The Man Who Saved the Capitol
Among the many 9/11 heroes, here’s the little-known story of the man who stopped the “20th hijacker”—and perhaps saved the White House or Capitol—and finally gets his due today.
Among the hundreds paying tribute to the fallen at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, today will be one Jose Melendez-Perez, a Puerto-Rican-born INS and Customs Agent. Melendez-Perez is the 9/11 hero you’ve likely never heard about, one who has spent the past few months fighting with Homeland Security to attend a memorial that, without him, might have had thousands more mourners.
Five weeks before attacks, it was Melendez-Perez who stopped the so-called 20th hijacker from entering the country. Because of that, three planes carried five terrorists, and all three reached their intended targets; one carried just four, and it did not, falling to earth while the hijackers struggled with passengers above Pennsylvania, rather than decimating the Capitol or White House.
“Finally, I told my supervisor that this guy had to be sent back. And as they took him away, he turned around and looked at me. ‘I’ll be back.’”
The little-known Melendez-Perez found himself unwittingly part of the 9/11 story on August 4, 2001. That day he was a Customs officer at Orlando International Airport when a Saudi national, Mohammad al-Khatani, arrived from Dubai, via London, on a packed Virgin Airlines flight.
Al-Khatani’s immigration forms were not properly filled out and an INS officer ordered a secondary interview with Melendez-Perez. “When I walked into the room,” Melendez-Perez told me, “he was in the corner, but went out of his way to make eye contact with me. He was hostile, almost challenging me.”
The Saudi did not have a return ticket or a hotel. He had $2,800 in cash and no credit cards. Questions to where he would stay and where he would go were evasive.
• Gerald Posner: Mohamed Atta's Successor • John Avlon: Bush Wrecked 9/11 A colleague told Melendez-Perez that he could get in trouble if he rejected al-Khatani since he was a Saudi national, a country whose citizens were not then on any American watch list. “I don’t care, something is not right about him,” Melendez-Perez told me he responded. Investigators later learned that as Melendez-Perez questioned the Saudi for an hour, Mohamed Atta, the plot’s U.S.-based leader, was waiting for al-Khatani in the airport’s parking lot. While there, Atta used an airport pay phone to call al Qaeda logistical coordinator Mustafa al-Hawsawi in the United Arab Emirates.
• Samuel P. Jacobs: 9/11 Novels Worth Reading“Finally, I told my supervisor that this guy had to be sent back. And as they took him away, he turned around and looked at me. ‘I’ll be back.’” (Al-Khatani was captured in Afghanistan a few months after 9/11 and moved to Guantanamo. He was charged with war crimes and murder on February 11, 2008, but those were dismissed three months later when he was deemed “unprosecutable” because he was tortured during his interrogation. His fate is now up to the Obama administration.)
No one in the government ever got demoted or lost a day’s pay from the many mistakes leading up to the attack. Similarly, no one, including Melendez-Perez, ever got a merit citation or promotion for having done their work correctly. An annual terrorism award from U.S. Customs was co-named for him in 2005, together with Diana Dean, the Customs officer who in 1999 arrested an al Qaeda terrorist trying to smuggle a car packed with explosives in from Canada. But neither Dean nor Melendez-Perez have even been awarded their own medal.
Today, Melendez-Perez finally gets his due, in Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker, a book detailing the Customs agent’s personal story, which is being released today. “Neither Melendez-Perez nor I will profit from the book,” the author, nationally syndicated radio-show host Michael Smerconish, told The Daily Beast. “All author proceeds are being donated to the Flight 93 National Memorial.”
What few know, however, is that for several months, behind the scenes, Homeland Security bureaucracy was thwarting the day for Melendez-Perez. The national-security veteran, who had served 26 years in the Army, including two tours of duty in Vietnam, and worked for INS for 11 years before he came under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, asked for permission to take leave for a few days in connection with the 9/11 anniversary. He also requested to wear his uniform while telling his story recounted in the book. Homeland Security denied both requests.Then the book publisher offered to pay for his flight to Pennsylvania. Homeland Security’s lawyers told him that was banned since it would be the equivalent of accepting a gift. On Tuesday, I telephoned Homeland Security for a comment on why they were making it so difficult for Melendez-Perez to make his first-ever visit to the Flight 93 memorial.Twenty-four hours later, in a conference call with his supervisors, Melendez-Perez learned that the bureaucracy had changed its mind; he could wear his uniform, have the publisher pay his way, and not be forced to use vacation days to attend.
“I never wanted anything for stopping that guy,” Melendez-Perez told me. “Now I just want to pay tribute to the victims with some respect.”
“This is a victory for one of the good guys,” says author Smerconish. “News of Homeland Security’s embrace of Mr. Melendez-Perez is long overdue. I want to believe that after eight years, an American hero is about to receive a proper level of recognition.”
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11 and terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.