Protecting the Skies
Air Security 'Seriously Flawed'
Panel Cites 9/11 Chaos, Says Current Hijack Focus Is Fighting 'the Last War'
By Spencer S. Hsu and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 23, 2004; Page A22
U.S. military and civilian aviation security was "seriously flawed" from conception to its desperate, last-second execution and probably could not have stopped the terrorist hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the final report of the commission investigating the assaults.
At the same time, Congress and the White House failed to draw the proper lesson from the attacks, the commission said. Instead of acting to make rail, marine, surface and other modes of transportation safer, the report notes critically that more than 90 percent of the $5.3 billion spent annually on transportation security has been allocated to commercial aviation to prevent hijackings, which it calls fighting "the last war."
The report sheds little new light on the military and Federal Aviation Administration's response to the Sept. 11 hijackings, which was detailed last month in a commission report that highlighted how unprepared air defenders were.
While the commission says its findings "do not reflect discredit on operational personnel," who tried unsuccessfully to improvise a homeland defense that day, the report reveals a breakdown in chains of command starting at the highest levels of government.
"The President could not reach some senior officials. The Secretary of Defense did not enter the chain of command until the morning's key events were over," commissioners concluded in the executive summary. "Senior military and FAA leaders had no effective communication with each other. The chain of command did not function well."
An order issued by Vice President Cheney to shoot down threatening aircraft over Washington was not passed on to the pilots of two jet fighters scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, because military commanders "were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance," the report says. But unbeknownst to the president, the North American Aerospace Defense Command or the Pentagon, other jets were launched from Andrews Air Force Base and given shoot-down authority by the commander of the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard, in consultation with the Secret Service.
The report notes that NORAD, which was established in 1958 to protect North America's airspace against the Soviet threat, remained focused on potential external attacks, even after the demise of the Soviet Union.
"The threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airliners within the United States -- and using them as guided missiles -- was not recognized by NORAD before 9/11," the report says.
The FAA identified a suicide hijacking threat in August 1999 but judged it a terrorist option of "last resort." Onboard defenses against such a threat were never studied.
While the FAA and NORAD had developed hijacking protocols, these plans did not contemplate a fighter intercept and were "unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen" on Sept. 11.
In a detailed re-creation of U.S. air defense efforts that morning, the commission says that the FAA was so slow to notify military commanders about the hijackings that U.S. fighter jets had no chance to intercept any of the aircraft. Personnel in NORAD's Northeast Air Defense Sector received notice about the first hijacked plane only nine minutes before it hit the World Trade Center. NORAD had no notice at all on the other three before they hit their targets or crashed, according to the commission.
Civilian aviation security defenses were "seriously flawed," according to the report. Though two of the hijackers were on the State Department's 60,000-name terrorist watch list, the FAA did not use that database. The FAA's own "no-fly" list contained only 12 terror subjects.
Although several terrorists set off metal detectors before boarding their flights, each was cleared either after a second walk-through or by a hand-screening. The FAA's computerized passenger profiling system tagged 10 of the hijackers for extra screening that morning, but the procedures, established after Pan Am flight 103 blew up over Scotland 13 years earlier, then called only for extra scrutiny of checked baggage to detect explosives.
Since 2001, authorities have established new mechanisms to facilitate communications and new anti-hijacking procedures. The commission recommends further improvements to the airport screening system. The report also warns that the debate over new computerized profiling programs should not delay improvements in the use of no-fly and passenger watch lists, which it said the federal government should manage and integrate.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
An F-16CJ Fighting Falcon from the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., flies over New York during a North American Aerospace Defense Command mission last September.
9/11 Panel Chronicles U.S. Failures (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
The 567-Page Story Of a Humbled America (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
'Operational Relationship' With Al Qaeda Discounted (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
New Details Revealed on 9/11 Plans (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
U.S. Warning Systems 'Were Not Really Tried' (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
For the Bush Camp, a Well-Cushioned Blow (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
CIA-Like Counterterror Center Urged (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
Overhaul of Congressional Panels Urged (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
Relatives Praise Commission and Push for Changes (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
Tracking 'Terrorist Travel' Is a Key Defense (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)
War on Terror Criticized for Lack of Focus (The Washington Post, Jul 23, 2004)