Of Pain and place

Documenting devastation near and far-of the body, the mind, and the soul

FAA south regional spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen refuses to comment on the two-page alert, officially called an "information circular," which expired January 31, 1999. "We don't discuss specific security measures," says Bergen, adding that even she isn't authorized to see FAA-issued alerts. "We have a lot of information that we give airports and airlines on a need-to-know basis. We don't want to give any perpetrators any suggestion of what we might be doing."

All FAA information circulars, which number an estimated fifteen to twenty per year, are restricted from public view by law. Unlike FAA's "security directives," which have more-specific information on threats and demand certain security measures by air carriers and ports, circulars make no direct order. They are distributed to airlines' corporate security directors, senior management officials, and other security personnel. Managers and "security elements" at airports are also notified. At the bottom of the circular, in bold print, is written: "For Use by Aviation Security Personnel Only. Unauthorized Dissemination of This Document or Information Contained Herein Is Prohibited."

A confidential source in the federal government supplied New Times with the document last week because the source felt that the FAA and intelligence community were being disingenuous when expressing total surprise that domestic airliners had been hijacked. "That alert should have changed the way the airlines were doing business, but it did nothing," says the source, who has worked in various airports across South Florida. "I think they are covering their asses by saying they didn't know anything about this."

Steve Satterwhite


Read related New Times stories

It is unknown whether the 1998 alert was directly related to last Tuesday's disaster. It has been widely speculated that the attack had been planned for more than two years, though information from the current FBI investigation seems to indicate that a concerted effort by the hijackers didn't begin on American soil until mid-2000. The seeds of the plot, according to The Washington Post, seem to date back to November 1998, when two of the suspected hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, formed a terrorist cell in Hamburg, Germany. Two of the other suspected hijackers, Hani Hanjour and Waleed Alshehri, attended flight schools in the United States in 1997.

Since the disaster, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has given no clue that the FAA knew of any terrorist hijacking threat on the East Coast or anywhere else. "Our national transportation system has become a target," Mineta said Sunday during a press conference. "This past week requires a new system ... that will move passengers safely and efficiently."

Veteran aviation security consultant Marvin Badler says the FAA's information circulars are all too often virtually ignored by the airlines and airports. Badler, who lives in Boca Raton and is a former head of security for El Al Israel Airlines, was unaware of the 1998 East Coast threat. "That document should have been taken a lot more seriously than it seems to have been taken," he says. "But if they would have started with a higher level of security that has always been needed, then nobody would have to listen to alert notifications in the first place."

Rarely has any FAA alert surfaced publicly. After EgyptAir flight 990 crashed off the East Coast in 1999, the Associated Press obtained an information circular warning that a bomb would be "used" on a flight departing from Los Angeles or New York. Although the EgyptAir disaster is still under investigation, no evidence has been found to indicate that a bomb was on board. In 1989 an FAA circular warning that three Palestinians were planning a hijacking of an American aircraft in Western Europe was leaked to a London newspaper, causing much controversy about whether citizens have a right to know when a credible threat is made against airlines or airports. A congressional subcommittee met after the 1989 leak to discuss whether the public should be informed of aviation threats, but there ultimately was no change; FAA alerts remain a secret today.

Badler says that, while the secrecy may have helped the airlines avoid accountability for their woeful security levels, he agrees that terrorist threats shouldn't be made public. "They would produce panic, and people wouldn't want to fly," he says, adding that U.S. intelligence would also be compromised. "We can't live like that."

--By Bob Norman

Little Voices
Gregory Lujan squirted a ribbon of ketchup and then mustard onto his French fries. Because the countertop of Two Guys Restaurant is at eyebrow level for the eight-year-old, he held the red-and-yellow plastic bottles over his head and squeezed. "Everything with ketchup and mustard on it is good," Gregory proclaimed in a loud voice when questioned about the combo. "Well, there you go," commented Two Guys owner Shirley Meadows from the other side of the counter. Arms folded in front of her, Meadows was facing a thirteen-inch television set placed on a barstool at the Overtown take-out restaurant on NW Third Avenue. She was listening to Peter Jennings. Even though no one else in the tiny box of a space could make out what Jennings was saying -- the volume was turned down -- you knew the somber, serious, clipped murmuring was about the World Trade Center.

It was Friday afternoon, and we had all been tethered to the television since Tuesday -- to the voices of news anchors like Jennings, to the footage of the hijacked planes silently piercing those skyscrapers over and over again, to the smoke blooming from them, to the fireballs, to the towers collapsing, one and then the other, the ugly cloud, the people running, the updates, the scenes of the rescuers picking through the mountain of gray rubble. Televisions were turned to news at the grocery store, at the veterinarian, in offices, in restaurants. Gregory noticed that adults standing beside him waiting to order still had their eyes on the screen. "I'll tell you what I think," offered Gregory, practically shouting. "I think the people who flew airplanes into those buildings are boneheads!"

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