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UNSAFE AT ANY ALTITUDE
Failed Terrorism Investigations, Scapegoating 9/11, and the Shocking Truth about Aviation Security Today
By SUSAN B. TRENTO JOSEPH J. TRENTO
Copyright © 2006
Film & Ink Productions, LLC
All right reserved.
The Night Before
It had been a long day at Dulles International Airport. There was
not a hint that this would be the last normal day in America for
years to come. Adding to the exhaustion was an airport under
seemingly endless reconstruction. In just a few years Dulles had
gone from an underutilized white elephant to a facility serving
more than twenty million travelers a year. Though Dulles was the
first airport built from scratch for the jet age, it was located so far
out in the Virginia countryside - it's twenty-seven miles from the
White House - that it took decades for Washingtonians to
embrace it. Back in 1958 few envisioned that the suburbs of
Washington would one day crowd it.
Travelers too hurried or too tired to pay attention routinely
walked by the hundreds of foreign-born workers who handled
security, cleaned the departure lounges and hallways, and staffed
the shops and restaurants at Dulles. Voyagers passing through had
no reason to observe that Dulles was like a small city. It had its
share of homeless actually living in the nooks and crannies of the
vast terminal; it also hosted criminals andthose with something to
hide, and workingmen and -women just trying to earn a living. As
at most other large American institutions and businesses, foreign
workers, legal and illegal, held jobs at Dulles that few citizens
wanted. As September 10, 2001, wound down, one of those
workers was Eric Safraz Gill. A slender man of medium height,
impeccably dressed in an Argenbright Security blue blazer and a
conservative tie, Gill was a legal immigrant from Pakistan working
the evening shift as a checkpoint supervisor.
Al Qaeda's plan to take the jihad to the crusaders' homeland
should not have been a surprise to American authorities. There had
been years of warnings of an Al Qaeda jetliner conspiracy. The
CIA and National Security Agency (NSA), which routinely monitor
all sorts of electronic communications, had been detecting Al
Qaeda "chatter" through much of the spring and summer of 2001.
And yet communication between the FBI and CIA about what the
chatter meant was almost nonexistent. In addition, since 1995 the
CIA had had access to a handful of Al Qaeda members in custody
who had spoken of potential attacks using airplanes. In the early
1990s Osama bin Laden had a plan - Operation Bojinka - to
crash multiple airliners in the Pacific Rim on a single day. No one
at the CIA or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made the leap
from Operation Bojinka to the idea of using airliners as missiles.
The bomb builder arrested by Philippine authorities in Operation
Bojinka confessed in detail about the use of airliners in terrorist
attacks, saying that another plan was to crash a plane into CIA
headquarters in Langley, Virginia? The executive branch of the US
government took no action to warn the FAA or the airlines that terrorists
had such plans.
Ever since 1976 the CIA had been betting everything on the
decision to rely on the GID - the Saudi intelligence service - for
intelligence on the region, which eventually included keeping
track of Al Qaeda's plotting. It was a curious decision, since much
of the Saudi royal family had been funding Islamic extremism over
the years through a network of Islamic charities around the world.
In fact, one of Saudi Arabia's leading funders of Islamic causes was
spending the night of September 10 just a few miles from Dulles
International. Eric Gill did not know when he took his dinner
break that evening that what he had feared so much as a young
man would engulf him in ways he could never have imagined.
Gill has an eye for detail. He remembers times, faces, even the
weather. On September 10, 2001, he was stationed at the departure
level of the swooping twelve-hundred-foot-long concrete-and-glass
main terminal at Dulles, which looks as if it is floating
over the lush green countryside of northern Virginia. At dusk the
xenon lighting gives the exterior of Eero Saarinen's masterwork a
sense of energy even as the interior starts to quiet with the evening
slowing of takeoffs and landings.
Twilight gave way to darkness as Gill returned from his dinner
break at a little past 8 pm. Gill had just returned to his post at the
West Checkpoint on the main level. Right next to the checkpoint,
with its magnetometers and X-ray machines, was a plain door with
an electronic lock that could be opened with an all-access airport
identification card. The door allowed police and other airport
employees to get into the secure areas quickly without having to
wade through the passenger lines. There was such a door next to
the checkpoint at both the west and east ends of the terminal.
On September 10, Gill was standing near the side door
watching the passenger lines and observing and supervising the
entire screening process. Because of the door's close proximity to
the West Checkpoint, security for it came under Argenbright's
jurisdiction. This doorway was so important because going
through it meant you'd cleared the last serious hurdle to boarding
any aircraft or getting to any secure area at Dulles. Once through
the doorway, you could exit into the postscreening area with
cleared passengers; you could then make your way to a mobile
lounge that took passengers out to the planes parked at a series of
midfield terminals, or you could walk downstairs where some
commuter aircraft had gates adjacent to the main terminal. The
difference in entering through the employees' door was that you
also had the choice of going down the stairs to secure employee-only
areas. At Dulles this side door was not normally used by ramp
workers, mechanics, or cleaning crews. It was mostly for police
and security people. Ramp workers normally cleared security
downstairs behind the airport's baggage area.
