Atta, Dekkers & the Venice Flying Circus

The first weird thing you notice about the airport in Venice Florida is that there is a Flying Trapeze planted down at the end of one of the runways. It is a strange juxtaposition.

While taking off or landing, the terrorist student pilots practicing 'touch and go’s' could look over and see tightrope walkers or aerialists dancing high above the ground while practicing gravity-defying stunts, at a circus school which is a vestige of Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, which used to make its winter home here.

Come to Venice. Join the Flying Circus.

Become a Human Missile.

Until Rudi Dekkers bought Huffman Aviation, Venice, Florida was best known as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World. But the flight training given to terrorists out at the local airport has now changed all that, and thrust this sleepy burg into the middle of one of American History's worst nightmares.

Within hours of the September 11 attack authorities concluded that the terrorist pilots had shown such unusual skill in maneuvering commercial airliners toward their targets that at least one hijacker on each jet must have been trained right here in the U.S.

They were right.

Cut to Venice, Florida. Middle of the night.

The FBI swarms. Local police do the grunt work. Under bright klieg lights they carry away boxes upon boxes of records from Rudi Dekkers flight school.

Remember Rudi?

"I don't need anything from you, just a check to start flying," said Dekkers, who likened flying lessons to shopping for groceries. "We're just a business."

The next day, the FBI is back again at the Venice Airport, this time down the block at Arne Kruithof’s flight school.

"It's really just coincidence that terrorists chose such a place (as Venice) to be their training ground for the unspeakable," says Venice City Manager George Hunt.

Determining whether that statement is true is complicated by the fact that the FBI has confiscated everything in sight looking remotely like evidence.

And the FBI isn’t talking.

"The FBI took all our files, everything," said one local law enforcement official, after shaking his head ruefully when we asked if Rudi had any local ‘priors.’

He shrugs. He can’t tell. His files are now All Gone.

"They loaded two Ryder trucks right outside that (police station) window, then drove them right onto a C130 military cargo plane at Sarasota airport which flew out with Jeb Bush aboard."

Nobody has yet been charged over the attacks on America. FBI chiefs talk about the agents they have on the case, the doors they have knocked down, the thousand and more suspects they have arrested.

They do not explain why they have failed to catch anyone responsible.

That the terrorist cadre had been trained right here in America opened a huge can of worms. And before all the squiggly little creatures had been put back into a cool dark place it had been disclosed that after establishing their terrorist beachhead in unsuspecting Venice as many as six of the Terrorist 19 had gone on to receive training at U.S. military bases.

Mohamed Atta, for example, was reported to have attended the International Officers School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Pentagon quickly disputed the reports, which had appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald. But their denial was vague, almost flimsy, and only raised further questions. Still, they were apparently enough for Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the Miami Herald.

All three dropped the story.

Was this a triumph for accuracy in Media? Or an example of wartime censorship?

The answer is: no one knows. If they do they aren’t telling.

Even a Senator, Bill Nelson of Florida, couldn’t get a response from the Attorney General and the Justice Department when he specifically inquired about the report that three of the Terrorist 19 had listed the Pensacola Naval Air Station as their home address.

We know of at least one woman in Montgomery Alabama who has credibly insisted to local reporters that she met Atta at a party on the base. She remembers because she then introduced him to her friends.

"Mohamed, meet my friend the Colonel."

Arab pilots, mostly Saudis, took up most of one of the most elite upscale apartment complexes in Montgomery, one observer there informed us. They too are now All Gone.

"They went in and got every one of them out of there pronto. Right after it happened."

There are dozens of terrorist pilots out there loose that went through U.S. flight training. But of the thousands of flight schools in this country, a mere handful of names keep popping up. Did a covert operation at the two Venice flight schools serve as a portal into an informal military training network?

The former head of the American visa bureau in Jeddah from 1987 to 1989, Michael Springman, told BBC Newsnight: "In Saudi Arabia I was repeatedly ordered by high-level State Department officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants."

Last week the Boston Globe reported that the NSA was destroying evidence, to the fury of other intelligence agencies and FBI investigators.

"A crying shame."

Often mentioned in connection with the NSA, Jackson Stephens has been a prominent figure in tiny Venice, Florida… for decades.

From a baronial estate built by Stephens financial empire the Boone law firm may still rule the city today, at least according to an angry letter to the editor in the November 7th Venice Gondolier…

"I think it is a crying shame that Dan Boone and his crowd can raise obscene sums of money to control the election and make it impossible for a candidate without great resource to run for city council. We might as well cancel future elections."

