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Government probe focuses on bin Laden

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials began piecing together a case linking Osama bin Laden to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, aided by an intercept of communications between his supporters and harrowing cell phone calls from victims aboard the jetliners before they crashed on Tuesday.

U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between bin Laden supporters discussing the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, according to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"They have an intercept of some information that included people associated with bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit," Hatch said in an interview with The Associated Press. He declined to be more specific.

Possible link to bin Laden

Hatch also said law enforcement has data possibly linking one person on one of the four ill-fated flights to bin Laden's organization.

Government and industry officials said at least one flight attendant and two passengers called from three of the planes as they were being forced down in New York and Washington -- each describing similar circumstances.

The callers indicated hijackers armed with knives, in some cases stabbing flight attendants, took control of the plane and were forcing them down toward the ground, officials said.

One of the passengers was Barbara Olson, the wife of a top Justice Department official who called her husband as the hijacking was occurring.

Olson, the wife of Solicitor General Theodore Olson, was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that left Dulles International Airport in Washington and was forced to crash into the Pentagon.

The officials said Olson told her husband the attackers had used knife-like instruments to take over the plane, and forced passengers to the back of the jet.

Theodore Olson confirmed his wife made the calls before dying. "She called from the plane while it was being hijacked. I wish it wasn't so but it is," he said.

'Going down'

Separately, a businessman aboard a United flight that left Boston and crashed into the World Trade Center twice called his father as his plane was being hijacked, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the victim's father was interviewed by the FBI. The father indicated his son made two calls -- both times the phone cut off. In the first call, the businessman said a stewardess had been stabbed. In the second call, the son said his plane was "going down."

A flight attendant aboard the second jetliner that struck the World Trade Center managed to call an emergency number from the back of the airplane, an American Airlines source said. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the flight attendant said her fellow attendants had been stabbed, the cabin had been taken over, and they were going down in New York.

U.S. officials said there was early information tying the attacks to bin Laden, a wealthy Arab believed to be living in Afghanistan who previously has been tied to terrorist attacks against Americans overseas. But they cautioned it was too early to definitively assign blame.

The Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling Islamic militia, said bin Laden lacks the resources for such a terrorist attack.

Federal law enforcement officials were studying manifests for passengers, crew or service personnel with possible links to bin Laden.

The government unleashed legions of intelligence and law enforcement experts to begin identifying those who planned and carried out the attacks.

"Thousands of FBI agents in field offices and international legal offices are cooperating in this investigation," Attorney General John Ashcroft said. He said numerous federal law enforcement agencies were aiding the effort.

Investigators face a monumental task, especially in New York, where two hijacked planes plowed into the World Trade Center towers. Sifting through the rubble, which yielded key clues in the Oklahoma City bombing, will be extremely difficult because of the amount of debris.

Another plane crashed into the Pentagon near Washington, collapsing one side of the building, and a fourth airliner crashed in a field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Security analysts said the crash site in Pennsylvania could be a source of quick clues if the plane's black box can be located.

"Some of the first clues will come from the plane," said Eugene Poteat, a retired CIA intelligence officer. The black box, which captures instrument readings and recordings from the flight deck, may have captured voices of those who crashed the plane.


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