9/11 Hero Jose Melendez-Perez in Bureaucratic Limbo

He blocked a terrorist from boarding United Flight 93, saving the U.S. Capitol from attack. So why has Jose Melendez-Perez been sidelined over a bureaucratic infraction?

Jose Melendez-Perez (Matt Slocum / AP Photo)

Joint Terrorism Task Force Agent Jose Melendez-Perez, an American hero who arguably prevented an attack on the nation’s capitol on September 11, 2001, sits in political purgatory.

Melendez-Perez was an immigration inspector conducting secondary screenings at Orlando International Airport when Jose prevented the would-be 20th hijacker, Mohamed al-Kahtani, from gaining admittance to the United States. And because he rejected Kahtani, United Airlines Flight 93 was short-handed on 9/11—a fact several members of the 9/11 Commission say helped ensure that the flight did not reach its intended target—the capitol dome.

“I just feel betrayed,” Melendez-Perez said. “I made a mistake and they took it to the next level.”

But today, this American hero is sitting idle in a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) office in Orlando—forced to report daily to a building where he does nothing of consequence, awaiting the outcome of an investigation he knows little about.

Here’s why: On the night of Friday, April 16, Melendez-Perez, by now working as the CBP liaison for the Joint Terrorism Task Force, was on his way home. His own car was in the shop for repairs, so he was driving his official, government-issued vehicle. This apparently broke the rules; department policies permitted such usage of an official vehicle, but those policies had ended four months earlier. This was the only time Melendez-Perez had ever driven home in his government car, he told me.

Sometime during the night of Sunday, April 18 into Monday April 19, the car was broken into, and Jose’s firearm (as well as some additional items) was stolen. Melendez-Perez told me that the theft of the firearm—and not his use of the government vehicle—seems to be the focus of a local CBP investigation of which he is the subject.

Melendez-Perez tells me it is highly unusual for someone to be removed from their post during an investigation like this—which is administrative, not criminal. Usually, in a situation like this, the employee would be issued a new firearm, and go back to work, he said. According to Melendez-Perez, even the investigator looking into this incident said he was not aware that Jose had been relieved of his job during the inquiry.

“I just feel betrayed,” he told me. “I made a mistake and they took it to the next level. Nobody communicated to me what’s going on or who made the decision to take me from my job. Nobody has said a word to me. The only thing I was told was that I was suspended until the investigation is completed. That was three months ago.” (A spokesman for the CBP declined comment, citing the pending investigation.)

Is there more to the story? Some kind of bureaucratic payback, perhaps?

This is quite a burden for a man who has 44 years of service to the federal government—26.5 of them in the military. He also has a son currently stationed in Afghanistan. Jose is 64 years old and will turn 65 in January.

And it’s not the way to treat a hero—one who has an anti-terrorism award named after him.

Maybe the investigators at CBP don’t know his story. Maybe they don’t know that from the minute Melendez-Perez laid eyes on Kahtani in the run-up to 9/11, the veteran immigration inspector knew something wasn’t right. Kahtani shot him arrogant, dirty looks. He pointed his finger in Melendez-Perez’s face, shifted his story, and refused to answer questions under oath. Sensing Kahtani was malafide (a bad actor) but lacking any proof, Melendez-Perez nonetheless refused to approve the young Saudi’s attempt to enter the country. Colleagues warned him of the potential consequences of turning away Saudi nationals, who were known to wield considerable political clout. But he refused to budge. “I have to do my job, and I cannot do my work with dignity if I make my recommendations for refusals [or] admissions based solely on someone’s nationality,” he would later tell the 9/11 Commission.

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As he boarded his return flight to London, Kahtani turned around, caught Jose’s eye, and said, “I’ll be back.” Jose remembered that moment when the planes struck the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11.

Kahtani was later apprehended after fighting alongside the jihadists surrounding Osama bin Laden at the battle at Tora Bora. He was shipped to Guantanamo Bay. The 9/11 Commission determined that while Melendez-Perez was interrogating Kahtani, Mohammed Atta was waiting to pick up the young Saudi. And because the immigration inspector rejected Kahtani, United Airlines Flight 93 was short-handed on 9/11. It was the only aircraft hijacked by four terrorists, not five.

