The 9/11 Commission Report

Lately I’ve been reading the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka “the 9/11 Commission”). I haven’t finished the whole thing yet — I’ve read just about everything except the section containing the commission’s recommended policy changes — but today seemed like an appropriate day to talk a little about this remarkable document.

You should read it. I don’t mean “read a news story summarizing it” or “ask a friend what it says”. You should actually read the whole thing. It’s not what you probably expect from a government report — it’s written in a very easy-to-read style, and is refreshingly light on acronyms and jargon. If you can follow a Tom Clancy novel, you can follow this.

The report starts out describing the immediate events of 9/11, then jumps back in time to show exactly where the plot came from and how it evolved over time. It alternates chapters telling the al Qaeda side of the story with chapters detailing what was going on within the U.S. government at the same time. Along the way, it tells a story that is by turns chilling, frustrating, and inspiring.

Like I said, read it. You can read the whole thing for free on the commission’s site, but nobody wants to read three hundred pages off a screen — either print off the PDF versions or pay the nominal fee to get a paperback version at your local bookstore. (There’s also a searchable version online, courtesy of Vivisimo.)

There’s too much in there for me to tell you everything, so I thought instead I’d just pull out some of the things that I found to be interesting.

The Heroism of the Flight Attendants

We all know about the heroism displayed by the cops and firefighters of New York City on Sep. 11. What I didn’t know about before reading the report, though, was the heroism displayed by another group that day: the flight attendants on board the airliners hijacked by al Qaeda.

All the training of airline flight crews prior to the attacks emphasized that the way to react to a hijacking was to play along — to give the hijackers what they wanted, rather than trying to resist. (Given that the objectives of just about all previous hijackers had been to use the passengers and crew as a bargaining chip, rather than to use the plane as a missile, this approach made sense — until al Qaeda changed the rules.) As the hijacked planes made their way towards New York and Washington, though, flight attendants on board all of them worked to find ways to subvert the hijackings and warn authorities on the ground of what had happened. They did this even though doing so put their lives at risk.

One such flight attendant was Betty Ong of American Airlines, who was working that day on Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. The hijackers of Flight 11 launched their assault on the aircraft by stabbing the two attendants in the first-class cabin, and then storming the cockpit. Since she was farther back in the aircraft, in coach, when this happened, Ms. Ong was left unmolested by the terrorists, who were focused on securing and maintaining control of the cockpit. Ms. Ong took advantage of this relative freedom and proceeded to use an airphone to call an American reservations center to report an emergency. She stayed on the line for 25 minutes, relaying information such as the hijackers’ seat numbers to the airline, until Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board.

(Recordings of Ms. Ong’s call have been preserved — you can listen to them and read transcripts on the site of the American RadioWorks program “Witnesses to Terror“.)

Ms. Ong’s colleague in coach on Flight 11, Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, also managed to find a phone and call in information to the airline, further helping decisionmakers on the ground understand what was going on.

On board all the hijacked aircraft, flight attendants were fighting and being killed. The report says this about their actions:

[Ms. Ong’s phone call] was the first of several occasions on 9/11 when flight attendants took action outside the scope of their training, which emphasized that in a hijacking, they were to communicate with the cockpit crew.

These men and women did everything they could to help others even as they stared death in the face. That’s heroism in my book.

How Bad Was Airline Security on 9/11? Maybe Not As Bad As You Think

One of the first changes most people encountered after Sep. 11 was the new, stricter enforcement of security measures at the nation’s airports. Three years on, we’re all used to the new litany of inspection measures we go through before we can board an airplane — removing shoes and belts, X-raying laptop computers, “wanding” anyone who looks suspicious, and so on. But it’s necessary, because we all know that the old system completely failed to catch the 9/11 hijackers, and that’s why we put up with this stuff today.


Not so fast.

One system in place at the time was CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System). The purpose of CAPPS was to identify passengers who should be subjected to higher security measures. (These days you’ll hear that system referred to as “CAPPS I”, because they’re developing a controversial much-expanded replacement, “CAPPS II“. You remember the fuss when people found out that JetBlue had been sharing passenger data with the government? They did that to help the development of CAPPS II.)

