Qaeda, and five discussed hijacking "as a capability al Qaeda was training for or possessed."

Two summaries cited suicide operations, "but not connected to a threat in aviation," the report said.

The commission found no evidence that the FAA knew what al Qaeda was plotting -- hijacking planes and using them as missiles -- but the agency had at least considered "the possibility that terrorists would hijack a plane and use it as a weapon," the report said.

Despite the warnings, the FAA ordered no new security measures on airlines or airports in advance of the attacks, according to the 9/11 panel's final report, which was released in July and became a best seller.

Officials perceived the threat to be against overseas flights, the report said.

Former commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said Thursday that a lack of information-sharing by U.S. intelligence services also hampered the FAA. For example, Ben-Veniste pointed to his questioning of an FAA security official at the commission's last public hearing.

"I asked him,'what would you have liked to have known about this plot that was known to our intelligence agencies prior to 9/11?' Ben-Veniste said. "And he said, 'we never knew the hijackers could fly the plane.' "

The Justice Department submitted the new 120-page report to the National Archives two weeks ago. Parts of the declassified version were censored, triggering complaints from some commission members.

The FAA and Transportation Security Administration objected to the inclusion of certain aviation security information, Justice Department sources said.

The redactions delayed for five months the release of the unclassified version of the report, which the commission submitted in August, the sources said.

Some 9/11 commission members and their staff said they considered the extent of redactions unacceptable.

"They have cut this apart like a Swiss cheese," Ben-Veniste said.

"The public has a right to know this information unless it compromises real national security interests," he said. "We are a society that's capable of dealing with the truth."

It is the third staff report to be released since the full 9/11 commission report was published in July.

Additional details in new document

During summer 2001, the new document says, the FBI and CIA informed FAA liaisons that the U.S. intelligence community sensed "something was going to happen," but the focus of threats was abroad.

The commission asked the top security official at the Transportation Department, which the FAA is part of, "why policymakers continued to view the risk of hijackings to be overseas."

"He said that in hindsight he had asked himself that question many times," the report says.

In response to the new report, the FAA said that it "received no specific information before 9/11 about terrorist means or methods directed at aviation in the U.S. that would have indicated specific countermeasures."

The FAA was more concerned about nonsuicide sabotage as a greater terrorist threat than aircraft hijacking, according to the commission's final report in July.

September 11th Advocates, a group led by five women widowed by the World Trade Center attack, took issue with the FAA's response Friday.

"This statement clearly contradicts the reality detailed in this report," the group said. "Stepping up security in the face of terror warnings is not a new concept for America's government agencies. The FAA testified before the 9/11 commission that during the millennium, an unknown terror plot caused them to ratchet up their security procedures. With 52 warnings, why was this not done in 2001?"

The commission report notes that the FAA's security briefing to airports in summer 2001 discounted the likelihood of a domestic hijacking, with one caveat: If the hijackers' intent was not a conventional "hostages for prisoners" exchange but "to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, a domestic hijacking would probably be preferable," the FAA said.

The FAA's summer 2001 presentation to airlines and airports about increased threats, including a CD-ROM, was disclosed in the 9/11 commission report, but the new document reveals that the classified briefings occurred at 19 of the nation's largest airports, including the three where the four hijacked planes originated on September 11 -- Boston's Logan International, Washington Dulles International and Newark Liberty International.

CNN's Justine Redman and Brian Todd contributed to this report.

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