No regular investigation of the aircraft crashes
Investigations of U. S. aircraft crashes, a task requiring special expertise, is normally carried out by the National Transportation Security Board (NTSB). After the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which killed 230 passengers, federal agencies spent nearly $50 million recovering the remains of the crashed airliner from the ocean floor, cross-examining witnesses, and reconstructing the tragedy.
Yet, exceptionally, the reported crashes of the four aircraft that occurred on 9/11 were not investigated by the NTSB. The official explanation is posted on the website of the NTSB as follows:
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Safety Board provided requested technical assistance to the FBI, and this material generated by the NTSB is under the control of the FBI. The Safety Board does not plan to issue a report or open a public docket.. 1
It appears that merely two years before 9/11, the Statutory Code of the NTSB was changed by an Act of Congress. In 1999 the Congress adopted an amendment to Chapter 11, Subtitle II, Title 49, dealing with the National Transportation Safety Board. Under Section 1131 (General Authority), the law was amended to include, inter alia, the following paragraph (2) (B) :
“(2) (B): If the Attorney General, in consultation with the Chairman of the Board [of NTSB], determines and notifies the Board that circumstances reasonably indicate that the accident may have been caused by an intentional criminal act, the Board shall relinquish investigative priority to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The relinquishment of investigative priority by the Board shall not otherwise affect the authority of the Board to continue its investigation under this section.
What specific and compelling reasons prompted the Congress in 1999 to make this amendment? A search of Congressional records elicited only a superficial reasoning. Congress members did not spend many words to justify this jurisdictional amendment, embedded within a host of other apparently innocuous amendments relating to funding, overtime payments to NTSB employees and financial accountability. Three Congress members provided practically the same inane justification for this jurisdictional amendment, probably reading from the same script:
Rep. Lipinski: “The bill also addresses the issues of coordination among investigative agencies. As we have learned from the tragic TWA 800 crash, accident scenes can often be chaotic with many local, State, and Federal investigators, agencies on the scene. This is especially true where accidents are not only being investigated for probable cause, but also when criminal activity is suspected. Proper coordination among these various investigative agencies is extremely important. ”
Rep. Shows: “This [bill] is important because accident scenes can often be chaotic with many local, State, and Federal investigative agencies on scene, especially where accidents are not only being investigated for probable cause, but also when criminal activity is suspected. S. 2412 ensures that the proper coordination between various investigative agencies will take place during a complex accident investigation. ”
Rep. Oberstar: “As we have learned from the tragic TWA 800 crash, accident scenes can often be chaotic with many local, state, and federal investigative agencies on scene. This is especially true where accidents are not only being investigated for probable cause, but also when criminal activity is suspected. Proper coordination between these various investigative agencies performing very important, albeit very different, functions is of paramount importance. ”
The amendment does not address coordination between agencies, but confers upon the Chairman of the NTSB’s Board, an individual personally nominated by the U. S. President, the discretion of shifting the primary jurisdiction over a crash investigation to the FBI.
The above amendment was applied for the first time to the case of 9/11. It allowed the U. S. government to avoid a transparent and statutory-regulated investigation of the aircraft crashes of 9/11 by shifting the primary jurisdiction over the investigation to the FBI which acts in complete secrecy. The FBI, contrary to the NTSB, “whose procedures are fairly open”, is under no statutory obligation to hold public hearings and to publish its findings. With the FBI handling the investigation, “everything, even the most minute details, are being kept under strict lock and key. ”2
Mary Schiavo, former Assistant Secretary of Labor and former Inspector General of the U. S. Department of Transportation, representing 9/11 victims’ families, decried the exclusion of the NTSB from the investigation of 9/11 in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Here is what she said:
“In every other aviation disaster, including those precipitated by terrorism or aviation crimes or piracy, the National Transportation Safety Board examined the tragedy and issued technical, operational and policy recommendations to our government, the airlines, airports, and others. The NTSB does this to enable us to correct the lapses that permitted the tragedy to occur. (…) No such NTSB investigation occurred nor is forthcoming to examine the 9/11 crashes (…) Our government has sent the official message that it is willing to protect the carriers and others and their corporate leadership from, and at the expense of, dead Americans, devastated families and a destroyed aviation system. ”3
The NTSB announced on September 13, 2001 that it had sent “investigators with knowledge of aircraft structures and flight recorders to the crash sites in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon [who] are assisting in the search for the cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders – the so-called ‘black boxes’ – and helping to identify aircraft parts. ”4 No evidence has surfaced, however, that NTSB investigators had actually identified any aircraft parts and linked them to specific aircraft.
