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Customs agent tells of stopping '20th hijacker'

'The bottom line is: He gave me the creeps,' officer says

Customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez prepares to testify Monday.
Customs agent Jose Melendez-Perez prepares to testify Monday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. Customs officer told the independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on Monday how he kept a man who authorities now suspect could have been the 20th hijacker from entering the United States.

Jose Melendez-Perez, an immigration inspector, said he was working at Orlando, Florida, International Airport on August 4, 2001, when a man later identified by U.S. officials only as al-Qahtani was referred to him for a secondary inspection.

A senior U.S. official said last week that al-Qahtani is "one of a half-dozen or so individuals" who investigators believe lead hijacker Mohamed Atta may have planned to put on United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania on September 11.

The flight was carrying four hijackers, one fewer than were aboard each of the three other aircraft, which were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Government officials told CNN there is evidence that Atta was at the Orlando airport when al-Qahtani arrived and that Atta made an international phone call while there. (Full story)

Melendez-Perez, who now works for the Department of Homeland Security's Division of Customs and Border Protection, said the FBI has never interviewed him about the incident.

Al-Qahtani had arrived on Virgin Atlantic Flight 15 from Gatwick Airport in London, England, with no return ticket or hotel reservation, Melendez-Perez testified.

He was referred for further scrutiny because he was unable to communicate with the primary inspector and his paperwork had not been properly filled out.

"He had a military appearance. Upon establishing eye contact, he exhibited body language and facial gestures that appeared arrogant," said Melendez-Perez, a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Army who has been an immigration inspector for 12 years.

"In fact, when I first called his name in the secondary room and matched him with papers, he had a deep, staring look. I had the impression of the subject that he had knowledge of interview techniques and had military training."

When asked why he had no return ticket, "the subject became visibly upset, and in an arrogant and threatening manner, which included pointing his finger at my face, stated that he did not know where he was going when he departed the United States," Melendez-Perez said in a written version of his testimony.

"What first came to mind at this point was that the subject was a hit man. A hit man doesn't know where he is going because if he is caught; that way he doesn't have any information to bargain with."

Melendez-Perez said the man gave confused answers to questions about whom he was planning to meet and where he was going.

"It became apparent that the subject was being less than truthful concerning his true intentions.

"The bottom line is: He gave me the creeps," Melendez-Perez said.

Al-Qahtani was sent back to London on Virgin Atlantic's Flight 16, with a connecting flight to Dubai.

He was later captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops and is being held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said.

Melendez-Perez said that "to the best of my knowledge," immigration officers made copies of the incident and sent the paperwork to the FBI. "The FBI has never interviewed me."

Al-Qahtani is "not saying anything" to his interrogators in Guantanamo, an official said -- an assessment corroborated by law enforcement sources.

Al-Qahtani was one of at least three people who tried to enter the United States before September 11 who investigators speculate may have been intended as hijackers. But officials speculate they could have been intended for other purposes, such as later attacks.

No evidence exists that there was supposed to be a 20th hijacker, but investigators feel certain the September 11 plot was intended to include five hijackers on each of the four planes.

The 10-member, bipartisan 9/11 commission led by Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey, is scheduled to hold another hearing Tuesday. It faces a May 27 deadline to complete its report to Congress and the president. Some members have called for an extension.

CNN's Kelli Arena, Justine Redman and Larry Shaughnessy contributed to this report.


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