No Intent to Mislead Panel Found In Aviation Officials' 9/11 Errors

The Sept. 11 commission's Thomas H. Kean, left, and Lee H. Hamilton said the panel was
The Sept. 11 commission's Thomas H. Kean, left, and Lee H. Hamilton said the panel was "exceedingly frustrated" by the FAA and NORAD. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006

Investigators found no evidence that aviation officials intentionally misled the Sept. 11 commission when they made inaccurate statements about their response to the 2001 terrorist attacks but recommended that two officials face "appropriate administrative action" for failing to correct the record, according to a report released yesterday.

The findings by the Transportation Department's acting inspector general, Todd J. Zinser, address a lingering question about the response on Sept. 11 by military and civilian aviation officials, who initially portrayed the reaction as swift and efficient. It was later shown to be neither.

The conclusions echo the findings of a separate inquiry at the Defense Department, which found no evidence that authorities at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) intended to mislead the Sept. 11 panel.

For more than two years after the attacks, officials at NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration suggested in public statements and testimony that air defenses and aviation officials had reacted quickly to the hijackings and were prepared to shoot down United Airlines Flight 93 if it threatened Washington. That aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake control from the hijackers.

In fact, the Sept. 11 commission found, audiotapes and other evidence showed clearly that the military never had any of the hijacked airliners in its sights and chased a phantom aircraft -- American Airlines Flight 11 -- long after it had crashed into the World Trade Center.

The FAA had said on its Web site and in statements to the commission that it informed the Pentagon at 9:24 a.m. that American Airlines Flight 77 had been hijacked. The commission found that the FAA never notified defense officials of the hijackings but did label the plane missing after it had crashed into the Pentagon.

The FAA also omitted from official timelines the fact that it notified NORAD about the hijacking of Flight 93 at 10:07 a.m., after the airliner had crashed in Pennsylvania. It gave an earlier than actual time for the moment when an Air Force official joined an FAA "phone-bridge" focused on the hijackings.

Zinser's report blames the erroneous statements on a series of innocent mistakes, including an erroneous entry in an early FAA timeline and an assumption by some officials that others would correct the record once the errors became clear.

"We did not find evidence to conclude that FAA officials knowingly made false statements," the report said.

At the same time, it said, two unidentified FAA officials should have notified the commission when it became clear that the information was wrong. The report recommended that the FAA consider unspecified administrative action against them.

Although the inaccurate statements have been publicly known for several years, it has only become clear more recently how much the issue had strained relations between the Sept. 11 panel and the FAA and NORAD. They were the only two agencies to receive subpoenas from the commission.

Some commission members and staffers were so angered by the inaccuracies that they advocated referring the matter to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. The panel settled on a compromise, referring the complaints to the two inspectors general.

In their new book, "Without Precedent," the commission's chairman and vice chairman, Thomas H. Kean (R) and Lee H. Hamilton (D), said the panel was "exceedingly frustrated" by the FAA and NORAD.

"Fog of war could explain why some people were confused on the day of 9/11, but it could not explain why all the after-action reports, accident investigation, and public testimony by FAA and NORAD officials advanced an account of 9/11 that was untrue," they wrote.

The FAA said in a statement that Zinser's report "clarified the record and found no evidence that FAA officials knowingly made false statements or intentionally failed to correct any inaccurate statements while providing more than 6,000 documents and materials to the commission." The FAA also has "made major improvements to its communications capabilities" since the Sept. 11 attacks, the statement said.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

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