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Possible Hijacker Stopped At OIA
Just Doing My Job, Says Inspector Jose Melendez-Perez
Lauded BY 9-11 Panel
Possible Hijacker Stopped At OIA
An alleged "20th hijacker" was turned away a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.
By Tamara Lytle | Washington Bureau Chief
January 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.
WASHINGTON -- Just one month before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a potential "20th hijacker" may have been prevented from entering the country by an alert border agent at Orlando International Airport, federal investigators said Monday.
Sometime in August 2001, a man known only by his last name -- al-Qahtani -- arrived at the airport on the same day that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta was known to have been there and to have used a payphone.
But al-Qahtani was turned away after questioning by border agent Jose Melendez-Perez, who is currently an inspector with the Customs and Border Protection arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Melendez-Perez is scheduled to testify about the "incident in Florida" at a Monday hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9-11 Commission, according to a witness list.
Al Felzenberg, the commission's spokesman, would not confirm details of the incident but said Melendez-Perez's quick thinking may have helped prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from being even more devastating. It's long been suspected that a so-called "20th hijacker" was supposed to have been part of the terrorist team that was overwhelmed by passengers aboard United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania.
It has been speculated that that flight may have been aimed at the U.S. Capitol or the White House, and the fact that the terrorist team was one man short may have given passengers an edge.
"He helped make it a lot less of a tragedy than it might have been," said Felzenberg. "There were many people who worked for the government who helped enhance security, and he's one of them."
Authorities had earlier speculated that Zacarias Moussaoui was meant to be the 20th hijacker but have since backed off. The Morocco-born al-Qaeda operative is awaiting trial in Virginia on terrorism and conspiracy charges.
At least one other of the Flight 93 hijackers -- Saeed Alghamdi -- is known to have entered the country through Orlando on June 27, 2001, according to previous FBI testimony. A total of four hijackers entered through Orlando en route to joining terrorist cells in South Florida, the FBI has said.
A congressional source said the would-be hijacker al-Qahtani was later picked up in Afghanistan as a combatant and is now being questioned at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay.
The Orlando incident was first reported in the edition of Newsweek that went on sale Monday. That story reported that Melendez-Perez, a 58-year-old Vietnam veteran, turned al-Qahtani away and put him on a flight out of the country after "his story fell apart" about being in Orlando to meet a friend.
The 9-11 panel has also discovered that Atta made a call on a payphone from the airport to a country in the Middle East the same day. Newsweek reported that a surveillance camera captured Atta placing the call.
But commission officials would neither confirm nor deny those details Monday night.
"We're aware of the story, and we're not in a position to comment on it," said Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the panel. "The commission will be preparing a detailed statement on this topic and much broader issues."
Melendez-Perez already has spoken with the staff at the commission, which is run by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton. Monday he will testify as part of a hearing on border and aviation security. "We think what he has to say will be extremely important to our investigation," Felzenberg said.
The commission has done 800 interviews and held six public hearings so far. It is scheduled to report to Congress and the president May 27. Recently, some commissioners had said they needed more time. But congressional leaders responded vociferously that they want the report finished on time.
A congressional joint inquiry, led by Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, finished its work last year investigating the intelligence failures that led up to the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people when terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The Kean commission has a much broader mandate than the congressional inquiry. It will look at aviation security, Congress' role, border security, terrorist financing, the intelligence community and other factors. The commission will begin hearing from Cabinet members from both the Clinton and Bush administrations this spring.
Unlike the congressional inquiry, the 9-11 panel will have access to classified White House documents
Just Doing My Job, OIA Inspector Says
Jose Melendez-Perez said he can't say more yet on a man stopped in 2001 who was a possible hijacker.
By Pamela J. Johnson and Tim Barker | Sentinel Staff Writers
Copyright © 2004, Orlando Sentinel
January 21, 2004
It is a decision Jose Melendez-Perez had made countless times before. Only this time, it may have prevented United Airlines Flight 93 from striking the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
About a month before Sept. 11, 2001, the federal border-patrol inspector at Orlando International Airport denied a man entry. However, this man -- identified only as al-Qahtani -- may have been the "20th hijacker," some officials said.
