Thursday, March 11, 2004
Some highlights from Craig Unger's piece:
A 49-year-old former policeman turned private investigator named Dan Grossi got a call from the Tampa Police Department. Grossi had worked with the Tampa force for 20 years before retiring, and it was not particularly unusual for the police to recommend former officers for special security jobs. But Grossi's new assignment was very much out of the ordinary...
Grossi was told to go to the airport, where a small charter jet would be available to take him and the Saudis on their flight. He was not given a specific time of departure, and he was dubious about the prospects of accomplishing his task. "Quite frankly, I knew that everything was grounded," he says. "I never thought this was going to happen." Even so, Grossi, who'd been asked to bring a colleague, phoned Manuel Perez, a former FBI agent, to put him on alert. Perez was equally unconvinced. "I said, 'Forget about it,'" Perez recalls. "Nobody is flying today."
The two men had good reason to be skeptical. Within minutes of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration had sent out a special notification called a NOTAM -- a notice to airmen -- to airports all across the country, ordering every airborne plane in the United States to land at the nearest airport as soon as possible, and prohibiting planes on the ground from taking off. Initially, there were no exceptions whatsoever. Later, when the situation stabilized, several airports accepted flights for emergency medical and military operations -- but those were few and far between.
Nevertheless, at 1:30 or 2 P.M. on Sept. 13, Dan Grossi received his phone call. He was told the Saudis would be delivered to Raytheon Airport Services, a private hangar at Tampa International Airport. When he arrived, Manny Perez was there to meet him.
At the terminal a woman laughed at Grossi for even thinking he would be flying that day. Commercial flights had slowly begun to resume, but at 10:57 A.M., the FAA had issued another NOTAM, a reminder that private aviation was still prohibited. Three private planes violated the ban that day, in Maryland, West Virginia and Texas, and in each case a pair of jet fighters quickly forced the aircraft down. As far as private planes were concerned, America was still grounded.
Then one of the pilots arrived. "Here's your plane," he told Grossi. "Whenever you're ready to go."
Grossi and Perez say they waited until three young Saudi men, all apparently in their early 20s, arrived. Then the pilot took Grossi, Perez and the Saudis to a well-appointed 10-passenger Learjet. They departed for Lexington at about 4:30.
"They got the approval somewhere," said Perez. "It must have come from the highest levels of government."
"Flight restrictions had not been lifted yet," Grossi said. "I was told it would take White House approval. I thought [the flight] was not going to happen."
How did the Saudis go about getting approval? According to the Federal Aviation Administration, they didn't and the Tampa flight never took place. "It's not in our logs," Chris White, a spokesman for the FAA, told the Tampa Tribune. "It didn't occur." The White House also said that the flights to evacuate the Saudis did not take place.
According to Grossi, about one hour and 45 minutes after takeoff they landed at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, a frequent destination for Saudi horse-racing enthusiasts such as Prince Ahmed bin Salman. When they arrived, the Saudis were greeted by an American who took custody of them and helped them with their baggage. On the tarmac was a 747 with Arabic writing on the fuselage, apparently ready to take them back to Saudi Arabia. "My understanding is that there were other Saudis in Kentucky buying racehorses at that time, and they were going to fly back together," said Grossi.
In addition to the Tampa-Lexington flight, at least seven other planes were made available for the operation. According to itineraries, passenger lists and interviews with sources who had firsthand knowledge of the flights, members of the extended bin Laden family, the House of Saud and their associates also assembled in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Orlando, Washington, D.C, Boston, Newark, N.J., and New York.
According to the same source, a young female member of the bin Laden family was the sole passenger on the first leg of the flight, from Los Angeles to Orlando. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, boarding any airplane was cause for anxiety. But now that the name Osama bin Laden had become synonymous with mass murder, boarding a plane with his family members was another story entirely. To avoid unnecessary dramas, the flight's operators made certain that the cockpit crew was briefed about who the passengers were -- the bin Ladens -- and the highly sensitive nature of their mission.
However, they neglected to brief the flight attendants.
On the flight from Los Angeles, the bin Laden girl began talking to an attendant about the horrid events of 9/11. "I feel so bad about it," she said.
"Well, it's not your fault," replied the attendant, who had no idea who the passenger really was.
"Yeah," said the passenger. "But he was my brother."
"The flight attendant just lost it," the source said.
Attention NYT, CNN and friends: The ball's in your court...