- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The September 11 hijackers probably seized control of the four airplanes using pocket or utility knives, rather than box cutters, a preliminary report from the panel investigating the attacks said yesterday.

Security rules at the time would have allowed the 19 hijackers to carry knives with blades shorter than four inches onto aircraft. Nine were selected for more rigorous screening by a computer program designed to identify potential threats to security.

Staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States also reported — based on tapes of phone calls from passengers and crew aboard the planes — that the hijackers might have used Mace or pepper spray as well, although these items should not have been allowed on board. They also might have used the threat of a bomb to control passengers and crew.

Only one of the airport-security checkpoints through which the hijackers passed — at Washington Dulles International Airport — was subject to video surveillance. Of the five who passed through it on their way to board American Airlines Flight 77, three set off metal detectors and two were hand-wanded by screeners after setting off alarms a second time.

“Our best working hypothesis is that a number of the hijackers were carrying permissible utility knives or pocket knives,” Philip Zelikow, the staff director of the inquiry, told the panel.

“According to the [security-screening] guidelines on September 11, if such a knife were discovered … the item would be returned to the owner and permitted to be carried on the aircraft.”

Commission investigators determined that “at least two knives like this were actually purchased by hijackers and have not been found in the belongings the hijackers left behind,” he added.

The commission also said it would seek a two-month extension to its congressionally mandated May 27 deadline.

The news that hijackers were subjected to additional screening, but nonetheless managed to carry weapons on board underlined the weaknesses of the nation’s aviation-security system prior to September 11 — when it still was regulated by the Federal Aviation Authority and enforced by the airlines.

Commissioners repeatedly cross-examined aviation-security officials about the mounting indications of a threat to U.S. aviation throughout the spring and summer of 2001, and about even earlier warnings that terrorists might be planning to hijack aircraft and crash them into buildings.

“The hair of the intelligence community was on fire [during the summer of 2001],” said commissioner Jamie Gorelick, a former Clinton-era Justice Department official.

Despite this, the “no fly” list of terror suspects who were to be denied access to passenger aircraft bore the names of less than 20 people, although the State Department had a database of more than 60,000 names.

Moreover, the nine hijackers selected for additional screening were not questioned or required to undergo any additional searches of their person or carry-on luggage. Instead, their checked baggage was screened for explosives.

“There was no questioning of people selected for pre-screening. No one asked them who they were, or what they wanted the knives for. … No one asked them the basic questions,” said Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.

Officials replied that security measures were in effect at that time were aimed almost exclusively at non-suicide attacks.

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