The stairwell from the side door led to Door 8 on the lower
level. Hundreds of airport workers accessed their workplaces in
the secure areas of Dulles through Door 8. Behind that door, an
Argenbright Security guard was the last line of defense to make
certain that no one without proper identification got through.
Like the upstairs checkpoints, Door 8 was also under constant
video surveillance. However, bags and parcels carried by
employees going through this door were never opened or
Upstairs, on the evening of September 10, Eric Gill kept an eye
on the employee door to prevent "badge piggybacking" - a lax
practice in which a single worker would swipe his ID card
through the electronic lock and then allow several colleagues to
come in without swiping their own cards. Part of Gill's job was to
make sure that only one certified employee got through the door
at a time.
At 8:15 pm Gill noticed a group of five men approaching the
checkpoint in a strange manner. They looked like airport
employees - three of the men wore the striped shirts and blue
pants of United Airlines ramp workers, and they had the appropriate
green A all-access pass that would enable them to open the
side door. However, instead of coming straight toward the side
door as most airport workers would, the men came in at an angle
next to one of the X-ray belts. There they simply stopped and
looked for a few moments, as if they were examining security procedures
at the checkpoint.
"Normally," says Gill, "people who had legitimate business
would just keep walking because they knew where they were going
and what they were doing ... Because they hesitated, I became
One of the group, an Arab-looking man in his late twenties,
swiped his electronic pass and held the door open for the others.
At this point Gill walked over and asked them if he could be of
help. That is when he noticed that two of the five, though neatly
dressed, were not in uniform and had no airport identification.
Gill politely told them that they were not entitled to enter the
secure area unless they had their own IDs with them. He then
asked who they were and what business they had that required
using this entrance. When he did not get an answer, Gill told the
two who did not have identification that they had to turn around
and go back. "I said, 'You have to go back again' ... They said they
had IDs and were all going inside."
At this point Gill's colleague Nicholas DeSilva came on the
scene and witnessed the rest of the encounter. Meanwhile, seeing
the men close up, Gill realized that the United uniforms worn by
three of them "were very dirty." Gill had never seen United management
tolerate such dirty or ragged-looking employees.
Furthermore, after fifteen years at Dulles, "This was the first time
I had seen these faces, and they were trying to escort these two
guys without ID through there, and that worried me," Gill recalls.
Gill refused to let the men in uniform escort the others
through. "After I refused the escort, they got angry with me and
they started to become rude," he recalls. "They said, 'We have
IDs, we can go through here, and we can take them in.' And I said
to them, 'Well, you have an ID, I can take only those who have
IDs with them through the side door. All others who have no IDs
will have to go back out and through the main security checkpoint.'"
At that point the one who had swiped his ID to let the
others through "came close to me and he started abusing me." Gill
recognized the man's accent as Middle Eastern.
When Gill and DeSilva continued to block their way, the others
joined in the abuse. "They told me to fuck off," says Gill. "One
said, 'We are important people you don't know and we should be
allowed to go through here.' He said, 'You make your own rules.'"
The incident was unpleasant but not that surprising. Over the
years Gill had been abused by a number of passengers and
employees impatient with security procedures. "It was part of the
job," Gill explains. What did surprise him was what the men did
next. Instead of the two without identification proceeding through
the screening checkpoint, all five retreated. Gill watched intently
as they walked straight ahead toward the escalators that led downstairs
to the baggage levels. Because no FAA security warnings had
been issued to the airlines and then to Argenbright, there was no
reason for Gill or his colleagues to take any further action that
night. Had the men been more physically threatening, he might
have reported the incident to the airport authorities. But rudeness
and trying to piggyback on a friend's ID was not unusual enough
to warrant a report.
At 10 pm, Eastern Daylight Time, Eric Gill finished his shift
at the West Checkpoint and headed home to his apartment.
After 10 pm the electronic door on the upper level was no longer
covered by anyone. However, there was always an Argenbright
guard on duty at Door 8 downstairs, where the West Checkpoint
door led. Anyone coming through the upstairs door or through
the lower-level employee entrance would be recorded on videotape.
In addition, each key card used on the upstairs door was
On the night of September 10 Khalid Mahmoud was on duty at
Door 8. On a normal night he would observe baggage handlers,
maintenance people, and cleaning crews coming through his
checkpoint. By 10 pm crews would be cleaning and preparing
Dulles-based planes for flights the next day. Once a crew finished
prepping a plane, it was officially sealed until accessed by the
caterers and flight crew before takeoff. However, as Ed Nelson,
Gill's Argenbright supervisor, explains, "If someone wanted access
to an aircraft, say to plant weapons, it would have been easy for the
group Eric saw to come back after he got off duty and simply use
the ID cards they had to activate the electronic lock and slip
* * *
As Eric Gill drove home, a curious set of events played out a few
miles away at the Marriott Residence Inn in Herndon, Virginia.
