'United 93': The Real Picture

By John Farmer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

How accurate is "United 93," Universal Pictures' new movie depicting the drama and heroism aboard the fourth plane hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001? The answer tells us a lot about Hollywood and government in the age of terrorism: The film is closer to the truth than every account the government put out before the 9/11 commission's investigation. Its release marks our passage through the post-9/11 looking glass, with our wildest fairy tales now spun not in Hollywood, but in Washington.

The facts of 9/11 are as simple as they are grim. The military officers in charge of the air defense mission did not receive notice of any of the four hijackings in time to respond before the planes crashed. The passengers and crew aboard United Airlines Flight 93 really were alone. They were all that stood between the hijackers and the Capitol (or possibly the White House). That is the core reality of that morning, and "United 93" gets it right.

The movie does make some concessions to drama. As one of the commission staffers whom the filmmakers consulted (on an unpaid basis) about what happened on 9/11, I believe, for instance, that the movie's climax shows the passengers penetrating farther into the cockpit than the evidence supports.

But compare the harsh truth that the movie accurately portrays with this account from a documentary special that aired on ABC on Sept. 11, 2002:

Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield: "The decision was made to try to go intercept Flight 93."

Vice President Cheney: "The significance of saying to a pilot that you are authorized to shoot down that plane full of Americans, is, a, you know, it's an order that had never been given before."

. . . Montague: "The vice president briefed into the conference that the president had given us permission to shoot down innocent civilian aircraft that threatened Washington, D.C. Again, in the National Military Command Center, everything stopped for a short second as the impact of those words [sank] in."

. . . Charles Gibson, ABC News: "Colonel Bob Marr is in command at the Northeast Air Defense Sector base in Rome, New York."

Marr: "I got the call and I, the words that I remember as clear as day [were], 'We will take lives in the air to preserve lives on the ground.' "

Gibson: "Marr orders his controllers, 'T ell the pilots to intercept Flight 93.' "

. . . Marr: "And we of course passed that on to the pilots. United Airlines Flight 93 will not be allowed to reach Washington, D.C."

Like the other government versions of 9/11, this account has all the pulse-pounding suspense of a classic movie thriller. It is also, as we discovered at the commission and as "United 93" makes clear, almost completely untrue.

The Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) was not following United 93 on radar; it wasn't even informed that the plane had been hijacked until four minutes after the crash. The authorization to shoot down commercial aircraft was not received until about 30 minutes after the plane went down, and 15 minutes after the military air defenders learned of the crash. The authorization was not passed on to the pilots. Once again, the film depicts the controlling reality more accurately: People were making judgments based on faulty information amid complete chaos.

The question we at the commission asked repeatedly was how the official accounts could have been so wrong. The answer came back: It was the fog of war. The day was too confusing, and government officials hadn't had time to reconstruct events.

But the fog wasn't that thick. The critical times and notifications were recorded in contemporaneous logs virtually all along the chain of command. In testimony before Congress and the commission, officials attributed the pivotal event of the morning -- the scramble of fighters from Langley Air Force Base -- to reports that American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, and United 93 had been hijacked. But the government's own records revealed that the Langley fighters were scrambled in response to a mistaken report, received at 9:21 a.m., that American Flight 11 -- the first plane hijacked -- was still airborne and heading toward Washington.

That truth, the final commission report notes, emerges "not just from taped conversations at NEADS but also from taped conversations at FAA centers; contemporaneous logs compiled at NEADS, Continental Region headquarters, and NORAD; and other records." In short, anyone who looked would have seen right through the fog.

And it's clear that officials were looking. There was a White House briefing on the facts of 9/11 within a week of the attacks. There were countless interviews, television specials and even an official Air Force history of the day, "Air War Over America."

But the story that officials told made the government's response appear quicker and more coordinated than it really was. By telling the public that the Langley fighters were scrambled in response to reports that American 77 and United 93 had been hijacked, officials were able to avoid admitting that they had scrambled fighters in the wrong direction -- heading east, not west toward Pennsylvania -- against a plane that didn't exist. They were also able to say that they had been following United 93 for about 47 minutes before it crashed and were thus well positioned to shoot down the plane if the passengers and crew hadn't acted.

That, of course, was impossible. At the time when North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) officials told the commission they began tracking United 93 -- 9:16 a.m. -- the plane hadn't been hijacked yet. That didn't occur until 9:28.

Finally, many of the Federal Aviation Administration and Defense Department records that establish the truth of that day were withheld from the commission until they were subpoenaed. In one of its final acts, the commission asked the inspectors general of the Transportation and Defense departments to investigate who was responsible for the mistaken accounts of the morning's events.

That was more than 18 months ago. The inspectors general have now had longer than the life of the 9/11 commission itself to investigate. While we await their results, we can watch the movie and wonder at a government so lost in spin that it took Hollywood to set the record straight.


John Farmer, a former attorney general of New Jersey, was a senior counsel to the 9/11 commission.

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