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Flight 93 black box under wraps

Sunday, November 04, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Eight days after USAir Flight 427 crashed in Hopewell in 1994, the federal government began disclosing excerpts of what was captured by the jetliner's cockpit voice recorder.

 
 
PG Special Section

"Flight 93: From Chaos to Courage"

   
 

But nearly eight weeks after United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County on Sept. 11, after passengers tried to regain control of the plane from hijackers, only the barest dribbles of information have leaked out about the noises heard in its cockpit.

Flight 427's crash was an accident, and thus was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, a small government agency whose procedures are fairly open.

Flight 93's crash is considered a criminal act, and that makes all the difference. The FBI is in charge of the investigation, and everything, even the most minute details, are being kept under strict lock and key.

The only information that has emerged about the cockpit noises and conversations on the hijacked flight has been snippets of phrases or sounds provided to a few media outlets by anonymous sources.

On the official information front, there has been a wall of silence. The FBI, Justice Department and Federal Aviation Administration are routinely rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests for details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Former and current law enforcement officials said the government's decision to withhold the majority of the information compiled in the Flight 93 investigation makes perfect sense to them.

"You don't really know until an investigation is completed how relevant ... certain information may be," said Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. "So the need to maintain the secrecy of that information while the investigation is pending is greater than the public's need to know about it."

Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said investigators would not want to risk tipping their hand by releasing information that might be used to prosecute conspirators in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Secrecy a 'flimflam'

Others strongly disagree.

Gail A. Dunham, president of the National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation, said such protection-of-evidence claims "are political flimflam. The people you would most want to prosecute, the hijackers, are dead."

Dunham said the right of the public to know the details of what's on the black boxes indeed outweighs the value of keeping them secret, particularly if they can help make flight safer in the future.

She said there had been a persistent rumor that one of the hijackers had gotten into the cockpit at the beginning of the flight by posing as a pilot and asking to sit in the jump seat behind the pilot and first officer.

The cockpit voice recorder might help reveal whether that was true, Dunham said, or put the rumor to rest.

"If there's something relevant to the investigation," she said, federal officials "can edit it out. This information must be made public. The American public has a right to know it, the family members [of the passengers] have a right to know it and the 70,000 commercial airline pilots have a right to know it."

But that is not the attitude of the FBI.

In denying a request by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for details about Flight 93's flight path, the telephone calls made by passengers on board after the hijacking, and even a passenger seating chart, the FBI cited an exemption that such information "could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

The FBI won't even discuss where the so-called black box and its twin, the flight data recorder, have been since their recovery Sept. 14 from the crash site, even though it is known that the voice recorder made stops at the Seattle laboratories of its manufacturer, Honeywell, and the NTSB's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Asked to update the status of the cockpit voice recorder, Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., said he could not.

"It's considered evidentiary," Carter said. "Therefore, it's not something that can be provided publicly to the news media unless there is a law enforcement purpose that can be served by release of such data."

What they measure

The cockpit voice recorder is a rectangular device encased in durable metal that is placed in the tail section of every commercial airplane. Microphones in the cockpit pick up voices and other noises, which are recorded on a loop of tape that starts anew every 30 minutes.

The flight data recorder keeps a running record of several aspects of a plane's flight, including altitude, airspeed and the craft's direction and pitch, all correlated with time measurements.

Investigators placed a high priority on recovering Flight 93's voice recorder because they hoped it could shed light on the struggle between passengers and hijackers before the plane crashed into a reclaimed strip mine outside Shanksville.

At the crash site Sept. 20, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said investigators were transcribing and translating the voice recorder, but gave no further details.

On Oct. 3, J.T. Caruso, the deputy assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, told the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Defense that analysis of the voice recorder confirmed that the passengers were "in a fight for their lives." He did not elaborate.

News leaks indicate that the recorder had captured a chaotic blend of scuffling, screams and voices speaking in English and Arabic in the plane's final moments, but that federal authorities are unsure exactly what information they have.

Thornburgh said he had no direct knowledge of the investigation, but that he could come up with a reason the government would be leery about releasing each piece of evidence sought by the media in the Flight 93 investigation.

Divulging detailed data about the plane's route might disclose information about whether terrorists altered the flight plan and, if so, how.

As for the phone calls, Thornburgh said, it was conceivable that the four hijackers could have called accomplices on the ground or a suspected fifth hijacker who did not make it aboard the plane.

Dunham countered that any such sensitive information could be deleted from what is released to the public.

In the meantime, she said, more and more people have probably listened to the cockpit voice recorder, and that, "As soon as you incorporate a lot of people in the loop, it's not really a secret anymore."



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