The chief of U.S. air defenses testified today that if his command had been notified immediately of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings and ordered to intervene, U.S. fighter jets would have been able to shoot down all four of the airliners that were seized by terrorists and that ultimately crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that had the Federal Aviation Administration conveyed word of the hijackings as soon it knew of them, "yes, we could shoot down the airplanes."
The chairman and vice chairman of the commission later expressed surprise about Eberhart's claim, and a report by the panel's staff said it was uncertain that any of the hijacked planes could have been shot down.
Eberhart, who has headed NORAD since February 2000, assured the commission that if the Sept. 11 plot were carried out today, the command's planes would be able to shoot down all four planes with time to spare, because of improvements implemented since the attacks. But he warned that NORAD should always be considered a "force of last resort."
According to the commission's new staff report, Vice President Cheney did not issue orders to shoot down hostile aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, until long after the last hijacked airliner had already crashed, and that the order was never passed along to military fighter pilots searching for errant aircraft that morning.
Thomas H. Kean, the commission's chairman, said in a news conference after today's hearing that he found it "very, very disturbing" that President Bush's order to shoot down the hijacked aircraft on Sept. 11 never reached the fighter pilots who scrambled their planes that day.
"When the president of the United States gives a shootdown order, and the pilots who are supposed to carry it out do not get that order, that's about as serious as it gets as far as the defense of this country goes," Kean said.
A painstaking recreation of the faltering and confused response by military and aviation officials on Sept. 11 also shows that the fighter jets that were scrambled that day never had a chance to intercept any of the doomed airliners, in part because they had been sent to intercept a plane, American Airlines 11, that had already crashed into the World Trade Center.
The jets also would probably not have been able to stop the last airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, from barreling into the White House or U.S. Capitol if it had not crashed in Pennsylvania, according to the report.
"We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93," the report's authors wrote, referring to an apparent insurrection that foiled the hijackers' plans. "Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction."
The stark conclusions come as part of the last interim report to be issued by the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is racing to complete a final book-length report by the end of next month. The 10-member bipartisan panel will hear its last public testimony from military and aviation officials today.
Among the new information contained in the latest report is a detailed reconstruction of the reactions of Bush, Cheney and other top government leaders that morning, including a recitation of a call between the two at 9:45 a.m. after the Pentagon had been hit.
"Sounds like we have a minor war going on here," Bush tells Cheney, according to notes of the call. "I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war. . . . Somebody's going to pay."
During the presentation of the report this morning, commission staffers played recordings of hijackers' voices in radio transmissions that were picked up by air traffic controllers.
"We have some planes," an unidentified hijacker said in accented English from American Airlines Flight 11 at 8:24 a.m. "Just stay quiet, and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport."
A few seconds later, the hijacker was heard saying, "Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet." At 8:34 a.m., he said again, "We're going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves."
Twelve minutes later, the plane struck the World Trade Center's North Tower.
The commission staff concluded that NORAD had received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before Flight 11 hit the North Tower.
"The nine minutes notice was the most the military would receive that morning of any of the four hijackings," the report says.
The report also documents a succession of mistakes, wrong assumptions and puzzling errors made on the morning of Sept. 11 by air defense and aviation employees, who often did not communicate with each other when they should have and frequently seemed unsure of how to respond to the unprecedented assault by the al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
Panel investigators also tersely conclude that authorities with NORAD repeatedly misinformed the commission in testimony last fall about its scrambling of fighters from Langley Air Force Base just north of Hampton, Va. NORAD officials indicated at the time that the jets were responding to either United 93 or American Airlines 77, which struck the Pentagon.
In fact, they were chasing "a phantom aircraft," American 11, which had already struck the World Trade Center, the panel found.
Air defense agencies "were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001," the report concludes. "They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet."
Among the breakdowns cited in the report was that American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked after taking off from Dulles International Airport, flew undetected by anyone for 36 minutes as it turned and headed back east toward the Pentagon.
The FAA never asked for any military assistance or notified the military about either Flight 77 or United Airlines Flight 93 before they crashed, the panel's staff found.
Nor did the FAA's command center issue an order to implement cockpit security measures in other planes that were in flight or on the ground after the hijackings became known, the investigators reported.
The new account essentially shifts the terms of the debate about air-defense response that day, because it indicates that none of the jetliners likely could have been intercepted given the time available. But the report also suggests that time to respond might have been lengthened if the status of the flights had been communicated more quickly to and among military and Federal Aviation Administration officials.
Commission investigators, based on private interviews with both Bush and Cheney and other witnesses, reported that a telephone conversation occurred between the two leaders shortly before 10:10 a.m. or 10:15 a.m. in which Bush authorized Cheney to order jet pilots to shoot down hostile aircraft.
Within a few minutes, Cheney issued the first shoot-down order, based on reports from the Secret Service of an aircraft -- United 93 -- headed toward Washington. But the reports were based on trajectory estimates; Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. The vice president issued a similar order at around 10:30 a.m. in response to another report of a hijacked plane.
"Eventually," the report notes, "the shelter received word that the alleged hijacker five miles away had been a Medevac helicopter."
Cheney's general shoot-down orders were issued to NORAD at 10:31 a.m., but clear instructions were never passed along to pilots in the air.
"In short," the report says, "while leaders in Washington believed the fighters circling above them had been instructed to 'take out' hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the Langley pilots were to 'ID type and tail.' "
The Langley pilots were also never told why they were scrambled or that hijacked commercial airliners were a threat, the commission's staff found.
At one point, Cheney mistakenly informed Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld that U.S. fighters had shot down a couple of hijacked aircraft on his orders.
Bush, who was visiting an elementary school in Florida at the time of the hijackings, was first informed that something was amiss when senior adviser Karl Rove told him that a small, twin-engine plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, the report says.
"The president's reaction was that the incident must have been caused by pilot error," the report says.
Shortly afterward, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was at the White House, informed Bush that the plane was a commercial flight.
While Bush was seated in a classroom of second-graders, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. whispered to him, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack," the report says.
"The president told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis," the 29-page document continues. Bush saw the phones and pagers of reporters starting to ring as they stood behind the children in the classroom and "felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening," the report says.
It was after he had left the school that Bush told Cheney, "We're at war."
Faced with advice from Cheney and the Secret Service that he not return to Washington immediately, Bush reluctantly agreed to board Air Force One and fly to a destination that had not yet been determined.
"All witnesses agreed that the president strongly wanted to return to Washington and only grudgingly agreed to go elsewhere," the report says.
Interviewed on CNN before today's hearing began, commission member John F. Lehman, a Republican former secretary of the Navy, said that "there was considerable breakdown in command and control" on Sept. 11 in the air defense effort.
"It's a picture of lack of preparation between the FAA and the Air Force," he said. But he said the question of whether better coordination would have saved lives is still an open one.
"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.
Commission chairman Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, 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.