Several guests with strikingly similar interests had checked into
the same hotel. The first guest to register was one of the most
powerful Saudi funders of Islamic causes, Saleh Ibn Abdul
Rahman al-Hussayen. Al-Hussayen had been on an extended trip
to Canada and the United States on behalf of the Saudi royal
family, visiting various Islamic charities he assisted in funding. US
government investigators were already aware that al-Hussayen
was a financial backer of a Michigan-based group, the Islamic
Assembly of North America, that had promoted the teachings of
two Saudi clerics who preached violence against the United States.
Many of the charities supported by al-Hussayen promoted
Wahhabism, the Saudi-sponsored form of Islam practiced by some
of the followers of Osama bin Laden and some members of Al
Qaeda. He was in Herndon to meet with officials from several
important Islamic charities the Saudis funded in northern
Later that night three men who fit the description of the men
who tried to piggyback through Eric Gill's checkpoint came to the
Marriott Residence Inn. They were part of the Al Qaeda team that
would return to the airport for the early-morning American
Airlines Flight 77 to Los Angeles. The Al Qaeda team had spent
several days in Laurel, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, before
relocating to the Marriott.
Though national terrorism chief Richard Clarke and his colleagues
had believed for months that something awful was going
to happen, they were unable to get the relevant government agencies
to respond to what the intelligence was telling them. The CIA
was not sharing information with the FBI. Clarke and his team
were never told of the cozy relationship between the CIA and the
Saudi GID. There were two Saudi intelligence agents the CIA
believed had been successfully placed inside Al Qaeda as double
agents. The problem was that neither the CIA nor the GID had
properly vetted the men. In fact, they were triple agents - loyal
to Osama bin Laden. Saudi intelligence had sent agents Khalid al-Mihdhar
and Nawaf al-Hazmi to spy on a meeting of top associates
of Al Qaeda in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 5-8, 2000.
"The CIA/Saudi hope was that the Saudis would learn details of
bin Laden's future plans. Instead, plans were finalized and the
Saudis learned nothing," says a CIA terrorism expert who asks that
his identity be withheld.
By the time the two Saudi agents entered Malaysia, the CIA was
well aware of Khalid al-Mihdhar's name, passport number, and
birth information, since he had a US multiple-entry visa issued in
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that would expire on April 6, 2000. The CIA
knew these details because one of its own officers in the Jeddah
consulate routinely approved visas for Saudi intelligence operatives
as a courtesy. Under normal circumstances, the names of al-Mihdhar
and al-Hazmi should have been placed on the State
Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and
US Customs watch lists. The two men would have been automatically
denied entry into the United States. Because they were perceived
as working for a friendly intelligence service, however, the
CIA did not pass along the names. If it had, Eric Gill and his colleagues
in Newark and Boston might have stood a chance at preventing
what was planned for the morning of September 11.
Khalid al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, his brother Salem al-Hazmi,
and their colleagues in terror, Majed Moqed and Hani
Hanjour, were ready. They returned for their last night's sleep on
earth to the Marriott Residence Inn, where they could dream of
what awaited them in paradise.
Late on the evening of September 10 Deepthi Suraweers of Gate
Gourmet at Dulles removed the catering and food carts from an
American Airlines Boeing 757 as the first step in preparing the
plane for a morning flight to Los Angeles. The cleaning crew had
not yet come on board to clean the aircraft and seal it for the
night. To Suraweers everything on board seemed normal.
Aircraft parked at gates at Dulles Airport received no special
security. All it took was an airport A pass to get access to an aircraft.
Hundreds of Dulles employees as well as airline flight crews
had such badges. There were no security cameras capturing
images of staff entering and leaving aircraft from inside the gate
area or from the tarmac.
At 6:30 am on 9/11, Jaime Ramos and a Gate Gourmet colleague
arrived planeside with their catering truck and began loading
lunches onto the plane for American Airlines Flight 77. Gate
Gourmet, like most other operations at Dulles, relied on foreign-born
employees. Everything seemed normal, according to Ramos.
The only strange event was that six days earlier, another Gate
Gourmet employee, Mohammed B. Elamin, had inexplicably disappeared,
leaving his burgundy Volvo, minus license plates, parked
in the Gate Gourmet parking lot with a note saying, "Give to
charity." "Foreign nationals working low-wage jobs at Dulles came
and went," according to Ed Nelson.
Excerpted from UNSAFE AT ANY ALTITUDE
by SUSAN B. TRENTO JOSEPH J. TRENTO
Copyright © 2006 by Film & Ink Productions, LLC.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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