- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

ATLANTA (AP) | A federal judge ruled Thursday that airlines and other companies in the industry that are being sued by families of terrorism victims can’t question FBI agents about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The aviation companies wanted to depose the agents and sought access to other evidence related to the investigation of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in order to show at trial that the government’s failure to catch the terrorists and prevent the attacks mitigates and excuses any purported fault on the companies’ part.

The government objected.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said the defendants have also argued that the terrorists likely would have succeeded even if the aviation industries had exercised due care.

“The issues to be tried relate to the acts and omissions of the aviation defendants, not the government,” Judge Hellerstein wrote in his ruling. “The government’s failures to detect and abort the terrorists’ plots would not affect the aviation defendants’ potential liability.”

There was no immediate comment from the defendants or their lawyers. Spokespersons for AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and US Airways Group Inc. declined to comment. Lawyers for several airlines did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Other defendants include UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc., Continental Airlines Inc., AirTran Airways, Boeing Co. and several airport authorities and security companies.

The judge said he plans to set a trial date for the lawsuits involving three wrongful death cases and 19 property damage cases on July 28.

The government urged the judge to block the aviation companies from interviewing six current and former FBI employees who the companies say would be able to testify as to what intelligence the FBI, CIA, Federal Aviation Administration and airlines had before the attacks regarding the terrorists’ plans and capabilities, as well as how the entities shared and exploited the intelligence.

The government argued that it would be impossible to interview the employees without disclosing classified or privileged material that could cause serious damage to national security and interfere with pending law enforcement proceedings.

The largest investigation in FBI history has resulted in 167,000 interviews and more than 155,000 pieces of evidence and involved the pursuit of 500,000 investigative leads, the government noted.

The government said the FBI has turned over more than 33,000 pages of information to aviation industry lawyers, including more than 10,000 pages of laboratory pictures and related information, witness interviews and descriptions of the hijackers’ weapons.

The airlines and aviation companies have said they are defending themselves against lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages for injuries, fatalities, property damage and business losses related to the attacks.

The companies filed separate lawsuits against the CIA and the FBI seeking to force terrorism investigators to say whether the aviation industry was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks. Lawyers for the victims of the attacks have said the FBI should not be forced to provide more information.

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