9/11 Report Cites Lack of Preparation
The commission also found no evidence that FAA headquarters ever issued an order to implement cockpit security measures once it became clear that airplanes were being hijacked. The FAA office in Boston recommended to FAA headquarters that such action be taken before the hijackers had taken over United Flight 93, but their suggestion was not taken. The new account essentially shifts the terms of the debate about air-defense response that day, because it indicates that it is unlikely that any of the jetliners could have been intercepted given the time available. But the report also suggests that the amount of time to respond might have been lengthened if the FAA had communicated the status of the flights to NORAD more quickly.
Several commission members were critical of the FAA's response, arguing that headquarters was too slow to act and ignored the entreaties of some underlings. The FAA's unprecedented decision to ground all 4,500 aircraft in the skies originated with a command center rather than headquarters.
"If there was one unmistakable failure, it is the failure of the headquarters at FAA," said Republican commissioner John F. Lehman, a former Navy secretary.
Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator, said, "I think headquarters blew it."
Monte Belger, the acting deputy administrator of the FAA at the time of the attacks, said his attention on Sept. 11 quickly became focused on getting airborne planes safely on the ground. He also said he never received intelligence reports suggesting that al Qaeda was determined to strike the United States or that one suspect, Zacarias Moussaoui, had been arrested on suspicion of training for a hijacking.
But one current FAA official, Benedict Sliney, who made the decision to ground all aircraft that morning, told commissioners that problems persist, recounting a recent incident in which he could not receive an answer from FAA headquarters as to whether he had the authority to scramble fighter jets in response to a suspicious aircraft. "I don't think the lines of communication are as clear as they should be," he said.
Chairman Thomas H. Kean said after yesterday's testimony that he was not satisfied with the answers from FAA officials and that the agency should have been better prepared for terrorist acts. The panel's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, a Democratic former congressman from Indiana, cited a "failure of imagination" and said, "Our policy people simply were not able to imagine using an airplane as a weapon."
Kean also said he found it "very disturbing" that Cheney's shoot-down order, authorized by Bush, would go unheeded. "When the president of the United States gives a shoot-down order, and the pilots who are supposed to carry it out do not get that order, then that's about as serious as it gets as far as the defense of this country goes," Kean said.
Eberhart defended one general's decision not to hesitate before passing on the shoot-down order to the Langley fighters, saying it was not clear at the time that there were more confirmed hijackings. "Let's make sure we understand this order, convey it properly, that in fact we do not make a mistake."
He said his belief that NORAD could have intercepted all four flights if given proper notice by the FAA was based on computer modeling. He also said that changes implemented since the attacks, including NORAD access to domestic radar and immediate notification procedures, would allow the interception of all the flights.
Eberhart pointed to the example of American Flight 11, which crashed nine minutes after the military had been notified. "Today we believe we would have at least 17 minutes to make that decision," he testified. "On 9/11, we were 153 miles away. Today, we would be in a position to fire" in eight minutes.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.
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