WASHINGTON — A law firm representing Sept. 11 victims' families released a security video on Wednesday that showed three hijackers setting off a metal detector at Washington Dulles International Airport the morning of the attacks.
Airport screeners quickly checked them, apparently found nothing that raised suspicions, and allowed the hijackers to board American Airlines Flight 77, which plowed into the Pentagon less than 2 1/2 hours later.
"The first thing I would want to show a jury is that even though these individuals were selected for the highest of scrutiny, the scrutiny they received was really no different than for any other passenger," said Michael Elsner, an attorney with the South Carolina firm of Motley Rice LLC, which released the tape. "There has been a systemic failure in aviation security for the past several decades."
The tape surfaced on the eve of the release of the Sept. 11 commission report, assuring maximum attention. Elsner said his firm received the video from a confidential source Wednesday afternoon and immediately decided to make it public by releasing it to television networks and Associated Press.
The firm is representing 52 families in a lawsuit against the airlines and security companies and has filed a separate complaint against senior Saudi Arabian government and business figures.
At the time of the attacks, the airlines were responsible for providing passenger security under the supervision of the Federal Aviation Administration. They employed low-wage private security guards who frequently stayed on the job only a few months.
Since then, airport screening has been turned over to federal employees under the Transportation Security Administration.
The FAA had no comment on the video. A TSA official said today's level of security was far superior. "We are under a new regime," the official said. "Screeners are federalized. We have reinforced cockpit doors. We do 100% baggage screening."
However, the inspector general in the Department of Homeland Security has said dangerous items still can be smuggled aboard airliners.
All five hijackers on Flight 77 were selected for additional security screening, according to a previous report from the Sept. 11 Commission. Pilot Hani Hanjour and two others were picked out by a computerized profiling system used by the airlines. The other two were selected because they provided inadequate identification information.
At the time, security procedures did not call for additional searches of individuals or their carry-on luggage. Instead, the hijackers' checked bags were held until it was confirmed that they had boarded the flight. That was to prevent an attacker from planting a bomb and then skipping the flight at the last minute. The FAA was not prepared to deal with suicide attackers.
The video shows hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Majed Moqed entering the security checkpoint at 7:18 a.m. Each of them sets off the metal detector. They are asked to go through again. This time, only Moqed sets off an alarm. He is checked by a screener using a hand-held wand, who finds nothing.
Then Hanjour goes through the metal detector. He does not set off any alarms.
Then come brothers Nawaf and Salem Alhazmi. Nawaf sets off the magnetometer twice and is checked with a hand-held wand. His carry-on bag is also checked for traces of explosives. Salem does not trigger any alarms.
Apparently nothing was found and the five were cleared to board Flight 77. All 64 people on the plane were killed in the attack on the Pentagon, as were 125 people on the ground.
What happened at the checkpoint has been previously detailed in testimony Jan. 27 before the Sept. 11 commission, but the video had never been seen.
It is believed the hijackers were armed with box cutters, or perhaps homemade knives or weapons fashioned from wire. At the time, the FAA allowed passengers to carry aboard knives with blades up to 4 inches. But there was confusion about utility knives, box cutters and other cutting tools.
Elsner said the agency was derelict in not banning all knives, as the government did now. A 1992 FAA memo pointed out that knives with small blades were often used in hijackings.
The mother of one of Flight 77's victims issued a statement through the law firm after viewing the tape. Sandra Teague, 31, an occupational therapist was on her way to a vacation in Australia. "Why didn't the airlines and screeners do their jobs?" asked her mother, Elaine.