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The Investigation

September 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Joining us is Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek Magazine. Evan, flesh out a little more for us what Ashcroft and Mueller just said -first of all, what they have learned about what happened yesterday.

EVAN THOMAS: Well the FBI believes that there was an act of heroism on the plane that didn’t get to Washington, the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh. I actually spoke last night as the FBI has I think several times to a woman named Liz Glick, whose husband Jeremy was on that plane and he called on a cell phone and told her the plane had been hijacked and said that he was talking to some other male passengers — four or five other passengers – about thinking a last-ditch attempt to jump the hijackers as he put it. They could hear over the phone then screams, silence, screams again, silence and then nothing. And the FBI believes there was some kind of a wrestling match and that that plane crashed in a field instead of getting to Washington and hitting the White House or the Capitol or some real target.

MARGARET WARNER: And then how do investigators know and maybe they’re not saying, but that Air Force One and the White House were targets?

EVAN THOMAS: Well, I don’t know how they know about Air Force One. The White House was definitely — the plane that crashed into the Pentagon was actually headed right for the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: Just by looking at the flight?

EVAN THOMAS: Looking at the flight – the plane turned in to the Pentagon. I’m not sure about the other one, why they think Air Force One was a target.

MARGARET WARNER: We heard Ashcroft or Mueller say that they have identified from the flight manifest they think a great many of the hijackers — who are they?

EVAN THOMAS: The FBI has a lot of these guys in their filing cabinets. I mean, some of the names that turned up in connection with this investigation are familiar names. This of course raises the question of was there an intelligence failure — if they knew who these people were, why couldn’t they catch them? I think the answer is it’s easier said than done. I mean they were tapping the phones of the people who bombed the embassies in Africa for a about a year and they still missed that. So there will be lots of investigations and incriminations but the point is that the – I think they’re going to crack this cell and they’re going to find out who did this.

MARGARET WARNER: For instance do they know the nationality of these people?

EVAN THOMAS: They’re foreigners — Middle Easterners who were, as has been described to us at Newsweek, in this country from between a week and a year. That’s the timeframe, came from many different countries, all of this suggests a very careful, deliberate orchestrated act.

MARGARET WARNER: Another focus as they said today is, people who are still around, not hijackers who helped them, and there was a whole flurry today about arrests or detentions, different words were used and in both Boston and Florida. What can you tell us about that?

EVAN THOMAS: Well, they’re just trying to hold these people until they find out. When they talk about holding somebody as a material witness, they may become suspects — they just don’t have enough evidence yet. Or they may truly be witnesses; they may be family members. They want to hold on to these people, pull the string back as it were. But they’re well on their way to finding out who did this.

MARGARET WARNER: What has been the most helpful pieces of evidence, for instance, in identifying some of these alleged accomplices or material witnesses?

EVAN THOMAS: Well you know, there’s this rental car they found in Boston that had Arab materials.

MARGARET WARNER: Linked to one of the hijackers?

EVAN THOMAS: Linked to one of the hijackers. They’re looking at these flight schools, these pilot training schools in Florida. One of the pilots who trained at these schools is missing and they think that he was one of the pilots who flew one of those Boeing airliners into the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, of course, all the cell phone calls from passengers who were on the plane.

EVAN THOMAS: Right. There are descriptions of the hijackers from those cell phones although I’m not sure that’s as important as just the things like just the ticket, who bought ticket and tracing canceled checks and credit cards, that kind of thing.

MARGARET WARNER: How far have they gotten in establishing who their outside sponsors might have been? There of course has been all this talk about Osama bin Laden.

EVAN THOMAS: I mean you still hear from investigators 90 percent sure it was bin Laden –only bin Laden could have pulled this off — I mean a combination of circumstantial evidence and intercepts of calls to bin Laden saying that we hit the target, which sounds pretty convincing, but maybe those are false claims or maybe there’s some story we don’t know. But they think they have electronic intercepts that tie bin Laden directly.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, how far along are they in collecting physical evidence actually at the crash scenes, for instance the black boxes we haven’t heard about recovering those?

EVAN THOMAS: I know they’re worried they’re never going to get them out of the World Trade Center in all of that rubble. I think they’re more optimistic that they’re going to find them in the Pentagon and in that field outside of Pittsburgh.

MARGARET WARNER: I gather they actually can’t even go into the World Trade Center yet to collect evidence?

EVAN THOMAS: Right. I mean they obviously have a ways to go here. It’s not yet a real crime scene in the sense of forensic specialists poring over the rubble. They’re still trying to rescue people.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Evan, thanks very much.