Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 9, 2006

Book Review: ‘Unsafe at Any Altitude’

Filed under: Aviation Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christian Beckner on October 9, 2006

As I noted last week, a segment on 60 Minutes on Sunday night looked at the issue of the government’s no-fly list, based upon an investigation that studied a copy of the list. The investigators found numerous flaws with it, most notably the fact that 14 of the 19 9/11 hijackers (presumably dead) were still on the list, and people with common names such as “Robert Johnson” are repeatedly flagged when they fly. The transcript of the segment is available here.

The segment was based largely on the reporting found in the new book “Unsafe at Any Altitude” by Susan Trento and Joseph Trento. I read a review copy of the book over the weekend, and while it was a compelling read, I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

The main argument of the book is that private aviation screening firms were falsely scapegoated after 9/11, and that today’s TSA performs worse at aviation screening than these private companies. The book tells the story of Frank Argenbright, the founder and namesake of one of the major screening companies at the time, arguing that he was personally scapegoated because of screening problems at the company in Philadelphia in 2000, even though (the book argues) the screeners at the company’s airports in Dulles and Newark performed their duties appropriately on the morning of 9/11.

The book suggests that TSA employees today “detect only about half the dangerous articles sent through airport security in tests,” in contrast with a “80 to 95 percent detection rate” by private screeners prior to 9/11. I’ve been a strong advocate of federal-run screening at the TSA, fearing an overly cost-driven race to the bottom if it is reprivatized, but this part of the book makes a credible case for examining a return to private sector screening – something that TSA is looking at today via the Screening Partnership Program.

So why am I not sure what to make of the book? Because amid this narrative are a few mind-boggling revelations, which if true, would require complete reassessments of the conventional wisdom about 9/11.

For example, on page 137 and page 192:

The biggest secret was that Saudi Arabian government agents whom the CIA had relied on for inside information on al Qaeda were, in fact, working for Osama bin Laden. Two of those agents were among the hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles. Those two men were the ones the CIA and FBi had asked [Argenbright manager] Steve Wragg to watch on the video at Dulles Airport. The CIA had known since 2000 that they were in the United States, but it hadn’t notified the FBI until June 2001. The FBI had been looking for them all summer in connection with the October 2000 bombing of the Navy’s USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, but had not been able to find them.

….Prior to 9/11 senior CIA officials had convinced themselves that GID, the Saudi intelligence service, had placed agents inside al Qaeda. Because these two men – Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi – were thought to be Saudi agents, the CIA did not tell the FBI about them when they came into the United States from a terrorist summit meeting in Malaysia. Had the CIA shared what it knew, the FBI might have had a chance to at preventing the 9/11 attacks.

Read that passage twice. The authors are suggesting something that I’ve never heard before, and couldn’t find in any of the authoritative sources on 9/11 over the weekend – that two of the 9/11 hijackers were thought to be Saudi agents inside al-Qaeda but were actually double-double agents, and true members of al-Qaeda – who could have been easily tracked down in San Diego had information on them been shared with the FBI and other agencies. The ability to assess the verity of this claim is above my paygrade, but I have a hard time believing that 60 Minutes would associate itself with a book without vouching for its credibility.

Some other key revelations in the book:

  • The reason that 14 of the 19 9/11 hijackers are still on the no-fly list is that U.S. intelligence agencies fear that the real hijackers stole the identities of other Saudis prior to 9/11;
  • The first chapter of the book tells the story of Eric Gill, an Argenbright employee at Dulles who stopped an attempt by five Middle Eastern men dressed as airport employees to enter the secure zone of Dulles Airport on the night of 9/10/01…and later identified two of the men among the 9/11 hijackers;
  • The book claims that “the CIA is routinely placing employees undercover with airlines and even as sky marshals” (page 195);
  • The book describes incidents of finding bombs at airports after 9/11 that have heretofore been unreported, including one “found taped to a bathroom wall at the airport in Seattle.” (page 183)

Overall, I’m hesitant to accept everything in the book as fact, given the prevalence of anonymous sourcing, until there is further cross-checking of their findings. But for those who follow aviation security and intelligence issues, it’s a worthwhile read, and likely to stir up some lively discussion in the coming days and weeks. Here’s the link to it on Amazon.

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Comment by Mike

October 16, 2006 @ 1:24 am

Were the authors given disinfo?

“…senior CIA officials had convinced themselves…”

“…were thought to be Saudi agents…”

The wording suggests this is probably BS. Either the CIA knew or they didn’t. I would like to think they wouldn’t guess on something like this. Besides, whether al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were Al Qaeda operatives or Saudi agents, it makes no sense for the CIA to have kept this information from the FBI.

Was this the thinking going on at the CIA:

“There’s no reason to contact the FBI, the FAA or the airlines because theyse guys MIGHT be Saudi agents.”


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April 22, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

[…] and French intelligence. Saudi intelligence was hard-wired into the operation, according to author Joseph Trento, and the CIA/FBI/US Army man-on-the-scene, Ali Mohammed, apparently had complete foreknowledge, so […]

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