WASHINGTON - The Federal Aviation Administration admitted yesterday it had decided not to order a security alert at the nation's airports despite being warned a week before Sept. 11 that the man now accused as the "20th hijacker" was in custody.
FAA spokesman Scott Brenner confirmed that the FBI tipped off his agency on Sept. 4 that Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested Aug. 17 after a Minnesota flight school reported he was behaving suspiciously, was being investigated as a likely terrorist who had a special interest in flying Boeing 747 jetliners.
But Brenner said there was no reason to think he was part of a larger conspiracy, and the FAA decided not to issue a security alert to the airports.
"The FBI did notify us that they were holding him on immigration charges and that they would keep us up to date," Brenner said.
"He was in jail and there was no evidence he was connected to other people," Brenner added.
The government's failure to pursue the Moussaoui case aggressively in the critical weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks is emerging as a central issue in congressional investigations into whether there was a security and intelligence meltdown among U.S. agencies.
The allegations have rocked the Bush administration and may result in firings and job transfers, sources said.