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Bulletins warned airports in '98

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 5/26/2002

The Federal Aviation Administration warned the nation's airports and airlines in late 1998 about a possible terrorist hijacking ''at a metropolitan airport in the Eastern United States'' and urged a ''high degree of vigilance'' against threats to US civil aviation from Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, according to classified security bulletins obtained by the Globe.

The three FAA information circulars - issued nearly three years before the Sept. 11 attacks - raise new questions about how much specific information US intelligence and regulatory agencies had about threats to US aircraft from bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Despite the gap in time between the 1998 warnings and the 2001 attack, the memos indicate ongoing concern about Al Qaeda's intentions. Bush administration and FAA officials have characterized pre-Sept. 11 intelligence warnings as too broad to defend against and said they lacked a ''credible'' hijacking threat.

A congressional committee is probing what the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies knew and whether they could have pieced information together in time to stop the worst terrorist incidents in US history.

The Bush administration has been on the defensive since revelations earlier this month that the president was warned of a terrorist hijacking threat during a briefing a month before Sept. 11. The FBI has also been criticized for apparently ignoring an urgent memo written four months before the attacks by an agent in Phoenix, warning about men with connections to bin Laden training at US flight schools.

On Friday, FBI Director Robert Mueller III said he had ordered an inquiry into a Minneapolis FBI agent's accusations that officials at FBI headquarters in Washington had repeatedly held back local agents in Minnesota who wanted to investigate alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui's attempts to receive jet flight training. After the attacks, federal prosecutors referred to Moussaoui as the ''20th hijacker'' from Sept. 11 and indicted him on six counts in connection with the strikes.

At a press briefing two weeks ago President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said the government's intelligence data before Sept. 11 were ''very generalized'' and too focused on US targets abroad for officials to decide how to respond. The FAA released a summary last week of 15 similar information circulars issued between Jan. 1 and Sept. 11, 2001, purporting to show that federal officials did not have specific information about a hijacking threat or a plan to use commercial aircraft as weapons.

Scott Brenner, FAA assistant administrator for public affairs, said the agency had been tracking a possible threat from bin Laden and Al Qaeda since 1998, but said the agency ''never had a credible hijacking threat.''

The documents obtained by the Globe, however, appear to show that US intelligence agencies communicated to the FAA specific concerns about threats, including hijackings, to domestic airliners dating back to the Clinton administration.

FAA officials refused to talk about what information prompted the agency to warn airports and airlines, but one acknowledged privately that a warning involving a ''metropolitan airport'' in the Eastern United States effectively applied to fewer than 20 airfields.

''We can't go into more specifics,'' Brenner said. ''We get this from the intelligence community. This is all classified information.'' Brian Sierra, spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington, said that FBI and other intelligence agencies routinely give information to the FAA, but declined to comment on the specifics of the 1998 circulars. FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman also refused comment, saying that the Sept. 11 attacks ''are still a pending investigation.''

The 1998 FAA circulars given to the Globe warn airport and airline officials about possible hijackings by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

The first of the three circulars, issued on Oct. 8, instructs airports and airlines to maintain a ''high degree of alertness'' based on statements made by bin Laden and other Islamic leaders and intellegence information following US cruise missile attacks against suspected Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. The August 1998 missile attacks followed the terrorist bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bin Laden, the circular states, had praised one of the bombers arrested in a failed 1995 plot to blow up US civilian airlines in the Far East and another Islamic leader had stated that ''militants had been mobilized to strike a significant US or Israeli target, to include bringing down or hijacking aircraft.''

''While this threat remains unsubstantiated, there is information from one of the incarcerated suspects in the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi that he received aircraft hijack training,'' the document states.

''The arrest and pending extradition of bin Laden cadre raises the possibility of a US airliner being hijacked in an effort to demand the release of incarcerated members.''

Exactly two months later, the FAA released another information circular, which warned of a threat against an Eastern US airport.

''The FAA has received information that unidentified individuals, who are associated with a terrorist organization, may be planning a hijacking at a metropolitan airport in the Eastern United States,'' the circular states.

Under the ''FAA Comment'' section, the circular further states: ''The FAA cannot at this time refute this threat to civil aviation. We believe the threat is current.''

Although the Dec. 8 circular is the only one of the three that does not specifically mention bin Laden and his terrorist organization, it does appear to refer to the previous circular, citing ''the potential for retaliation for US cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan.''

Because of those strikes, as well as ''a general increase in tensions in the Middle East,'' the document states that the FAA ''strongly recommends a high degree of vigilance.''

The third bulletin, issued three weeks later, warned airlines and airports to ''remain vigilant'' owing to statements made by bin Laden after the cruise missile attacks.

In an ABC News interview earlier in 1998, bin Laden said that ''every American should be a target for Muslims,'' and that it was ''the duty of Muslims to confront, fight, and kill British and American citizens.''

''In light of these inflammatory statements there is continuing concern that bin Laden and terrorist groups comprising his terrorist network are preparing to conduct further terrorist attacks against US interests, including US civil aviation,'' the Dec. 29 bulletin states.

FAA information circulars are given to airline and airport security officials, but are classified and cannot be disseminated under penalty of federal law - a point stressed by several officials queried by the Globe about the 1998 documents last week. Intended as warnings, they are considered less serious than FAA ''security directives'' and ''emergency amendments,'' which both inform officials of a threat and instruct them to take specific action to counter it.

Massport Acting director Thomas Kinton declined to comment on the 1998 FAA warnings, saying only that ''information is constantly flowing'' in the form of circulars and other documents.

Another high-ranking Massport official, however, said FAA information circulars routinely prompted word to go out to the 80 State Police officers and other security personnel at the airport to be extra vigilant, and sometimes officials restrict access past security checkpoints to ticketed travelers and ban curbside parking.

''The information circulars mattered, but the critical thing was whether the FAA followed up with an order to do something specific,'' the official said.

It was unclear whether the warnings were ever forwarded to the three major private security companies hired by the airlines to conduct passenger screening.

Officials at Argenbright Security in Atlanta and Huntleigh Corp. in St. Louis did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but a representative of Irving, Texas-based Globe Aviation Services, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that a check of the company's files turned up no evidence that the company had received the 1998 circulars.

According to last week's FAA summary, the 2001 circulars warn of the possibility of danger to US aircraft and citizens overseas due to general tensions in the Middle East, described a plot to bomb a baggage claim area at Los Angeles International Airport, warned about new techniques for smuggling weapons aboard aircraft and how one particular unnamed ''weapons system'' might be used against US aircraft, and alerted airlines about recent bombings in Spain by the Basque separatist group ETA.

Sean Murphy of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Ralph Ranalli's e-mail address is rranalli@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/26/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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