Every passenger flying that day was screened by CAPPS before boarding, including the terrorists. And CAPPS actually flagged many of those. In fact, here’s how many of the terrorists who were on each flight were actually flagged by CAPPS for additional scrutiny:

  • American 11 (WTC North Tower): 4 of 5, including the pilot hijacker, Mohammed Atta
  • United 175 (WTC South Tower): 0 of 5
  • American 77 (Pentagon): 3 of 5, including the pilot hijacker, Hani Hanjour
  • United 93 (crashed, Shanksville, PA): 1 of 4, not including the pilot hijacker, Ziad Jarrah

So CAPPS actually picked up a respectable number of the hijackers — eight out of nineteen. What’s more, it had identified two of the pilot hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Hani Hanjour. This is a key point, because each hijack team had only one pilot-trained member — the rest of the team was just there to give the pilot muscle. So if the teams on American 11 and 77 had lost only Atta and Hanjour, they could never have pulled off their plans — they might have been able to seize the aircraft, but they could never have steered it into their targets.

(And the numbers above don’t include two more hijackers — the remaining two from American 77 — who were missed by CAPPS but flagged for additional scrutiny manually by the counter agent who checked them in, due to their lack of photo ID, broken English, and suspicious manner.)

At the time, though, the only thing that happened to these hijackers was that their bags were given a more-thorough-than-usual search. This is because, at the time, CAPPS was only used to identify passengers who might potentially be carrying a bomb — so being flagged by CAPPS brought down lots of scrutiny on your luggage, and none at all on you. Which let these eight hijackers waltz right through security with only the cursory metal-detector inspection that everyone else got. (Which several of them failed — but were allowed to pass after a lazy wanding — but that’s another story.)

So the next time you hear someone say that the airlines’ security failure on 9/11 was an inability to pick out terrorists from the crowd, you’ll know that’s pretty much false. They were actually doing a not-bad-at-all job at finding the terrorists in the crowd. They just had no idea what to do with them once they found them.

The Terrorist’s Girlfriend

One of the stranger stories that emerges from the report is that of the pilot hijacker of United 93, Ziad Jarrah.

Once the various participants in the suicide plot made their way into the United States, they began to live an almost monastic lifestyle — keeping to themselves and severing their contacts with the outside world. Not too surprising for a group of religious fundamentalists.

Jarrah, though, was different. Lebanese by birth, he came to the plot as a student in Germany, where he was studying aeronautical engineering. He was no Muslim prude; he had picked up a fondness for parties and beer in Lebanon, and brought those with him to Germany. And it was in Germany that he met Aysel Senguen, a Turkish girl who captured his heart. Soon they were living together — another thing a devout Muslim would never do.

And yet, somehow, despite all that, Ziad Jarrah ended up at the controls of United 93 as it plunged into a field in Pennsylvania. It’s easy to understand how someone disconnected from the world and fueled by ideology could become a suicide hijacker; it’s less easy to understand what would motivate someone like Jarrah to do that. It’s a puzzle that the report doesn’t try to solve, which is probably for the best; the only person who knows the real answer died when that plane hit the field, after all.

But it does leave you with questions — so many that some people have postulated that the actual hijacker was a terrorist who had stolen Jarrah’s identity, rather than Jarrah himself.

How much did Senguen know of Jarrah’s life as a jihadi? The report cites his “transformation” as beginning around 1996, when he returned from a trip to Lebanon saying much more radical things than Senguen remembered him ever saying before. The next year, he abruptly changed his course of study from dentistry (which both he and Senguen were studying at a junior college in the town of Greifswald) to aeronautical engineering, and transferred from Greifswald to a university in Hamburg — requiring him to leave Senguen’s apartment, though he continued to visit her on weekends. Why the changes? Nobody knows. It is possible that Jarrah made the move to be closer to the just-forming “Hamburg cell” of al Qaeda, which was led by Mohammed Atta, though.

As the years went on, the report describes Jarrah becoming more and more radicalized in Hamburg, which led to frequent arguments and breakups with the secular and cosmopolitan Senguen. The breakups, however, were always followed by reconciliations.

When Jarrah left Germany for the U.S. to join the plotters there, he stayed in touch with Senguen via telephone and e-mail. It’s clear from the report’s narrative that his attachment to her remained strong, right up until the end. Indeed, on July 20, 2001, Senguen purchased Jarrah a one-way ticket from Miami, where he was staying, to Düsseldorf, and he took her up on the offer and flew out to visit her — an act which caused considerable consternation among al Qaeda’s leadership, who feared that one of their few pilot-trained hijackers might be on the verge of backing out. (Jarrah had visited Senguen before, but always using a round-trip ticket.)

