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FAA Delay in Reporting 9/11 Hijackings Probed
Commission also questions ex-chief on shooting report

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By Thomas Frank

May 23, 2003

Washington - The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks grilled the former chief federal aviation regulator yesterday in a tense public exchange over whether the government bungled its response that day.

Jane Garvey, former head of the Federal Aviation Administration, was asked pointedly by commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste why the agency apparently took a half-hour to notify the country's air defense command about the hijackings.

Another commissioner, Fred Fielding, pressed Garvey about an FAA report from Sept. 11 that a hijacker on American Airlines Flight 11 fatally shot a passenger five minutes before the plane smashed into the World Trade Center. The federal government has said no guns were on any of the four planes and that hijackers had only box cutters.

Garvey disputed both reports, but the questions indicated a tough approach being taken by the 10-member commission established last year to find out what allowed the attacks to occur.

"The line of questioning was extraordinary," said Kristen Breitweiser of New Jersey, who became a leading advocate for creating the commission after her husband, Ronald, was killed in the World Trade Center. Breitweiser, sitting in the Capitol Hill hearing room yesterday, broke into a smile as Ben-Veniste pressed Garvey repeatedly.

"They asked the exact questions we want answered," said a beaming Breitweiser, who was with about 15 other relatives of Sept. 11 victims. "To hear someone put on the spot and possibly be held accountable is so gratifying."

In another reassurance to Sept. 11 families, the commission took testimony from Bogdan Dzakovic, a one-time FAA security inspector who is well known in aviation circles for his criticism of the agency. Dzakovic, now in an administrative job for the Transportation Security Administration, told the commission of his longstanding complaint that the FAA ignored his reports about security lapses.

"Every time we found a major problem in security, we were prohibited from doing further testing," said Dzakovic, who had worked for the FAA testing airport security. Weeks after Sept. 11, Dzakovic filed a complaint about FAA security lapses, which the independent Office of Special Counsel upheld in March.

Ben-Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, provided the emotional highlight when he told Garvey that the FAA had learned at 8:55 a.m. that Flight 77 was off course and headed for the Pentagon - after it had already declared Flight 11 and Flight 175 hijacked. But, Ben-Veniste said, recounting previously known information, it wasn't until 9:24 a.m. that the FAA alerted the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which defends against aerospace threats.

Garvey initially said the command was notified at 8:34 a.m., but when Ben-Veniste read aloud testimony from NORAD's former commander saying the FAA didn't notify his agency until 9:24 a.m., Garvey said she would have to check FAA records.

Garvey firmly denied that guns were used on any airplane, despite a written FAA report saying that an American Airlines flight attendant had told the airlines operations center that a hijacker "shot and killed a passenger in seat 9B." Some Sept. 11 families question whether the airlines and government are covering up the presence of a gun, which was barred from airlines, to avoid liability or embarrassment.

Garvey said the FBI and the General Accounting Office found "no evidence" of a gun. "It may have been something that was reported in confusion," she said.

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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