9/11 families denounce U.S. agency for withholding secret aviation data
Transportation Security Administration successfully appealed decision to release information to families


Monday, July 10, 2006

Sept. 11th family members suing United and American Airlines thought they had won a breakthrough victory earlier this year when a federal judge ordered the release of secret aviation security information to their legal team.

U.S. District Court Justice Leonie Brinkma, the presiding judge in the trail of al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, ruled that the relatives' lawyers were entitled to the same access to the pre-9/11 information accorded Moussaoui's defense lawyers.

But the data, which includes 150,000 FBI interviews of witnesses and airport surveillance tapes, was never turned over to the families' attorneys.

The Transportation Security Administration promptly appealed Judge Brinkma's decision -- a move likely to tie the matter up in the courts for several years.

"It was a little surprising," Robert Haefele, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit against the airlines, said of the TSA's appeal in a recent interview. "You would think the [TSA] would want to help out the families."

The agency's actions regarding the issue has infuriated family members.

"It is all about protecting the airlines," said Mitchell Zykokfsy of Queens, whose stepfather, John Talignani of New Dorp, died on United Flight 93, the plane forced down in the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11.

Zykofsky derided TSA's classification of the material as "security sensitive information."

"It is a total laugh because the horse is already out of the barn on this stuff," he said. "It's old news."

"I think [the TSA] is the most corrupt federal agency," said William Doyle of Annadale, who lost a son at Ground Zero.

Doyle said he believed the TSA has held back the data to cover-up how federal aviation security officials and their contractors missed opportunities to prevent the 2001 suicide hijackings.

As one example, he cited the failure of screeners at Dulles International Airport to nab three of the terrorists who hijacked American Flight 77 -- the plane flown into the Pentagon -- after they triggered metal detectors at a security checkpoint.

"They were pulled out of line, wanded and still allowed to board the plane," said Doyle, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit against United and American.

In its 2004 report, the 9/11 investigation commission concluded that the al-Qaida terrorists on all four flights hijacked on Sept. 11 were probably carrying sports knives with four-inch blades, which could be taken on airliners back then.

Two of the three Dulles hijackers -- Nawaf Alhamzi and Kahlid Almidhar -- set off the metal detectors twice each. At the time, both were the subjects of an FBI manhunt and had been placed on no-fly watch lists by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Customs Service.

Doyle, Zykofsky and other family members are now waging their fight for the release of the information in Congress. The lobbying effort paid off last month when the House Appropriations Committee attached a measure to TSA's 2007 spending bill requiring it to release all security information three years old or older, unless it is part of a current security plan.

The measure, sponsored by Republican Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky and Democratic Rep. Martin Sabo of Minnesota, would also require TSA to turn over all information requested by a judge in a legal proceeding unless they agency could show why it should not.

But since the Senate Appropriations Committee balked at including similar language in its version of the TSA budget measure, the issue will now have to be settled when the two houses meet in conference to work out a final bill later this summer.

TSA officials have been lobbying for the rejection of the language. They have argued that if the agency had to provide any information sought by a judge, the TSA would never be able to keep its security plans secret because they all would become subjects of litigation.

Agency officials have argued that the release of the data sought by the 9/11 family attorneys would compromise the TSA's methods of selecting passengers for random screening and detecting bombs, and disclose the vulnerability of important airports tunnels around the country.

"This is information we would not want in the public domain where it could be used by people who want to do harm to our transportation system," said TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark. "It is really just that simple."

Terence J. Kivlan is Washington correspondent for the Advance. He may be reached at terence.kivlan@newhouse.com.