THE BLOG

Former FAA Counter-Terror Expert Refuses to See United 93

Bogdan Dzakovic's job was to think and act like a terrorist. Before 9/11, he was in charge of the Red Team, the Federal Aviation Administration's elite counter-terror squad which investigated aviation security. His small, highly trained team conducted mock undercover raids as terrorists and hijackers. It probed airport security capabilities. With alarming ease and frequency, team members slipped bombs, guns, and knives onto aircraft during routine testing.

Last summer, I interviewed Bogdan at length for my new book, Patriots Act: Voices of Dissent and the Risk of Speaking Out, which is an oral history that brought me into contact with real American patriots like Max Cleland, Coleen Rowley, Daniel Ellsberg, Paul Hackett, and John Sellers of the Ruckus Society,

"We were extraordinarily successful in killing large numbers of innocent people in these simulated attacks," Dzakovic had told the 9/11 Commission on May 22, 2003. "We breached security up to 90 percent of the time. The FAA suppressed these warnings. Instead, we were ordered not to write up our reports and not to retest airports where we found particularly egregious vulnerabilities, to see if the problems had been fixed. Finally, the agency started providing advance notification of when we would be conducting our 'undercover' tests and what we would be 'checking.'"

Several days after 9/11, the FAA grounded the Red Team. "The FAA knew that the information we had within the Red Team was very damning to them," Dzakovic told me. "The last thing they wanted to do was have us continue flying after 9/11, and continue doing work documenting that security is still as screwed up as it was before 9/11."

Deeply troubled by the FAA's questionable conduct, Dzakovic had taken the bold step of filing a whistle-blower disclosure in October of 2001 with the Office of Special Counsel. The filing -- the first of its kind by an FAA Security Division employee -- set into motion a lengthy and costly investigation by the Inspector General's office.

But instead of rewarding Dzakovic for his whistle-blowing gallantry, the Transportation Security Administration punished him by reassigning him to a clerical position behind a desk. He spent months punching holes in paper and putting training binders together for new TSA employees. His expertise fighting bad guys was horribly wasted.

Dzakovic now hates flying. But that's not the excuse he gives for not wanting to see United 93.

"I have no interest to see the movie," he told me last week. "On a tactical level, when I was an air marshal team leader, I studied every conceivable disaster that could possibly occur on an airplane. It scared the hell out of me, which is why I worked so hard trying to prevent 9/11. Seeing this movie is just going to stir up a lot of ill feelings. Secondly, Hollywood, nor has anyone else, really touched the more nefarious side of what happened on 9/ll and its aftermath. The little people of this country, which is most of us, will be carrying the burden of an irresponsible and unaccountable government for a long time. When a movie comes out hitting these issues I'll be the first in line at the theater."

He also fears that another mega-terror attack in the sky is likely.

"Terrorists follow their own schedules, not ours," he says. He outlines a possible scenario: "If I were a terrorist mastermind plotting another big attack and I could muster up another twenty guys, I'd scatter them around to different airports around the country. I would give each one of them three bombs and three different sets of luggage. Some of those bombs will make it onto flights."

A chilling thought? Absolutely. His recommendation is that until the TSA combines human profiling with more sophisticated baggage-screening procedures, the country is still vulnerable.

"What happened on 9/11 was not a failure in the system," he remarked to the 9/11 Commission. "Our airports are not safer now than before 9/11. The main difference between then and now is that life is now more miserable for passengers."

During our recent conversation, his anger and disgust at a broken political system was all too evident. "Since 911, I learned to have less contempt for the terrorists than I do for the bureaucrats and politicians who could have prevented 9/11 but didn't. They served in very pivotal positions of influence but due to gross incompetence or the fear of actually fulfilling their oaths of office to defend this country or possibly even something a bit more sinister; they failed to take any action. After 9/11 they all scurried into their little rat holes and waited for the firestorm to burn itself out. Then they crawled out and suddenly they are experts in aviation security. Many of the FAA bureaucrats that actively thwarted improvements in security prior to 9/11 have been promoted by FAA or the Transportation Security Administration. I have never in my life been around more gutless, inept, and outright ignorant people than I have at TSA headquarters, most of whom are in management. You combine this atmosphere with absolutely no accountability and it is a very dangerous formula for a repeat of 9/11.

"I am very concerned about our continuing vulnerability to terrorism. Because of TSA's retaliation against me for trying to prevent 9/11 and to bring some accountability into the system; I have been sidelined to doing little more than counting irrelevant beans for a massive bureaucracy. There are so many obvious holes in the system that are not being closed, it is very scary. And what's worse is that they are not being closed for the exact same reasons that they weren't closed leading up to 9/11. A combination of gross incompetence, no accountability, and the perpetuation of the good old boys' club. Rarely do you see a bureaucrat or politician that actively encourages subordinates or constituents to give them bad news. Instead, they prefer to be surrounded by people that constantly present a rosy picture. So the only people that get promoted up the chain are the ones who play the game and don't ruffle any feathers.

"After 9/11, there has been a flood of federal government whistleblowers like myself who have identified problems in their respective agencies which include the CIA, NSA, the military and a lot of the other acronym agencies. We've tried collectively to get Congress to address these issues. And they still won't. Even the media is afraid to touch these issues in depth. The only alternative I believe we have is for the entertainment industry to produce some well made public-service type films that will shake the American people out of their slumber and for them, in turn, to start holding our elected officials directly responsible for allowing our bureaucrats to thrive in this environment. "

Finally, I asked him what if he or other qualified air marshals had been on one of the flights on September 11? "If there was a group of these air marshals on any of these planes on 9/11, the incident would have been over in one or two seconds; as soon as the terrorists initiated any action, they would have been dead."