by David Stout, The New York Times
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nine of the 19 terrorists who hijacked four jetliners on Sept. 11 had been singled out for special scrutiny that morning under aviation-security guidelines, government officials said today, as they looked back sadly at what might have been.
But because their baggage contained no explosives, the hijackers were allowed to board.
None of the nine were questioned, nor was there any reason for them to be under the standards that existed on Sept. 11, the officials said, adding that things might be different if hijackers tried a similar plan today.
On Sept. 11, two hijacked planes destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another slammed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. Altogether, about 3,000 people were killed.
All that happened even though "the system was working as it was supposed to that day," said an official familiar with aviation regulations. By that, she meant that the system was geared to prevent bombs from being smuggled on board in luggage.
"It's the Pan Am 103 mentality," Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, said today, referring to the December 1988 bombing of that flight over Scotland. Mr. Mica is chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
The suspicions and searches of Sept. 11 were first reported in The Washington Post today. Although details were sketchy, they seemed to tell a story not of ineptitude but of security procedures overtaken by new terrorist tactics.
Six of the nine hijackers had been picked out for scrutiny because they met criteria set by the Federal Aviation Administration calling for their checked-in luggage to be examined by explosive-detecting devices or searched by hand. The other three drew attention because of irregularities or ambiguities in their tickets or identification documents, the officials said.
But because their baggage passed inspection and the document irregularities were not glaring - and because airport-security workers did not know that 2 of the 19 were already being hunted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as suspected terrorists - the deadly plot was carried out to near-perfection.
The only "disappointment," from the terrorists' point of view, was that the fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, apparently after the hijackers struggled with passengers, rather than striking some landmark. The hijackers did not use firearms, which would probably have been detected, but apparently wielded box- cutter knives of the type that were then allowed on board but are now banned.
One official said she did not know which of the 19 men were selected and at which airports. The jets that toppled the twin towers took off from Logan International at Boston; the one that struck the Pentagon took off from Dulles just outside Washington, and the jet that crashed in Pennsylvania left from Newark International.
The agency is reluctant to talk about the criteria that lead to the inspection of baggage, but some of them have become well known - paying for a ticket with cash instead of a credit card, or buying a one-way ticket to a far-off destination, for instance. (Investigators have said that at least some of the Sept. 11 hijackers paid cash for one-way tickets.)
Since Sept. 11, the F.A.A. has broadened its criteria for selecting passengers whose luggage should be inspected. It has also broadened the standards for passengers to be given extra searches at gates, over and above the standard walk-through. Under today's standards, all 19 hijackers would meet the criteria for extra scrutiny, said the official familiar with aviation security.
Congress has also approved stricter requirements for security personnel.
But she and Mr. Mica agreed that the hijackings also showed the need for agencies to share intelligence and computer information. In late August, the Central Intelligence Agency told the Immigration and Naturalization Service that it should place two Saudi Arabians, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, on its list of people who should be denied entry into the United States. The C.I.A. thought that both of them had associated with men who plotted to bomb the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
But Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi were already in the United States and being hunted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even so, they used their real names in buying airline tickets and did not raise alarms. They were believed to be on the jet that struck the Pentagon.
Mr. Mica said he would press for stricter, more sophisticated airport security.
"We do need to look at the criteria and go after the bad guys and not just objects," he said. Looking for objects might not uncover, say, a plastic toothbrush honed into a knife, he said.
Stephen Push of Great Falls, Va., whose wife, Lisa J. Raines, was aboard the plane that flew into the Pentagon, called the latest disclosures about the hijackers "very disturbing."
Mr. Push said there was plenty of blame to go around, among the F.B.I., the immigration agency, the C.I.A. and airport-security workers. "Sept. 11 didn't have to happen," he said today.