Air Defenses Faltered on 9/11, Panel Finds
Twelve minutes later, the plane struck the World Trade Center's North Tower.
The commission staff concluded that NORAD had received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before Flight 77 hit the North Tower.
"The nine minutes notice was the most the military would receive that morning of any of the four hijackings," the report says.
The report also documents a succession of mistakes, wrong assumptions and puzzling errors made on the morning of Sept. 11 by air defense and aviation employees, who often did not communicate with each other when they should have and frequently seemed unsure of how to respond to the unprecedented assault by the al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
Panel investigators also tersely conclude that authorities with NORAD repeatedly misinformed the commission in testimony last fall about its scrambling of fighters from Langley Air Force Base just north of Hampton, Va. NORAD officials indicated at the time that the jets were responding to either United 93 or American Airlines 77, which struck the Pentagon.
In fact, they were chasing "a phantom aircraft," American 11, which had already struck the World Trade Center, the panel found.
Air defense agencies "were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001," the report concludes. "They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet."
Among the breakdowns cited in the report was that American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked after taking off from Dulles International Airport, flew undetected by anyone for 36 minutes as it turned and headed back east toward the Pentagon.
The FAA never asked for any military assistance or notified the military about either Flight 77 or United Airlines Flight 93 before they crashed, the panel's staff found.
Nor did the FAA's command center issue an order to implement cockpit security measures in other planes that were in flight or on the ground after the hijackings became known, the investigators reported.
The new account essentially shifts the terms of the debate about air-defense response that day, because it indicates that none of the jetliners likely could have been intercepted given the time available. But the report also suggests that time to respond might have been lengthened if the status of the flights had been communicated more quickly to and among military and Federal Aviation Administration officials.
Commission investigators, based on private interviews with both Bush and Cheney and other witnesses, reported that a telephone conversation occurred between the two leaders shortly before 10:10 a.m. or 10:15 a.m. in which Bush authorized Cheney to order jet pilots to shoot down hostile aircraft.
Within a few minutes, Cheney issued the first shoot-down order, based on reports from the Secret Service of an aircraft -- United 93 -- headed toward Washington. But the reports were based on trajectory estimates; Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. The vice president issued a similar order at around 10:30 a.m. in response to another report of a hijacked plane.
"Eventually," the report notes, "the shelter received word that the alleged hijacker five miles away had been a Medevac helicopter."
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