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Special ReportPortland Press Herald
America Attacked - Maine and the Nation Respond

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Maine probe shines light on craft of FBI

Copyright © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

 

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America Attacked

 

A day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, FBI investigators were searching through trash from a Dumpster at the South Portland Comfort Inn, where two of the hijackers had spent the night before their assault on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

FBI agents had traced the men to the Comfort Inn through witness statements, credit card records and a canvass of desk clerks at area lodging places. By Sept. 12, they were focused on the trash that covered the floor of a state police garage in South Portland, as well as items such as used hotel linen and even hairs washed down the drain of room 233.

"You'd be amazed how much you can learn from the trash," said Susan Corrado, a consultant and former FBI evidence recovery specialist. "You can find receipts, telephone numbers, all sorts of things."

The FBI effort in Greater Portland is part of the most intensive and high-stakes investigation in the agency's history, the kind of mobilization not seen since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The probe, involving 4,000 FBI agents nationwide, has been racing against time and the next potential terrorist attack to learn everything possible about the hijackers, how these men work and who else is involved.

And while the FBI will not discuss its activities — even with local police, in many cases — the outline of the agency's exhaustive investigative effort in Maine has become clear through firsthand accounts of Maine residents, as well as interviews with local law-enforcement officials and experts familiar with the agency's methods.

Investigators pulled passenger manifests from international ferries and interviewed supermarket workers. FBI agents spoke with restaurant employees, librarians and operators of tourist-related businesses. Federal police analyzed surveillance video, looked for fingerprints and appealed to the public for help in a televised address to area residents.

"It is a criminal investigation," said Lee Colwell, director of the University of Arkansas System's Criminal Justice Institute and former second-in-command of the FBI. "The goal of the investigation must be to establish as clearly as possible exactly what happened, how it happened, who was involved, who assisted and who abetted the effort in any way."

The investigators' trail to Portland began with a cell phone call by a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, placed moments before the jet crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. She told an airline worker that a group of Middle Eastern men sitting in rows 9 and 10 had taken over the plane, and were injuring hostages with knives.

After the crash, FBI agents reviewed each of the names on the passenger manifest. They found that Abdulaziz Alomari and Mohamed Atta — later identified as a chief planner in the mass murder — had been sitting in row 8.

Both men had previously been on a connecting flight from Portland.

Quickly, investigators learned the Visa card number used to purchase the airline tickets.

Financial information — credit card numbers, automatic teller transactions, wire transfers — can be a road map to a person's activities, says James Langella, head of detectives for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department. In this case, credit card numbers and national databases built on public records like driver's license and car registration information led the FBI to scramble agents in Vero Beach, Fla., where Alomari and Atta lived. The latter had been taking flight lessons, according to the landlady.

Eventually, financial information would link Atta and Alomari with the other hijackers and with people suspected in the plot from around the globe.

"They can track where they've been, what they purchased and perhaps it can lead to them to other associates," said Corrado. "To the extent you can tie these people and records to others in Afghanistan, you can give intelligence to the military to know what possible targets are."

That evening, just hours after the attack, Portland and South Portland police were canvassing area hotels, trying to learn where the men had stayed.

The effort paid off at the Comfort Inn, a nondescript brick building on Maine Mall Road, within clear sight of the state police garage on the other side of Interstate 95. According to hotel records, the men had checked into room 233 at 5:43 p.m. the night before. The hotel was a seven-minute drive from the jetport.

Quickly, detectives set up a headquarters in the room next door and kept an eye on room 233 until the FBI evidence recovery team could arrive. They interviewed hotel workers about the men, asking for any observations, any clues the men might have left behind.

Meanwhile, another investigator was interviewing a manager of Alamo Rent A Car at the jetport. A search of the company's computer records showed Atta had rented a blue Nissan Altima Sept. 9 in Boston and that it was due back Sept. 11 by 6 p.m. It was listed as overdue.

That discovery was made at 11:15 p.m. on the night of the attacks.

The FBI shared the car's make and license plate number with Portland police, who quickly spotted the car in the first floor of the jetport parking garage. Inside the car were parking receipts showing that the men had arrived at the garage at 5:40 a.m., just minutes before their flight was scheduled to leave.

The next morning, Mainers learned that two of the hijackers passed through the jetport. That revelation led to a flood of speculation — and a surge in tips — from people who had had contact with Middle Eastern men in the days and weeks before the attacks.

There was no concrete explanation for why the two men had chosen Portland, instead of leaving from a major airport like the other 17 hijackers. The state's proximity to Canada led some people to speculate — and some media to report — that the men had come from Canada into the United States via Maine's friendly border between the two nations. Agents confiscated passenger manifests from the Cat and the Scotia Prince, two ferries that routinely run between Maine and Nova Scotia.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service now says Atta and Alomari entered the country legally, and had been here for some time before the attacks. But investigators have to check every lead that has any credibility.

"You can't dismiss any information," said Lt. Joseph Loughlin, head of investigations for the Portland Police Department. "Oftentimes, little things lead to really big things. That 526th phone call that sounds like a nut may be the most defining call in an investigation."

Agents were dispatched to Jackman, Coburn Gore and Bangor to investigate reported sightings. They checked out the Kittery Trading Post, where some men from the Middle East had reportedly sought to buy knives and rubber bullets. They checked Dimillo's floating restaurant, where a waitress reportedly served the men the night before the attack.