"I've been doing this every day for years, and only God knows how many people I've turned away," Melendez-Perez said Tuesday night while waxing his black Nissan Maxima at his home in an east Orange County gated community. "I usually never hear anything about it."
Just how important this catch was is debated among security experts, especially because 19 other hijackers made it into the country. It is suspected that the man whom Melendez-Perez blocked was supposed to be part of the terrorist team that was overwhelmed by passengers aboard the United flight, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
"It's like saying we did a great job at Pearl Harbor by shooting down 29 Japanese airplanes," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant with the Colorado-based Boyd Group.
Still, experts say it demonstrates the importance of the customs operations in protecting the nation.
The most obvious role of customs is found at U.S. airports, where inspectors quiz international travelers.
"You're looking at their reactions," said Douglas Laird of Laird & Associates, a Nevada-based aviation-security consulting company. "Are they sweating? Are they averting their gaze?"
But the agency's role has morphed considerably since the 2001 attacks.
In early 2003, customs was moved under the umbrella of the new Department of Homeland Security. The agency was split, with its criminal investigators moved into a new federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The remainder of the old customs agency became U.S. Customs & Border Protection, which got a boost to its anti-terrorist toolbox earlier this month with the debut of the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology program. The system uses photos and fingerprints to track the comings and goings of visitors from countries where visas are required.
These changes illustrate a shift in the agency's responsibilities, with more emphasis placed on searching for potential terrorists, rather than just keeping out illegal immigrants, said Charles Slepian, aviation-security expert with the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center.
Melendez-Perez, a native of Puerto Rico, said he could not provide details about the Orlando airport incident until he testifies Monday during a hearing of the National Commission of Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
"My wife doesn't even know anything about it," he said.
Earlier, authorities had suspected that Zacarias Moussaoui was meant to be the 20th hijacker but now say it might have been this new suspect.
To Melendez-Perez, his own story is mundane.
"It's my job," he said. "It's what I get paid to do."
9-11 Panel Lauds OIA Agent
Hijackers' leader should not have slipped by, inspector says
By Tamara Lytle | Washington Bureau Chief
January 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.
In Washington. (PHOTO: DENNIS COOK/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
FROM THE TESTIMONY
"The bottom line is, he gave me the chills," Jose Melendez-Perez said.
"It is entirely plausible to suggest your actions in doing your job efficiently and competently may well have contributed to saving the Capitol or the White House and all the people who were in those buildings, those monuments to democracy," Sept. 11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said.
WASHINGTON -- An Orlando border agent hailed for blocking a suspected terrorist from entering the country told a federal commission Monday that the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks never should have slipped past border agents.
Jose Melendez-Perez said there were enough red flags about Mohamed Atta -- including the wrong visa, his age and his impeccable clothing -- that an alert border agent should have refused Atta's entry.
"I would have recommended refusal," Melendez-Perez told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States in the first of two days of hearings on security breakdowns that may have contributed to the attacks.
Three of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers told obvious lies on their visa applications, the commission's staff said Monday, and as many as eight may have entered the United States with doctored passports.
While Monday's hearing focused largely on forged documents, lapses in security and other problems, Melendez-Perez was hailed for the gut instinct that led him to deny entry to a Saudi national who arrived at Orlando International Airport a little more than a month before the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
"When the subject looked at me, I felt a bone-chilling cold effect," Melendez-Perez testified Monday. "The bottom line is, he gave me the chills."
Federal authorities now think the man Melendez-Perez turned away -- Mohamed al-Qahtani -- may have been the missing 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The border agent's decision may have left the terrorists shorthanded on one of the four airliners hijacked that day, allowing passengers to fight back and crash the jet thought to have been targeted at Washington into a rural Pennsylvania field.
"It is entirely plausible to suggest your actions in doing your job efficiently and competently may well have contributed to saving the Capitol or the White House and all the people who were in those buildings, those monuments to democracy," commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste told Melendez-Perez during Monday's hearing. "For that, we all owe you a debt of gratitude."
With that, the Hart Senate hearing room broke into uncharacteristic applause as Melendez-Perez, a 58-year-old native of Puerto Rico, sat alone in a crisp gray suit at a long table, facing the cameras and the commission and the sudden attention for his part in fighting terrorism before it was a national commitment.
