A federal judge ruled on Thursday that airlines and other companies in the industry that are being sued by families of terrorism victims can’t question FBI agents about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The defendants wanted to depose the agents and sought access to other evidence related to the investigation of the attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people in order to show at trial that the government’s failure to catch the terrorists and prevent the attacks mitigates and excuses any alleged fault on the aviation companies’ part.
The government objected.
The ruling by US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said the defendants have also argued that the terrorists likely would have succeeded even if the defendants had exercised due care.
“The issues to be tried relate to the acts and omissions of the aviation defendants, not the government,” Hellerstein wrote in his ruling. “The government’s failures to detect and abort the terrorists’ plots would not affect the aviation defendants’ potential liability.”
There was no immediate comment from the defendants or their lawyers. Spokespersons for AMR Corp’s American Airlines and US Airways Group Inc declined to comment. Lawyers for several airlines did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The judge said he plans to set a trial date for the lawsuits involving three wrongful death cases and 19 property damage cases on July 28.
The government urged the judge to block the aviation companies from interviewing six current and former FBI employees who the companies say would be able to testify as to what intelligence the FBI, CIA, Federal Aviation Administration and airlines had before the attacks regarding the terrorists’ plans and capabilities, as well as how the entities shared and exploited the intelligence.
The government argued that it would be impossible to interview the employees without disclosing classified or privileged material that could cause serious damage to national security.
The largest investigation in FBI history has resulted in 167,000 interviews and more than 155,000 pieces of evidence, the government noted.
The government said the FBI has turned over more than 33,000 pages of information to the aviation industry lawyers.
The airlines and aviation companies have said they are defending themselves against lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages for injuries, fatalities, property damage and business losses related to the attacks.
The companies filed separate lawsuits against the CIA and the FBI seeking to force terrorism investigators to say whether the aviation industry was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lawyers for the victims of the attacks have said the FBI should not be forced to provide more information.
Meanwhile, a reference to harsh treatment at CIA prisons brought out Guantanamo’s censors on Thursday as an official of the war crimes court abruptly cut the sound to prevent spectators from hearing classified information.
Commander Suzanne Lachelier, a lawyer appointed by the Pentagon to defend Sept. 11 suspect Ramzi bin al Shibh, began discussing the prisoner’s treatment before he was taken to Guantanamo in September 2006 when the censor hit the switch.
“The government can’t hide the fact that they used sleep deprivation ... ” Lachelier said before she was cut off and the sound of static filled a soundproof spectator section in the courtroom and a separate media viewing room. There is a 40-second delay in the spectator and media rooms.