Did Senguen know what Jarrah had gotten into? The report doesn’t say, but it’s certainly unlikely she knew any specifics. It’s not unlikely, though, that she was concerned for him in general; she had spent some time with him in Florida a few months before, so she would be aware of his general state of mind, and don’t forget all those phone calls and e-mails, either. It’s not hard to imagine her trying to convince him not to go back to Florida — to leave his jihadi fantasy behind him.

Whatever she said, though, wasn’t enough — at some point in August Ziad Jarrah said goodbye to Aysel Senguen and made his way back to the U.S., and his fate.

On the eve of the attack, Jarrah wrote a farewell letter to Senguen. He was the only 9/11 hijacker to leave a written farewell.

A Failure to Communicate

Many of the fatalites among New York firefighters on Sep. 11 were due to poor communications — their radios weren’t designed to operate inside a high-rise, where the metal caused the signal to break up. This problem had been noticed when the FDNY had responded to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the Port Authority (which owned the World Trade Center) had responded by installing a “repeater” system at its own expense. The repeater would boost the signal strength of the FDNY’s emergency radios, allowing them to function more effectively in the complex.

The Port Authority recommended that the new repeater system be left on at all times, for maximum security. However, the FDNY did not agree — the repeater would make their radios more effective within the WTC complex, but it could cause interference with the same radios when they were used outside the WTC complex but within the same neighborhood. The FDNY therefore proposed that the repeater be left off, with the ability to quickly activate it via a control console in the North Tower. This was accepted, and was the system in place on the morning of September 11, 2001.

After the second plane hit the Towers, the assembled fire chiefs decided to activate the repeater system to communicate with the firefighters working their way up the stairwells. The control console had two buttons on it that had to both be pushed in order to activate the repeater channel. The person who attempted to activate it, for whatever reason, only pushed one of the two buttons, with the result that by all appearances the repeater system was non-functional. The chiefs promptly gave up on it (except for a few in the South Tower, who managed to use the repeater channel on their local radios).

The result was communications blindness — the chiefs could radio an order to their fire companies, but they had no idea if the order was actually received or not, due to the weak reception of the FDNY radios. And the firefighters in the companies had similar problems when trying to report back to their chiefs.

This had tragic results when the Towers’ structural integrity finally gave way. The South Tower collapsed without warning, giving the FDNY no time to warn its personnel to evacuate, so better communications would not have saved anyone there. However, after the collapse of the South Tower, many firefighters remained in the North Tower, which was also on its way to collapse. One minute after the collapse of the South Tower, the order went out to evacuate the North Tower — but not all firefighters heard that order, due to weak radio reception and the huge amount of chatter on the one channel they could all communicate over.

The report takes pains to make it clear that the FDNY’s radios were not the root of what caused the loss of so many firefighters that day:

Even without the repeater channel, at least 24 of the at most 32 companies who were dispatched to and actually in the North Tower received the evacuation instruction-either via radio or directly from other first responders. Nevertheless, many of these firefighters died, either because they delayed their evacuation to assist civilians, attempted to regroup their units, lacked urgency, or some combination of these factors. In addition, many other firefighters not dispatched to the North Tower also died in its collapse. Some had their radios on the wrong channel. Others were off-duty and lacked radios. In view of these considerations, we conclude that the technical failure of FDNY radios, while a contributing factor, was not the primary cause of the many firefighter fatalities in the North Tower.

… which may well be true. To me, though, the true tragedy isn’t in the radios, it’s in somebody not pushing the other button on the repeater console. If even one life was lost because someone couldn’t find a button, it’s one too many.

One Moment In Hell

The first FDNY fatality of the day occurred at approximately 9:30, when a civilian landed on and killed a fireman near the intersection of West and Liberty streets.

That’s enough for now. I’ll post more as I think of them.



September 15, 2004
1:12 pm

I can honestly say that you have inspired me to read the 9/11 Commission Report. (There is a good chance that I’ll be printing out the 300 pages on the company copier after hours. We’ll see.)