"In the early stages of any investigations, you have a lot of information and your big problem is sorting out what is real and what isn't," Colwell said.

Passenger lists, surveillance video and financial transactions are vital because they definitively account for a person's location and movements at a specific time, say investigators. Agents then use interviews to fill in the gaps.

The information gleaned the night of Sept. 11 from the Alamo Rent A Car and from credit card records, indicated that the men did not recently arrive in the United States from Canada or that they had been in southern Maine for any length of time. Instead, they had come north from Florida. After staying in Boston for perhaps a couple of days, they drove their rental car to Maine the afternoon of Sept. 10.

So investigators concentrated their energies on the 12 hours the men spent in South Portland and Portland.

They wanted to learn if they had met with anyone. They wanted to know what they ate and what they bought. They wanted to know what they watched on television.

"Understanding people's behavior might help you understand different aspects of the case," said Corrado. "Understanding their MO (modus operandi, or operating method) might lead you to people acting similarly or it might help you, for lack of a better word, get a profile on these people."

That is one of the reasons investigators checked local call girls to see whether the men had hired prostitutes. According to press reports, some hijackers were looking for illicit sex in Boston the night before Atta and Alomari drove to South Portland.

On Sept. 14, three days after the hijackings, The New York Times ran a photo of Atta, which led to a flood of telephone calls to Portland police from people claiming to have seen him. Portland police then released pictures of Atta and Alomari entering the jetport's gate area that were obtained from a jetport surveillance camera a week after the attacks.

Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood said his goal was to protect the safety of the people who live and work in Portland, so he released the pictures to stimulate public input.

On Sept. 27, the FBI released photos of all 19 hijackers.

The photos of Atta and Alomari generated tips — hundreds of tips.

Investigators had to prioritize the information. Anything remotely credible was forwarded by local police to the FBI.

Historically, four FBI agents worked in Maine, two in Portland and one each in Bangor and Augusta. After the attacks, several agents were assigned to Portland from the Boston office and other federal law officers — with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration — pitched in.

Meanwhile, across the nation similar probes were under way and hundreds of people were detained in connection with the case. By moving quickly, the FBI can catch conspirators before they flee or destroy evidence. Speed also improves the quality of intelligence.

"Information is perishable," said Colwell. "What I say right now probably won't be relevant to anything three weeks from now. The information loses its value as hours and days pass by.

"Every passing day, the ability of people to recall exactly what they saw and when they saw it and why it attracted their attention becomes less reliable because they see stories on electronic media and read stories and we all become confused on what we exactly saw."

Trace forensic evidence is analyzed immediately in this investigation, though collecting it can be an agonizingly slow process.

Even with an empty hotel room, you could have four agents in there for six to eight hours. Getting a photo of one fingerprint can be a half-hour project," said Corrado, who worked on recovering evidence following the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 in October of 1999. Investigators moved the hijackers' rental car from the Portland jetport to the state police crime laboratory in Augusta. Two days after the hijacking, an FBI forensic team had collected fingerprints, hair and food samples, fibers and a tissue.

Investigators also released a time line of the men's movements to stimulate leads.

Atta and Alomari were photographed by surveillance video driving through one of three bays at Key Bank at the corner of Maine Mall Road and Gorham Road at 8:31 p.m. Sept. 10

Ten minutes later, the two are photographed using the Fast Green ATM, located just across the street from Key Bank and alongside Pizzeria Uno.

Sometime between 8 and 9 p.m., the men were seen at Pizza Hut on Maine Mall Road, where they reportedly spent about 15 minutes. Including this suggests the bureau gives it more credence or more relevance than other sightings.

At 9:15 p.m., security video at Jetport Gas and Convenience Store, a block from the Comfort Inn, shows the two men, who asked directions to Wal-Mart.

Seven minutes later, Atta was photographed by Wal-Mart security cameras entering the store.

The layout of the Comfort Inn does not ensure that someone would observe guests coming or going if they use the rear entrance, which was closest to the men's room.

In each of the surveillance photos, Atta is wearing a bold two-tone sport shirt, a detail that did not emerge until the FBI was prepared to publicize its timetable for the men's movements in hopes of generating leads. Investigators often hold back certain details of a crime as a means of corroborating witness statements.

Corrado said there is another advantage to the FBI in releasing information besides generating tips.

"It lets people know too that the FBI is doing their job. It gives the public a sense of comfort to know that the FBI was able to gather this much information in a short period of time. I know it gives me a sense of relief."

The men checked out of their hotel at 5:33 a.m., entered the jetport parking garage at 5:40 a.m., according to the parking garage ticket, and checked two bags in at the U.S. Airways counter three minutes later. The two passed the passenger screening checkpoint at 5:45 a.m. and at 6 a.m. their shuttle took off for Boston.

The FBI's public appeal for information and release of a specific timeline with photos — which has not been done in other cities — "might mean that they believe there is something else there, or it could simply be an effort to get assurance on their part that they have found out everything they could find," Colwell said.

Simply put, the FBI wants to know everything possible about these men and their time in Portland, he said.

"I don't think it necessarily means (the hijackers) have support there, but they might," he said. "We want to answer the question: 'Why did they come in here?' Not only why, but what, where, when and how."

Finding the answers could be a matter of life or death.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: dhench@pressherald.com


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