By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Throughout the past year, in response to an executive order from President Biden, the FBI has declassified and made public thousands of pages of records about its once-secret “sub file” investigation into Saudi complicity in 9/11: Operation Encore.
Those records, largely and inexplicably ignored by the nation’s mainstream media, reveal stunning new facts about the involvement of Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs officials operating out of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington. The FBI’s conclusion: Saudi government officials knowingly provided support for the first two al Qaeda hijackers to enter the U.S. via Los Angeles International Airport 20 months before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
But Operation Encore, whose existence was first made public by the FBI in 2016 in response to a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog’s parent company Broward Bulldog Inc., was focused on events surrounding those two hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, who with three other Saudis seized control of American Airlines Flight 77 and slammed it into the Pentagon.
But 17 other suicide hijackers commandeered and crashed three additional passenger jets that day and hundreds of agents assigned to PENTTBOM – the largest criminal inquiry in the bureau’s history – tracked their movements and contacts, too. And given the FBI’s prior disclosure to Florida Bulldog during FOIA litigation about hijackers’ ties to Saudis living in Sarasota that its Tampa field office alone contains more than 80,000 pages of classified 9/11 material, it’s clear that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pages of additional PENTTBOM documents continue to be kept from the public 21 years after the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.
Some FBI records, no doubt, address one of the enduring mysteries of 9/11: whether al Qaeda planned more attacks that terrible day – in addition to seizing control of the four planes that were flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa.
There is evidence that more attacks were planned. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, U.S. Department of Justice officials told reporters that agents conducting security sweeps had found box-cutter knives – like those known to have been carried by the 9/11 hijackers – on two Delta passenger jets also scheduled to fly on Sept. 11th. At the time, it was not known how the box-cutters got there, and the matter quickly faded away.
But a Sept. 24, 2001 FBI report made public in March said a box-cutter was found under the seat of an American Airlines plane that flew from San Diego to JFK, as Flight 160, and back again on September 10. The jetliner was scheduled to fly to JFK again on 9/11 but never left San Diego because of the shut down of the nation’s airports. Agents who investigated determined the seat on Flight 160 “was occupied by NAME REDACTED, one of the 13 Saudi Arabian pilots previously reported on by San Diego (FBI).” At the time of the report, the FBI had not yet identified the occupant of the seat on the return flight on 9/10.
Florida Bulldog has found no FBI reports about the 13 Saudi pilots, but our review of the records released in response to President Biden’s order is continuing.
The little-known story of United Airlines Flight 23 has more heft.
Similar to the four jets the hijackers crashed, Flight 23 was a scheduled transcontinental trip by a wide-bodied Boeing 767 with a load of about 160 passengers, six flight attendants and more than 50,000 gallons of jet fuel. At 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 Flight 23 was preparing to depart New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport nonstop for Los Angeles.
Captain Thomas Mannello was at the controls preparing for pushback. His co-pilot was Carol Timmons, who a decade later became the first woman general in the Delaware Air National Guard. The sky was a crisp blue and weather along the route looked good, the now-retired airline captain recalled in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
“It was a beautiful day. The only inkling that something wasn’t quite right was when the guy doing the pushback asked me if I’d heard anything about a fire in the World Trade Center. I said, ‘no’ and thought nothing more of it,” said Mannello, who today lives in Connecticut.
Mannello was cleared to taxi to a runway where about 10 planes were lined up waiting to take off. He was facing away from Manhattan and got in line behind an Icelandic Airlines 757. Nobody was taking off or landing.
Then a report from either the tower or ground control said a plane had crashed into the New York trade center. Mannello couldn’t conceive of a jetliner doing such a thing. He charged it off to somebody “in a Cessna doing something stupid.”
U.S. UNDER ATTACK
What Mannello and Timmons didn’t know was that hijackers had flown United Flight 175 into the World Trade Center’s South Tower at 9:03 a.m. And that 17 minutes earlier, lead hijacker Mohamed Atta rammed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower.
The U.S. was under attack. And in less than an hour, as passengers made a heroic effort to wrest control of the plane back from the hijackers, Flight 93 would go down in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m.
On 9/11 Ed Ballinger was the Chicago-based dispatcher in command for all of United’s coast-to-coast flights – a total of 16 jetliners, including ill-fated flights 175 and 93. 9/11 Commission staff interviewed Ballinger, who now lives in Marathon, on April 24, 2004.
