Air Defenses Faltered on 9/11, Panel Finds
"I think had they been better trained and organized to cooperate that it is possible that [flight] 77 might have been intercepted, but it would have been a very, very close call even in the best of cooperation."
In his testimony before the commission, Eberhart said NORAD's ability to respond in such a situation today "is much better."
But he said he felt compelled to add, "NORAD is not the right way to work this problem. It is the force of last resort. . . . If we have to take action, it takes a bad situation from getting worse, because everyone on that airplane will die."
Shooting down a hijacked airliner "is a stopgap final measure," Eberhart said. "But where we really need to focus is destroying these terrorist networks, not allowing them into our country. Don't allow them into our airports. Don't allow them in our aircraft, and if they get in our aircraft, don't let them take control of the airplane."
He also stressed that before shooting down a hijacked airliner, "it's important for us to see a hostile act" -- a sign of intent to use the plane as a weapon -- because it may turn out to be a "traditional hijacking," or control of the airliner may have been wrested back by "brave souls" on board.
After the hearing, Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and the panel's vice chairman, said he was surprised by Eberhart's "extraordinary statement" that U.S. fighters could have shot down the hijacked planes on Sept. 11 if NORAD had been promptly notified. "He's making a lot of assumptions there about almost instantaneous communications," Hamilton said.
Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who chairs the commission, said Eberhart "believes that if such an event happened today, they would be capable of taking out all four planes, and I hope he's right."
During the hearing, commission members reserved some of their toughest questions for senior FAA officials who testified after Eberhart and other top military officers.
Lehman pointed to "very identifiable" failures by FAA headquarters on the day of the terrorist attacks, including the failure of the agency to issue a broad early notification of multiple hijackings and to notify the military of that Flight 93 was heading toward Washington.
"I think [FAA] headquarters blew it," said commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic governor and senator from Nebraska.
Monte Belger, the acting deputy administration of the FAA at the time of the attacks, said his attention on Sept. 11 quickly became focused entirely on getting the 4,500 planes that were airborne that morning safely on the ground.
He said he never received some of the key intelligence that was available on the prospect of terrorist hijackings, notably a CIA briefing paper that said al Qaeda was determined to strike inside the United States and pointed to signs of hijacking preparations. Nor was he informed, Belger said, of an FBI report that a terrorist suspect, Zacarias Moussaoui, had been arrested while undergoing flight training.
Asked after the hearing if he were satisfied with the FAA officials' answers, Kean, the commission chairman, answered, "No." He added that that in view of warnings over the years, the FAA should have been better prepared for a catastrophic act of terrorism.
Hamilton said, "One of the failures . . . is the failure of imagination. Our policy people simply were not able to imagine using an airplane as a weapon." Because of that failure, he said, FAA officials were placed in an "extremely difficult and unprecedented" position.
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