NEW YORK: Government lawyers say the ongoing investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks could be compromised if the airline industry is allowed to seek more information from the FBI to defend itself against lawsuits brought by terrorism victims.
In papers filed late Tuesday, the government urged a judge to block aviation companies from interviewing five FBI employees who the companies say will help them prove the government withheld key information before the 2001 attacks.
The lawyers said it would be impossible to interview the employees without disclosing classified or privileged material that could "cause serious damage to national security and interfere with pending law enforcement proceedings."
"The harm described is not hypothetical and cannot be lightly dismissed," according to the court papers submitted by the office of U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia. "Investigators continue to seek out those parties responsible for the 9/11 attacks who remain at large."
The largest investigation in FBI history has resulted in 167,000 interviews and more than 155,000 pieces of evidence and involved the pursuit of 500,000 investigative leads, the lawyers wrote.
They said the aviation lawyers were unrealistic to think the investigation would not be compromised if they speak to the FBI employees.
"In fact, it is not possible to disentangle the classified from the unclassified information in the context of a deposition, where open-ended inquiries may elicit responses in which classified or privileged material is intertwined," they wrote.
So far, the government said, the FBI has turned over more than 33,000 pages of information to the aviation industry lawyers, including more than 10,000 pages of laboratory pictures and related information, witness interviews and descriptions of the hijackers' weapons.
The airlines and aviation companies are defending themselves against lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages for injuries, fatalities, property damage and business losses related to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The companies filed separate lawsuits against the CIA and the FBI last August to force terrorism investigators to tell whether the aviation industry was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the victims of the attacks agreed that the FBI should not be forced to provide more information. They recounted in court papers numerous hijackings and attacks aboard planes before Sept. 11 that they said should have put the airline industry on notice that a disastrous attack could occur.
Victims' lawyer Donald Migliori said the case was "about one thing and one thing only — the security failures at three of this country's largest airports that morning." Terrorists launched the Sept. 11 attacks by hijacking planes from Boston's Logan International Airport, Washington's Dulles International Airport and Newark International Airport in New Jersey.
Migliori said the airline industry was "trying to create a smoke screen by suggesting that if the FBI expressed more to the aviation defendants directly then it wouldn't have happened." He said the victims were eager to go to trial.
"We want these families in the courtroom so they can move on with their lives and get answers," he said.
A lawyer for the airline industry did not immediately return a phone message for comment Wednesday.