According to that “memorandum for the record,” all ground traffic at New York’s airports was stopped in its tracks by the Air Traffic Control System Command Center at 9:08. At 9:20 a.m., after learning the fate of United 175, Ballinger used the ACARS (Aircraft Communication and Response System) to type and transmit this chilling message: “’Beware any cockpit intrusion…two aircraft in NY hit Trade Center Builds…”
At JFK, Mannello said, “Carol and I looked at each other and we both said, ‘oooh.’”
Mannello notified via intercom the flight attendants and instructed them not to try and enter the cockpit. A flight attendant quickly replied, “We’ve got these four weird young Arab guys sitting in first class. It’s unusual.”
“We were all on edge, obviously,” Mannello said.
TOO LATE TO BEWARE
On United 93, Captain Jason Dahl received the message to beware at 9:24 a.m. but was apparently puzzled. At 9:26 he replied, “Ed Cofirm latest mssg plz Jason.”
It was too late. “That was the moment he got jumped,” Ballinger told Florida Bulldog. The official record says the hijackers struck at 9:28 when air traffic controllers heard a shout, “Get out of here!”
It didn’t have to happen that way, says Ballinger. At 8:52 a.m. a flight attendant aboard doomed Flight 175 had called United’s San Francisco maintenance office to report that the plane’s pilots had been murdered and that hijackers were flying the aircraft. A GTE air phone was used to make the call, which automatically routed the call to maintenance. The result: minutes lost before the news reached Ballinger and he sent out the alert.
“Of all the communications of 9/11, this is the one where the delay in his receipt of the information continues to trouble Mr. Ballinger because he felt that any information received by United relevant to any of his flights should have been passed on to him immediately,” says the memorandum for the record. “In this particular case, he continues to wonder if he had known to send out his ACARS message to ‘beware cockpit intrusion’ a few minutes earlier…whether this could have prevented the hijacking of Flight 93.”
Ballinger feels the same today. “If two minutes could have been saved, they might have had time to (fortify) the door,” a rueful Ballinger said.
Back at JFK aboard Flight 23, Ballinger’s ACARS message prompted Mannello to do something he’d never done before. He grabbed the plane’s crash axe. Timmons hopped out of her seat and wedged their suitcases between a metal bulkhead and the cockpit door. “Without breaking the door into pieces, no one would get in,” Mannello said.
‘YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN’
Next, “I heard the strangest radio call I’ve ever heard in my life. New York ground controllers in the tower said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen the airport is now officially closed. We’ve been ordered to evacuate this facility. You are on your own.’ ”
“Then everybody realized we’re not taking off; we’re going back to our gate. We started talking pilot-to-pilot,” Mannello said.
Mannello said he informed the passengers, adding “I didn’t know what was going on, but that there was some event in the city.’’ As he taxied back, he took a route with a view of Manhattan. He and Timmons could see thick black smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center.
Parked again at Gate 2 in Terminal 7, Mannello and Timmons began the process of shutting down the engines as passengers deplaned. When he and Timmons were ready to leave Mannello looked through the cockpit door’s peephole and saw a waiting mechanic. “He says, ‘You gotta clear out. I’m ordered to lock up the airplane.’”
The inside of the terminal was “a ghost town,” Mannello said. At United’s Flight Operations Center Timmons and he finally learned what was happening from a television set. They heard an announcer say that all the hijacked flights were all transcontinentals full of fuel.
“I’m flying a transcon full of fuel. I said, oh, shit.” The chief pilot called the FBI.
FBI INTERVIEWS FLIGHT 23 CREW
The entire crew of Flight 23 was interviewed the next day. Mannello said that during his “three- or-four-hour interview” an agent told him that “there were actually seven Arabs or Muslims who might have been Saudis on the plane. Three were a couple with a two or three-year-old baby. ‘We’re looking for the other four gentlemen,’ the agent said.’’ Did the FBI ever find them? Mannello never heard another word.
Timmons died in August 2020. In 2011, in a story about her promotion to general, she told the Delaware News Journal, “The FBI asks questions. They don’t tell you things.”
The 9/11 Commission’s final report to the public does not mention Flight 23 or the events that morning at Kennedy Airport. Miles Kara was a commission staff member who served on a team of investigators responsible for examining the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks, focusing heavily on the activities of both miliary and civilian air traffic controllers. Another team covered commercial aviation and security.
