Wednesday, 05 January, 2005

More on the 9/11 Commission Report

Two questions more important than why we weren't able to stop the 9/11 attacks after the flights were hijacked are how the 9/11 hijackers managed to get into the United States undetected and get through airport screening while carrying dangerous weapons.  Note that there is no evidence that any of the hijackers had firearms.  According to eyewitness accounts (phone calls from the planes), the attackers were armed with box cutters.

The more difficult part of the operation was getting the operatives into the United States undetected.  The people who planned the operation weren't stupid.  They knew that if they tried to use operatives who had participated in other operations, the CIA or some other intelligence agency probably would know of them.  So they used fresh recruits.  Before 9/11, it was absurdly easy to get a student visa, especially if you had a little bit of money and an understanding of the system.  Although some of the hijackers had overstayed their visas, that wasn't a big risk--the INS wasn't terribly interested in running down people who overstayed their visas.

The attackers entered the United States legally, after a fashion.  They got their visas under false pretenses, which technically is illegal, .  but they did fill out all the proper forms and get all the right approvals.  Once in the country, they used several different means to set up housekeeping, get drivers' licenses, open bank accounts, rent apartments, etc.  They kept their heads down, spent time together and in the gym, and waited patiently for their time.  Once they were in the country, they did nothing to draw attention to themselves.

It's well known that there were supposed to be 20 hijackers.  One was denied entry into the U.S. after arriving from overseas.  There is some evidence that the original plan was to have at least five more, possibly including another pilot so that there would have been five rather than just four hijackings.  It appears that some of the planned hijackers were denied visas.  A suspected fifth pilot, Zacarias Moussaoui, had attracted the attention of the FBI in August 2001 due to his unexplainable interest in learning to fly a Boeing 747.  It's unlikely that by August Moussaoui was slated to be part of the 9/11 attacks, although he probably had that intention when he came to the U.S.  He was arrested for overstaying his visa, and a deportation order was signed on August 17.  The FBI suspected Moussaoui of harboring ill intent and wanted to pursue a more detailed investigation, but they didn't have enough evidence to give them probable cause for a search warrant.  After 9/11, information received in response to inquiries made before 9/11 gave the FBI probable cause, at which time they confiscated and examined his laptop computer which apparently contained some information about the plot.  Had the FBI obtained that information before 9/11, it's likely that they would have derailed the attacks.

Getting through airport security apparently presented no problems.  Over half of the hijackers were actually flagged for additional scrutiny, either by a computerized prescreening system known as CAPPS, or by the security screeners.  The only consequence of being flagged by CAPPS was that the individual's luggage was not loaded onto the airplane until it was confirmed that the passenger had boarded.  This was a federally mandated procedure that was intended to prevent a Pan Am 103 type incident where the terrorists checked luggage containing a bomb but didn't board the flight.

The security checkpoints at Boston and Newark lack video surveillance, so it's impossible to say whether any of the hijackers on those flights received any special attention.  Of the five that passed through the security checkpoint at Dulles, three set off the initial metal detector and were directed to a second detector.  One cleared the second metal detector.  The other two set it off, were hand-wanded, and allowed to proceed.  After 9/11, the Commission asked a screening expert to review the videotape of the hand-wanding.  He found the quality of the screener's work to have been "marginal at best."

Understand, this was before 9/11, when it was perfectly acceptable to carry screwdrivers, nail clippers, and even small pocket knives on board.  Back then, nobody seriously considered the possibility of hijacking an aircraft with a few knives.

Again, we see that the hijackers studied our procedures, learned our weak points, and exploited them.  It's important to understand that this was a well planned and well executed attack.  All of the evidence points to the 9/11 attacks having been years in the planning.  I've often heard people express the opinion that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by a bunch of poorly educated third world terrorists who just got lucky.  The evidence contradicts that opinion.  The people who planned and carried out these attacks were intelligent, methodical, and very patient.  It's stupid and dangerous to think otherwise.