According to 9/11 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste: “Jose Melendez-Perez is a true American hero; but for his actions in preventing the 20th hijacker, Mohamed al-Kahtani, from entering the United States, the Capitol Building might have been destroyed on 9/11.”

Added Former U.S. Senator and Governor of Nebraska and 9/11 Commission member Robert Kerrey: “Immigration Inspector Jose Melendez-Perez, along with other unspoken heroes, displayed remarkable instincts in making sure that somebody who has hostile intent against the United States of America does not get the chance to carry out a catastrophe. That coupled with inquiry, observation, technology and proper training are among our best advantages in the war on terror.”

Last year, former Secretary of the Navy and 9/11 Commission member John Lehman said: “The little known tale of Jose Melendez-Perez’s calm heroism, has many important subtests and vital lessons for our security.”

Unfortunately, Secretary Lehman was right. Melendez-Perez’s story is perhaps the greatest untold story of 9/11—which is why I was inspired to write a book about it. “Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker” was published on September 11, 2009. Jose and I did not derive one cent from its publication. All author proceeds were donated to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

At the time “Instinct” was published, there was a notable reluctance on the part of Jose’s supervisors to permit him to participate in the activities related to the book’s release. With less than one week remaining before the publication date, Jose was told he could not wear his uniform while attending events related to the book launch, would have to use vacation days to visit Shanksville, and could not accept the publisher’s reimbursement for his airfare from Orlando to Philadelphia.

Here’s the email Jose received from a superior: “I understand you are taking leave to attend these events. However, we have requested guidance from counsel on this matter regarding travel and have received the following summation regarding any travel expenses paid for by the publisher. If you have any question please let me know.

“In general, an employee is prohibited from accepting a gift given because of the employee’s official position. 5 C.F.R. § 2635.202(a)(2). A gift includes any item having monetary value. 5 C.F.R. § 2635.203(b). Thus, the publisher’s offer to pay Mr. Perez’s transportation and lodging expenses at promotional events for “Instinct” would be considered a gift under the regulations. In order to comply with the regulations, Mr. Perez may not accept payment from the publishers for travel expenses to attend promotional events related to “Instinct.” In addition, while an agency is permitted to accept payment of travel expenses from a non-Federal source if permissible under the regulations on acceptance of such payments, 5 C.F.R. § 2635.203(b)(8)(i), a review of such regulations reveals that even if Mr. Perez were authorized to participate in such promotional events in his official capacity it would not be permissible for him to accept payment of his travel expenses from the publisher.”

In other words, the man who prevented the 20th hijacker from getting aboard Flight 93 and arguably enabling the terrorists to reach their target in the nation’s capitol, was essentially told that his department would not support the release of a book that both told his story and benefited a national monument.

It was only when I personally brought this situation to the attention of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that things changed and Jose was permitted to fully participate. (I have many emails supporting this series of events.)

That did not sit well with Melendez-Perez’s immediate supervisors. He recognizes that he made a mistake three months ago when he left his weapon in a position of vulnerability. However, he is concerned that residual resentment over the Secretary’s intervention last September is influencing the pace of the investigation.

“I cannot blame the whole service, it’s a small group,” he said. “I still feel dedicated to the service. Right now, I’m just waiting to see the clock ticking…. I’m anxious to go back to work to do what I get paid for. I love my job and I am proud of what we represent to this country. We have the bigger responsibility of keeping this country safe. We are the front line defense against any threat at the port of entry. We don’t have room for mistakes. That’s what makes us so intense. I just want to get back to what I do.”

And so today, the man who arguably saved a strike against the nation’s capitol will arrive at a federal building in Florida and sit in front of a computer, biding his time and awaiting his fate. That’s no way to treat a hero of the war against terrorists. Especially when the war has yet to be won.

Michael Smerconish is a nationally syndicated radio host. His latest book, Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker, was published in 2009.