9/11 air traffic controller statements destroyed

Freedom of Information | Feature | May 10, 2004

    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

9/11 air traffic controller statements destroyed

  • A tape of statements made by air traffic controllers immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was purposefully destroyed by a Federal Aviation Administration manager.

May 10, 2004 -- An audiotape of statements made by New York air traffic controllers shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was purposefully destroyed by a Federal Aviation Administration manager because he "felt strongly" that it should not have been made. The findings are detailed in Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead's report, made public last week.

The report, which does not identify any of the FAA personnel involved, concluded that the destruction was improper and recommends "appropriate administrative action."

At about 11:40 a.m. on Sept. 11, the manager of the FAA's New York Center called six air traffic controllers into a conference room known as the "Bat Cave." The controllers, who had just tracked the hijacked planes, gave 5-10 minute statements that were recorded on a single hour-long audiotape.

According to the report, the manager was concerned that the controllers would take stress-induced leave time and be unavailable to provide written statements. The controllers' union representative agreed to the audio recording, but only on the condition that the tape would be destroyed after it had been used to make written statements.

However, the tape was never used to make such statements or, reportedly, even listened to. Its existence was not even disclosed to FAA authorities or law enforcement officials investigating the attacks.

After the tape was made, it was delivered to an FAA quality assurance manager. Although at least one of the controllers asked for access to the tape to prepare her written statement, the quality assurance manager refused, and, according to the report, told her it was "not meant for anyone to hear."

Sometime between December 2001 and February 2002, the quality assurance manager -- without direction from anyone -- destroyed the tape, cutting it into pieces and depositing them into trash cans throughout the center.

According to the report, the quality assurance manager destroyed the tape because he "felt strongly" that it should never have been made. He considered it contrary to FAA's policy of taking handwritten statements and -- based on watching television crime shows, the report says -- felt that the controllers were "not in the correct frame of mind" to consent to the taping.

Although the FAA had instructed that all records from Sept. 11, 2001, were to be retained and secured, the quality assurance manager believed that the instruction did not apply to the tape because FAA officials were unaware it existed.

The existence of the tape was discovered by the commission studying the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks during their interviews of FAA personnel in September and October 2003. Based on a perceived lack of cooperation by the FAA, the commission subpoenaed the tape and other records from the FAA on Oct. 16. That same day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation requested a report from the inspector general on the FAA's responsiveness to the commission.

The report concludes, "The destruction of evidence in the government's possession, in this case an audiotape -- particularly during times of national crisis -- has the effect of fostering an appearance that information is being withheld from the public."

According to The New York Times , FAA spokesman Greg Martin said disciplinary action has been taken against the quality assurance manager. The U.S. Attorney's office has declined to prosecute based on a lack of criminal intent.

The center manager said if he had been asked, he would have approved of the destruction of the tape as a temporary record. The quality assurance manager also said that if presented with the same situation again, he would do the same thing, according to the report.

The report concluded that the FAA did not intentionally withhold any other records, and that perceptions that it was not cooperating with the 9/11 commission were based on miscommunication.

-- GP


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