Eagan flight trainer wouldn't let unease about Moussaoui rest
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When a Twin Cities flight instructor phoned the FBI last August to alert the agency that a terrorist might be taking lessons to fly a jumbo jet, he did it in a dramatic way:
"Do you realize how serious this is?" the instructor asked an FBI agent. "This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!"
The aviation student he was talking about was Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested the following day and last week was charged in a federal indictment with conspiring with Osama bin Laden and others to carry out the Sept. 11 attacks.
New details of how Moussaoui raised suspicions at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan -- and the company's eerily prescient tip -- are emerging from the briefings the school recently gave to congressional offices.
The still-unidentified flight instructor became wary of Moussaoui immediately, according to Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar and others with direct knowledge of the briefings.
Moussaoui first raised eyebrows when, during a simple introductory exchange, he said he was from France, but then didn't seem to understand when the instructor spoke French to him.
Moussaoui then became belligerent and evasive about his background, Oberstar and other sources said. In addition, he seemed inept in basic flying procedures, while seeking expensive training on an advanced commercial jet simulator.
Besides alerting the FBI about Moussaoui, the school's Phoenix office called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) early this year about another student -- Hani Hanjour, who was believed to be the pilot of the plane that flew into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. The school had raised questions about Hanjour's limited ability to speak English, the universal language of aviation.
An FAA representative sat in on a class to observe Hanjour, who was from Saudi Arabia, and discussed with school officials finding an Arabic-speaking person to help him with his English, said Oberstar and others with direct knowledge of the school's briefings.
Oberstar and Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo, who also was briefed by the school, praised Pan Am for its efforts to safeguard the skies and for passing federal authorities clues to possible terrorist activities before Sept. 11.
They said that, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the FBI and the FAA could have responded more vigorously.
"From what I've heard, the school was clearly more alert than federal officials," Sabo said.
Oberstar said "alarm bells" should have gone off at the FAA when Pan Am reported Hanjour's limited English skills -- as least as far as his pilot's training went. He also said he had no major complaints about the FBI's Minneapolis office. But he added that the office's response to the Eagan flight instructor's calls was so "bureaucratic" that a less-determined tipster might have stopped calling.
Sabo, who is the senior Democrat on a House appropriations transportation subcommittee, declined to discuss specifics of his briefing from Pan Am. But he said he would give the school "an A-plus for ... seeing a problem, reporting it and continuing to pursue it."
Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Pan Am "acted in the public interest" with both Moussaoui and Hanjour.
Pan Am Vice President Marilyn Ladner said, "We are pleased that our tip to the FBI turned out to be helpful. We'd prefer not to comment any further on the ongoing investigation."
A Pan Am representative first contacted Sabo's office a couple of weeks after the attacks. The firm sought help in prodding the Red Cross to provide grief counseling for shocked employees at its Eagan facility, where Moussaoui had sought training.
The employees had "a terrible case of the what-ifs," wondering what they could have done differently to avoid the disaster, said a source familiar with those conversations. Sabo's office got the Red Cross to dispatch counselors.
About three weeks ago, Pan Am representatives briefed Sabo, Oberstar and Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., individually on the encounters with Moussaoui and Hanjour. The representatives appealed for better federal guidelines on when to report suspicious activities so they don't have to worry about discrimination suits.
Oberstar went further. In recently enacted airline security legislation, he included a provision that bars flight schools from teaching any foreigner how to fly a commercial passenger plane without approval of the U.S. attorney general.
Pan Am's flight instructor didn't worry about repercussions when he phoned the FBI about Moussaoui, 33.
He had come to Pan Am five months after entering the country with at least $35,000 in cash, according to his indictment. He had promptly enrolled in a flying course at the Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., but quit after three months without qualifying for a private pilot's license.
In July, the indictment says, Moussaoui made credit card payments toward Pan Am's $19,000 course in piloting a Boeing 747. Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 3, it says, he received a $14,000 wire transfer from the same figure in Germany alleged to have sent money to the hijackers. Arriving at the Eagan school on Aug. 10, Moussaoui gave a school official $6,300 in cash.
Oberstar said the flight instructor, a retired military pilot, grew suspicious after he began speaking French to Moussaoui. Oberstar said Moussaoui seemed not to understand, said he wasn't fluent in French, didn't live in France long and added: "I'm from the Middle East."
