Air Defenses Faltered on 9/11, Panel Finds
Report Documents Command and Communication Errors
By Dan Eggen and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; 2:50 PM
The chief of U.S. air defenses testified today that if his command had been notified immediately of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings and ordered to intervene, U.S. fighter jets would have been able to shoot down all four of the airliners that were seized by terrorists and that ultimately crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that had the Federal Aviation Administration conveyed word of the hijackings as soon it knew of them, "yes, we could shoot down the airplanes."
The chairman and vice chairman of the commission later expressed surprise about Eberhart's claim, and a report by the panel's staff said it was uncertain that any of the hijacked planes could have been shot down.
Eberhart, who has headed NORAD since February 2000, assured the commission that if the Sept. 11 plot were carried out today, the command's planes would be able to shoot down all four planes with time to spare, because of improvements implemented since the attacks. But he warned that NORAD should always be considered a "force of last resort."
According to the commission's new staff report, Vice President Cheney did not issue orders to shoot down hostile aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, until long after the last hijacked airliner had already crashed, and that the order was never passed along to military fighter pilots searching for errant aircraft that morning.
A painstaking recreation of the faltering and confused response by military and aviation officials on Sept. 11 also shows that the fighter jets that were scrambled that day never had a chance to intercept any of the doomed airliners, in part because they had been sent to intercept a plane, American Airlines 11, that had already crashed into the World Trade Center.
The jets also would probably not have been able to stop the last airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, from barreling into the White House or U.S. Capitol if it had not crashed in Pennsylvania, according to the report.
"We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93," the report's authors wrote, referring to an apparent insurrection that foiled the hijackers' plans. "Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction."
The stark conclusions come as part of the last interim report to be issued by the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is racing to complete a final book-length report by the end of next month. The 10-member bipartisan panel will hear its last public testimony from military and aviation officials today.
Among the new information contained in the latest report is a detailed reconstruction of the reactions of President Bush, Cheney and other top government leaders that morning, including a recitation of a call between the two at 9:45 a.m. after the Pentagon had been hit.
"Sounds like we have a minor war going on here," Bush tells Cheney, according to notes of the call. "I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war. . . . Somebody's going to pay."
During the presentation of the report this morning, commission staffers played recordings of hijackers' voices in radio transmissions that were picked up by air traffic controllers.
"We have some planes," an unidentified hijacker said in accented English from American Airlines flight 11 at 8:24 a.m. "Just stay quiet, and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport."
A few seconds later, the hijacker was heard saying, "Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet." At 8:34 a.m., he said again, "We're going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company