Even if it is a run-on sentence, this tells us something. Stephens was a big player in tiny Venice. Could be, he still is.

Then on Tuesday the BBC reported that there had always been "constraints" on investigating Saudis, but that under President George W Bush it had become much worse, according to "a highly-placed source in a US intelligence agency."

The Bush Family has had a number of connections with Saudi Arabia's prominent Bin Laden family.

We have even heard one source we consider reputable claim that President Bush knows Osama Bin Laden personally. They met in Texas in the 80’s, when the CIA was pouring money into Bin Laden’s efforts, says this source.

True or not, it's at least plausible. The only thing inherently wrong about Bush having known Bin Laden would be concealment of it if it were true.

Because we need to know this time. We need to know everything.

Otherwise how will we be sure that we have avenged the poor people we saw that day who were much like ourselves… except we were watching television while they were holding hands in twos and threes and jumping out of 110th story windows?

How long does it take a 200-pound body to fall 100 stories?

What prior dealings with U.S. officials might the terrorists individually or collectively have had?

What was the nature of those deals? Did they compromise U.S. security?

Did money change hands?

One way to get some answers, we figured, might be to go to Venice, tucked on the Florida Coast between Tampa and Fort Myers, where the terrorists began their U.S. training, and walk in their footsteps.

The terrorist cadre came here to train at two flight schools, each purchased independently by two separate Dutch nationals in 1998.

Some found that a little odd.

"One damn Dutch boy too many," muttered one longtime national investigator.

Perhaps they were just seeing things. Dutch people are free to buy businesses in the U.S., aren’t they?

Even if the companies being bought up are located next door to one another, and each of our two supposedly-competing Magic Dutch Boys are partners with the same man?

Even if the businesses are shortly thereafter used to train the Bin Laden Air Force? What of it?

"We're just a business."

The only explanation offered as to why the terrorists picked Venice has been a vague assertion that flight training in Florida is cheaper than in Europe.

Cheaper than Europe, maybe. But is it cheaper than in the Sudan?

And even if true it does nothing to answer questions about why, with more than 200 flight schools to choose from in Florida alone, Atta’s deadly pilot cadre from Hamburg had begun their U.S. flight training in the same podunk town at adjacent flight schools owned by Dutch nationals.

As it turns out, even the "cheaper by the terrorist squadron" explanation breaks down upon closer examination…

Typical training fees for a private pilot’s license are in the $10,000 range. Yet Atta and his sidekick together paid almost $40,000 to Dekker’s Huffman Aviation.

That’s almost double the going rate.

The Rudi Dekkers Surcharge.

Atta didn’t care. Atta was flush. Atta flashed a Big Roll. Ask the girls who dance at the Cheetah club in Sarasota. Cash was no problemo.

A young man with money to burn, Mohammed Atta enjoyed very Un-Islamic lap dances in the Pink Pony Strip Club in Florida, and stuffing $20 bills into the panties of topless dancers at the Olympic Garden, a dreary nightclub at the seedier end of Las Vegas' Strip.

When not ogling infidel flesh, he had a taste for the finer things as well, like hanging out at Harry’s Bar in New York, for example, where he preferred a table near the piano.

Life in Venice must have been hell for someone with those tastes. The median age is 69. Dinnertime begins at 4 PM. Almost everyone gets in on the early bird specials.

Atta must have chafed. No wonder everyone ragged on his bad attitude. Six months in Venice must have been an eternity. But was Venice his choice? Or someone else's? Why did Mohamed Atta come here?

Coincidence? Mere happenstance?

Do the American people have a right to know the true nature of the threat which has so suddenly changed all our lives?

Might we be better off not knowing?

Maybe these questions are being answered in meetings being held right now in Hollywood, between Bush aide Karl Rove and studio honchos.

Back in Venice, even the circus that made its winter home there begins taking on sinister associations. Headquartered in Vienna, Virginia, it is owned by the Feld family of Washington D.C.

According to a recent two-part story in Salon magazine, Kenneth Feld hired former top CIA honcho Clair George to torment a hapless freelance writer for eight years.

Why would the head of Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey want to spend eight years tormenting a hapless freelance writer?

Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that he may have had his reasons.

Still, how did he know 'CIA honcho' Clair George, who ran Latin America for the Agency under then-Vice President Bush during the period of Iran Contra during the '80’s?

Jackson Stephens, Clair George…have we mentioned Good Old Boy and CIA Agent Miles Copeland Jr. yet?

No? Next time, then.

We are coming to you live at five from the runways of the airport in Venice Florida…

And we have a funny feeling that we will be here for a while.

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Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.