But even a crash investigation carried by the NTSB may not escape political interference, witness its investigation of the accident involving EgyptAir Flight 990 that occurred on October 31, 1999. 5 The transcript of that flight’s CVR represents what is to be expected from such a transcript, particularly an indication of all cockpit noises. 6 The Egyptian authorities issued a formal comment on the April 19, 2001 draft of the NTSB. 7 In their comment the Egyptian authorities wrote that the NTSB draft report “reflects a limited and incomplete investigation and a corresponding inadequate analysis. “8 They also claimed that the NTSB ”used selected facts and speculative conclusions to support a predetermined theory. ”9
The Egyptian authorities revealed that the “release of selected CVR and FDR data, and the NTSB’s public discussion of it (…) occurred in November 1999, less than two days after the recorders had been recovered. ”10 Such early and selective release of information strongly suggests a political intent. The zeal to report contents from the EgyptAir CVR, and the secrecy surrounding the contents of the CVR from flight UA93 (of 9/11), demonstrates that in both cases disclosure (or conversely non-disclosure) was motivated by political considerations.
The Egyptian team referred to the practice by the NTSB of subjecting CVR voices and sounds to spectrum analysis in order to accurately determine what was said, to identify unknown sounds in the cockpit and to identify the persons occupying the cockpit. The Egyptian document also sheds light on the standard practice followed by the NTSB in interpreting CVR recordings, which was not followed in that particular case:
Standard NTSB procedure is to convene a CVR working group, made up of representatives of the various parties, which then develops a transcript of the cockpit conversation, based on the technical and cultural knowledge of the group members. This did not occur. Instead, the NTSB staff listened to the Arabic conversations, accepted the incorrect translation of a non-Egyptian American translator, interpreted that translation without any cultural information, and then, less then 48 hours after the records were recovered, leaked information and made public statements concerning the CVR. 11
The relevance of this information for the 9/11 case is to demonstrate what a proper investigation of a CVR recording should involve. Little is known about the procedure used to interpret the CVR from Flight UA93, let alone about the origin of this device. The secrecy surrounding the finding of this device, where, when and by whom its contents were transcribed, do not inspire confidence in public statements concerning this device.
While in the case of EgyptAir Flight 990, the Egyptian authorities had an interest in representing the Egyptian pilot against possible accusations by the US authorities and publicly challenged the NTSB investigation, no such body came forth with regard to the 9/11 flights.
1 NTSB Identification DCA01MA060
2 Jonathan D. Silver, Flight 93 black box under wraps, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 4, 2001, at http://www.post-gazette.com/headlines/20011104blackbox1104p2.asp
3 Mary Schiavo, Statement to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, May 23, 2003, at http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing2/witness_schiavo.pdf
4 NTSB News, September 13, 2001, at http://www.ntsb.gov/pressrel/2001/010913.htm
5 Aircraft Accident Brief, EgyptAir Flight 990, NTSB. Brief adopted March 13, 2002,
6 Attachment A to the Aircraft Accident Brief, EgyptAir Flight 990, supra
7 Attachment B to the Aircraft Accident Brief, EgyptAir Flight 990, supra
8 Ibid. p. 1
9 Ibid. p. 1
10 Ibid. p. 3
11 Ibid. p. 3