Thus, Kara was unfamiliar with United 23. He said, however, that his own reverse engineering of the plot “does not have room for a fifth plane. Nor does a fifth plane from yet another airport make sense.”
“My initial take on UA23 is that the four passengers panicked and fled, an unrelated event,” he said.
But the 10-page memorandum for the record about Ballinger’s 2004 interview by two other commission staff members says, “based on reports he later received from UA personnel, including the Chief Pilot, Ballinger believes that the 9:20 a.m. communication he sent to UA Flight 23 may have prevented a hijacking.”
Ballinger reported being told that the “Moslems” on the flight “never claimed their baggage and in their baggage was significant information of an incriminating nature,” the report says.
BOX-CUTTERS FOUND ON OTHER PLANES
True? With the FBI continuing to withhold all information about Flight 23, it is difficult to know. But some other information Ballinger said he was told was simply incorrect, according to Mannello. For example, Mannello said he did not “fake a mechanical problem” before returning to the gate nor did the police have to be called to convince the recalcitrant Arabs to deplane.
At the time, Mannello said he heard on CNN that “they picked up the four to check them out, then I heard on CNN four days later that the FBI reported that the four were released because they weren’t involved.”
“But there’s a big catch to that. A few days after the event the chief pilot for one of the flight managers called me to ask the tail number of the airplane I was on,” Mannello said.
Box-cutters were found stashed on a United jet at JFK while all planes in the country were grounded. Authorities wanted to know if it was Mannello’s plane. Flight 23’s tail number ended in 6002. It was parked near another plane with the number 6001.
“They found box-cutters on 6001,” said Mannello, who speculated that perhaps “someone made a mistake” and put them on the wrong plane. “I would think this was all an ugly coincidence except for that fact.”
“It’s irritating,” Mannello said. “I just don’t understand why they have released no information about it. I’m sure there have been a lot of inquiries. Nobody got hurt. If they picked up these guys, why not just tell the truth about it?”
Ballinger, too, would like to know the truth about what happened. “We’re looking at the disaster and not at those who escaped disaster,” he said.
Florida Bulldog filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI last month seeking the release of its files about Flight 23.
Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, CNN reported that officials had said that searches while all flights were grounded turned up two small knives on a scheduled Delta flight out of Boston, and a box-cutter was found on an Atlanta-to-Brussels Delta flight. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller confirmed to CNN that box-cutters were found on some planes, but provided no further information.
“Investigators increasingly believe that the weapons may have been prepositioned by accomplices for use by others. As one U.S. official told Time magazine, “These look like inside jobs,” CNN reported.
Were they? Again, the FBI has remained silent all these years even as document releases ordered by President Biden have shown that much evidence linking putative U.S. ally Saudi Arabia to 9/11 was suppressed.
Two decades have passed, but the nation must remain vigilant, said Mannello, whose son is a Delta pilot. He recounted a story about how, seven years after 9/11, flight attendants told him about an incident involving Arab men sitting in first class that “seemed like a dress rehearsal. It taught me the lesson that there are people that want to repeat the event or do something similar.”
As with many others caught up in events 21 years ago, Ballinger was deeply affected. That night, he says, he drove through every red light to get home as fast as he could. Back at work, he began to second-guess himself so much he could no longer function effectively.
“I was so upset that I thought no airplane was safe. I became ultra-conservative. I’d find all sorts of things and exaggerate them. I couldn’t make a decision,” Ballinger said.
The report says Ballinger, a dispatcher since 1979, retired a month after 9/11 at 63. Not exactly. “I was told to leave,” he said.
Some who took to the skies for a living were “so frightened they quit,” said Mannello. “The flight attendants on our flight were so freaked out that they refused to fly back to LA, where they were based. Four or five of them rented a car and drove cross country.”
Mannello got stuck in an enormous traffic jam on the Whitestone Expressway as he drove home on 9/11. “They’d closed the bridges. You’d look over and see the smoke coming from Manhattan and think ‘what do we do?’”
“I just count my blessings that I didn’t take off that day like the other guys did,” said Mannello. “Our training then was completely wrong. It was based on the Stockholm effect to try and calm the situation, make rapport and get safely on the ground. But that required having to open the cockpit door to talk to them and in this case it would have been a death sentence.”