Sept. 11 hijackers were searched at Dulles airport

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - A chilling security video recorded the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, shows that three of five hijackers set off a metal detector at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Airport screeners quickly checked them, apparently found nothing that raised suspicions and allowed the hijackers to board American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon less than 2 1/2 hours later.

All five hijackers aboard Flight 77 were selected for additional security screening, according to a previous report issued by the commission investigating the attacks. Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have piloted the plane, and two others were picked out by a computerized profiling system used by the airlines. The other two were selected because they provided inadequate identification information.

At the time, security procedures did not call for additional searches of passengers or their carry-on luggage. Instead, the hijackers' checked bags were held until it was confirmed that they had boarded the flight. That was to prevent an attacker from planting a bomb and then skipping the flight. The Federal Aviation Administration was not prepared to deal with suicide attackers.

The surveillance tape surfaced on the eve of the release of the Sept. 11 commission report, which found that the hijackers exploited "deep institutional failings within our government" over a long period.

The commission staff had described the Dulles video in detail in a report issued in January, telling how two of the hijackers set off magnetometer alarms and were checked again before being waved through. Minutes later, two more hijackers went through the same checkpoints, one of them again setting off an alarm but being double-checked and allowed to board.

The 575-page report does not directly blame President Bush or former President Bill Clinton for the mistakes and intelligence failures that preceded the attacks, according to administration officials familiar with the panel's findings.

But it is expected to cast a harsh light on the Bush administration, which has been portrayed during commission hearings as distracted by other issues and not focused on the terrorist threat in the months before the attacks.

Anticipating that criticism, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday, "If something had come to our attention that could have helped us prevent the Sept. 11 attacks from happening, the president would have moved heaven and earth."

White House officials and congressional leaders were briefed yesterday on the Sept. 11 commission's findings, and Bush is to receive a copy today.

The report sharply criticizes Congress for failures in its role as overall watchdog of the nation's intelligence apparatus, according to lawmakers and others who were briefed on the panel's findings, officials said. And to help prevent terrorist attacks, the panel will call for wholesale changes in the way lawmakers oversee intelligence and domestic security agencies.

The panel will propose that the House and Senate establish permanent committees on domestic security with jurisdiction over a range of activities that is now spread among dozens of competing committees, officials said.

The report will also recommend that the existing intelligence committees have much broader discretion over intelligence policy and spending while raising the alternative of a joint House-Senate intelligence panel.

Other details emerged about the panel's final report, including a recommendation that the government create a National Counterterrorism Center to absorb many existing operations, including the year-old Terrorism Threat Integration Center housed at the CIA.

Officials also said a proposed new national intelligence director would be subject to Senate confirmation.

In reconstructing the Sept. 11 attacks, the report describes the patience and determination of the hijackers and said they explored weaknesses in airline and border procedures, even taking test flights to see when cockpit doors were open.

But as the grainy video aired last night on television networks shows, the hijackers - despite their precautions - attracted the attention of authorities only to slip away and continue their mission.

The video shows hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Majed Moqed, dressed conservatively in slacks and collared shirts, entering the security checkpoint at 7:18 a.m. Each of them sets off the metal detector. They are asked to go through again. This time, only Moqed sets off an alarm. He is checked by a screener using a handheld wand. Nothing is found.

The pair were known to travel together and had paid cash for their tickets at the American Airlines counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Sept. 5.

Al-Mihdhar and fellow hijacker Nawaf Alhazmi had been known by the National Security Agency to have ties to al-Qaida since early 1999, and they were put on a terrorism watch list Aug. 24, 2001.

After al-Mihdhar and Moqed pass the checkpoint, Hanjour goes through the metal detector. He does not set off any alarms.

Moments after Hanjour passed alone wearing dark slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, the final two hijackers - Alhazmi and his brother, Salem - walked through the checkpoint.

Nawaf Alhazmi, described by investigators as the right-hand accomplice of hijacker and planner Mohamed Atta, set off two metal detectors. A screener checked him with a handheld device.

He and his brother, wearing slacks and Oxford shirts, were directed to a nearby counter, where they appeared to examine their tickets while another screener checked Nawaf Alhamzi's carry-on baggage for traces of explosives. Apparently nothing was found.

Details in the surveillance video are difficult to distinguish. No knives or other sharp objects are visible.

All five hijackers were cleared to board Flight 77. The 64 people on the plane were killed in the attack on the Pentagon, as were 125 people on the ground.

It is believed that the hijackers were armed with box cutters, or perhaps homemade knives or weapons fashioned from wire. At the time, the FAA allowed passengers to carry aboard knives with blades up to 4 inches long. But there was confusion about utility knives, box cutters and other cutting instruments deemed "menacing."

Michael Elsner, a lawyer with the South Carolina firm of Motley Rice LLC, which released the tape to television networks and the Associated Press, said the FAA was derelict in not banning all knives, as the government now does. A 1992 FAA memo had pointed out that knives with small blades were often the weapon of choice in hijackings.

Elsner's firm is representing 52 families in a lawsuit against the airlines and security companies employed by the FAA. Airport screening is now conducted by the Transport Security Administration.

Elaine Teague, one of the family members suing the airlines and security industry over the death of her 31-year-old daughter, Sandra, said the FBI had shown her the footage. But the terrorists' faces had been digitally disguised.

Teague said she was surprised at how relaxed security was because the airlines had received three warnings from the FAA. One such warning, issued in June 2001, cited "unconfirmed reports that American interests may be the target of a terrorist threat from extremist groups."

Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 commission is expected in its report to reject claims that Saudi Arabia provided money and assistance to the hijackers, challenging one of the most contentious allegations raised by a joint congressional inquiry that concluded last year.

In particular, the panel's report dismisses long-standing suspicions that two hijackers who lived in San Diego obtained money and logistical support through a Saudi intelligence network that had agents in southern California who were funded in part by a member of the Saudi royal family.

The commission's report "exonerates the Saudis to a large degree," said a Senate official who attended a recent briefing by the panel. He said the commission has concluded that contacts between the San Diego-based hijackers and two Saudi men "can be explained away as innocent and incidental."

Such a finding would be the most definitive judgment yet rendered on a controversy that erupted with the release of the joint congressional report last July. That report from the House and Senate intelligence committees cited evidence that there were "specific sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while they were in the United States," and it chastised the CIA and FBI for failing to fully investigate.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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