The instructor found it odd that Moussaoui said he was from the Middle East, rather than identifying a country, Oberstar said. When the instructor inquired further, Moussaoui grew belligerent, several sources said.
It was not clear whether Moussaoui, who was born in France and attended French schools as a youth, did not understand French or merely chose not to speak it.
Over the next three days, Moussaoui seemed to his instructor to be uncoordinated and showed little ability to follow the lessons, several sources said. The instructor "tried to tell him he was wasting his money," one source said, but Moussaoui persisted.
A person familiar with the briefings said Pan Am denies the most widely reported remark attributed to Moussaoui: that he wanted only to learn to operate the aircraft in flight, and did not need takeoff or landing instructions.
After his arrest, Pan Am learned that Moussaoui had flown 57 hours in a Cessna 152 in Oklahoma but never soloed, an accomplishment usually achieved after 20 hours.
In the meantime, Oberstar said, the instructor voiced his suspicions about Moussaoui to colleagues, one of whom offered the number of an FBI friend who could advise whether the information should be reported. When the instructor phoned, the FBI agent strongly urged him to pursue the matter but gave him the wrong agent to call, the sources said. The instructor made three more calls before reaching the right agent on Aug. 15, the sources said. Moussaoui was arrested the next day and held on an immigration violation.
The FBI then checked Moussaoui's name with foreign intelligence agencies, and was warned by the French intelligence service that he may have terrorist connections. But the Minneapolis agents were unable to persuade FBI lawyers in Washington, D.C., to seek a warrant to search his possessions under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires evidence that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist group.
Frustrated local FBI agents visited the school a couple of times before Sept. 11, trying to obtain enough evidence for a warrant, a source said.
Asked about this account, Paul McCabe, a supervisory special agent in the FBI's Minneapolis office, said he could not comment on a pending investigation. FBI Director Robert Mueller said last week that he was comfortable that bureau lawyers made the right decision at the time on the warrant request.
Oberstar, however, expressed dismay that FBI headquarters did not approve seeking search warrants sooner. He called the Minnesota flight instructor "a hero" who "kept pursuing it until what he saw as a dangerous situation was addressed."
When FBI agents in Minneapolis finally obtained a warrant after the Sept. 11 attacks, they found voluminous information on crop-dusting planes on Moussaoui's computer hard drive, similar to material gathered by the hijackers' ringleader, Mohamed Atta, the indictment said.
While Moussaoui behaved oddly, Pan Am representatives never suspected that Hanjour, whom they found to be amiable, was a terrorist, the sources said. By the time he enrolled at Pan Am's school in Phoenix last January, Hanjour had attended English language school, bounced around several western flight schools for a few years and obtained a commercial pilot's license.
Beginning in April 1996, Hanjour studied English for more than four months at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., and reached level five of the school's 12 levels of English proficiency, said school spokesman Mike Palm. That was sufficient to "survive very well in the English language," Palm said.
When Hanjour enrolled in January at Pan Am's Phoenix facility, Oberstar said, his instructor made a more critical assessment of his English.
The FAA began clamping down on U.S. flight schools in recent years to ensure that no one who cannot speak conversational English receives a flight certificate.
Oberstar and others said the Pan Am instructor questioned how Hanjour got a flight certificate with his English, felt it was inadequate to complete the firm's course and phoned the FAA. Oberstar said the instructor asked: "What do we do about this? We don't think we should continue a person in flight training whose English is so inadequate."
Pan Am officials were dissatisfied by the FAA inspector's response: suggesting he might know of an Arabic-speaking person who could assist him with his English, Oberstar and others said. That approach apparently didn't work. Hanjour "flunked out" in March, a company executive told legislators.
Oberstar said the FAA representative had no reason to believe that Hanjour was a terrorist. But, recalling that he held a subcommittee hearing a few years ago into a New York plane crash caused by the pilot's failure to understand instructions in English from air traffic controllers, he said Hanjour's language problem should have sounded "alarm bells" with the FAA.
Jerry Snyder, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, said he could not comment because the matter is under investigation.
Pan Am also came in contact with a third Sept. 11 figure: Atta. The company's Miami office recently discovered it had received an inquiry from Atta early last year, one source said. The school sent him information, but he chose instead to attend a flight school in Venice, Fla., the source said.
-- Greg Gordon is at email@example.com .
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