The commission also heard about a series of government failures in issuing visas, not sharing intelligence and allowing hijackers into the country with doctored passports and other improper documentation. The commission staff pointedly disputed CIA and FBI claims that most of the hijackers couldn't have been stopped because they entered the country legally.
As a counterpoint to all those failures, Melendez-Perez was invited to tell his story -- one of an inspector who risked wrath in a system that was deferential to Saudi visitors.
"I was just doing my job," Melendez-Perez repeated like a mantra Monday.
Instinct -- honed by military training and 11 years of border work -- is what led Melendez-Perez to deny entry to al-Qahtani on Aug. 4, 2001, the agent told the bipartisan federal panel, better known as the Sept. 11 Commission.
Al-Qahtani was sent to Melendez-Perez's secondary inspection station at OIA because he claimed not to speak English and hadn't properly filled out his paperwork.
Melendez-Perez sat with him in a back room, an Arabic translator on the speaker phone between them.
Al-Qahtani, who had arrived from Dubai, had no return ticket or credit cards and just $2,800 in cash for a six-day "vacation." That's not enough money to buy a ticket back to Dubai after six days of hotel expenses, Melendez-Perez figured.
The Saudi man said a friend was waiting for him in the airport, then changed his story to say no one was there after the border agent pressed him for a name. Investigators now know that Atta, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, was in the Orlando airport calling another plotter when al-Qahtani didn't appear.
As Melendez-Perez found more holes in al-Qahtani's story, he drew on experience from 26 years in the Army, including a stint training recruiters in interview techniques. Al-Qahtani was aggressively arrogant -- even pointing a finger in the border agent's face -- but that didn't intimidate him.
Melendez-Perez, who had been an Army first sergeant, looked at al-Qahtani's neatly trimmed mustache, perfect grooming and confident bearing, surmising the man had military training. When al-Qahtani claimed he didn't know where he was going after the U.S. trip, the thought "hit man" flashed through the inspector's mind.
The evasiveness and shaky story weren't firm grounds for barring the Saudi from the country. But when al-Qahtani refused to answer questions under oath, that was a different story.
Melendez-Perez got permission from his supervisor's boss, and soon he was marching al-Qahtani over to the next flight to Dubai via London. As the Saudi who claimed not to speak English got on the plane, he looked back at Melendez-Perez and said something in English to the effect of "I'll be back."
Instead of coming back, al-Qahtani was later captured in Afghanistan and now is being held as an enemy combatant at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, according to congressional sources.
Members of the Sept. 11 Commission did not ask Melendez-Perez about the four hijackers who are known to have entered the country through OIA before joining terror cells in Florida.
Melendez-Perez, meanwhile, keeps checking visitors and immigrants in Orlando, although his border agency is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. The father of four and grandfather of six has not received any special award for his prescient judgment.
And no one from the FBI ever asked him for information, although he called his office Sept. 11 as soon as he heard of the attacks, reminding them of his run-in with the Saudi. Melendez-Perez also turned away another Saudi national that August, according to Ben-Veniste, although that person has no proven terrorist ties.
Kristin Breitweiser, whose husband died at the World Trade Center, said Monday that she wished the commission put front-line people who hadn't done their jobs on the spot instead of just featuring Melendez-Perez. "I applaud the man, but really I'd like to have the other however-many thousand people who dropped the ball," she said.
But commissioners and their staff were at times pointed in their criticism of the State Department officials who processed visas, the Immigration and Naturalization Service that watched the borders and the intelligence agencies that didn't share information with one another.
Commissioner John Lehman, a former Navy secretary, told Mary Ryan, the former assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, that her staff should have given closer scrutiny to people applying for visas in Saudi Arabia because of the well-known presence of Islamic fundamentalists there.
"Everybody we talked to said 'Saudi Arabia is our friend. We don't look for terrorists there,' " Lehman said. "Hello, did anyone read the newspapers?"
Ryan said Saudi Arabia was considered an ally and that the State Department did not have intelligence information to help it know who to keep out of the country by denying visas.
Jim Leusner of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.