F.A.A. Official Scrapped Tape of 9/11 Controllers' Statements

The New York Times | May 6, 2004

At least six air traffic controllers who dealt with two of the hijacked airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, made a tape recording that day describing the events, but the tape was destroyed by a supervisor without anyone making a transcript or even listening to it, the Transportation Department said today.

The taping began before noon on Sept. 11 at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, in Ronkonkoma, on Long Island, but it was later destroyed by an F.A.A. quality-assurance manager, who crushed the cassette in his hand, cut the tape into little pieces and dropped them in different trash cans around the building, according to a report made public today by the inspector general of the Transportation Department.

The inspector general had been asked by Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, to look into how well the Federal Aviation Administration had cooperated with the 9/11 Commission.

The quality-assurance manager told investigators that he had destroyed the tape because he thought making it was contrary to F.A.A. policy, which calls for written statements, and because he felt that the controllers "were not in the correct frame of mind to have properly consented to the taping" because of the stress of the day.

Another official, the center's manager, asked the controllers to make the tape because "he wanted a contemporaneous recordation of controller accounts to be immediately available for law enforcement," according to the report, and was concerned that the controllers would take a leave of absence immediately, which is standard procedure after a crash.

On the tape, the controllers, some of whom had spoken by radio to people on the planes and some who had tracked the aircraft on radar, gave statements of 5 to 10 minutes each, according to the report.

The center manager had agreed with the president of the local union chapter that the tapes would be destroyed once the standard written statements were obtained, the report said.

Neither the center manager nor the quality-assurance manager disclosed the tape's existence to their superiors at the F.A.A. region that covers New York, or to the agency's Washington headquarters, according to the report.

None of the officials or controllers were identified in the report.

Other tapes were preserved, including conversations on the radio frequencies used by the planes that day, and the radar tapes. In addition, the controllers later made written statements to the F.A.A., per standard procedure, and in this case, to the F.B.I. as well.

But when one of the controllers asked if she could review her portion of the audiotape to refresh her memory before giving her witness statement, she was told she could not, according to the report.

The quality-assurance manager destroyed the tape despite an e-mail message sent by the F.A.A. instructing officials to safeguard all records and adding, "If a question arises whether or not you should retain data, RETAIN IT."

The inspector general ascribed the destruction to "poor judgment."

"The destruction of evidence in the government's possession, in this case an audiotape particularly during times of a national crisis, has the effect of fostering an appearance that information is being withheld from the public," the inspector general's report said. "We do not ascribe motivations to the mangers in this case of attempting to cover up, and we have no indication that there was anything on the tape that would lead anyone to conclude that they had something to hide or that the controllers did not carry out their duties."

But keeping the tape's existence a secret, and then destroying it did not "serve the interests of the F.A.A., the department, or the public," the report said.

The report also noted that the official who destroyed the tape had no regrets or second thoughts: "The quality-assurance manager told us that if presented with similar circumstances, he would again take the same course of action."

The inspector general wrote that this attitude was "especially troubling" and that supervisors should take "appropriate administrative action."

Although the matter had been referred to the Justice Department, the report added, prosecutors said they had found no basis for criminal charges.

An F.A.A. spokesman, Greg Martin, said that his agency had cooperated with the 9/11 commission and that that was how the tape's existence had become known at the agency's headquarters.

"We believe it would not have added in any way to the information contained in all of the other materials that have already been provided to the investigators and the members of the 9/11 commission," he said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Martin said that "we have taken appropriate disciplinary action against the employees involved." For privacy reasons, he said, he could not say what those actions were or identify the employees.