U.S. aviation and military officials were woefully unprepared for the brazen terrorist assault carried out on Sept. 11, 2001, and were so blinded and disorganized that jet fighters were sent to chase phantom aircraft while real airliners crashed undisturbed into their targets, according to a report issued yesterday.
In a detailed re-creation of U.S. air defense efforts that day, the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks found that the Federal Aviation Administration was so slow to notify military commanders about the hijackings that U.S. fighter jets had no chance to intercept any of the aircraft.
The military did not learn about United Airlines Flight 175 until the minute it hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. For 36 minutes, the FAA lost track altogether of American Airlines Flight 77, which was able to turn around and fly east toward the Pentagon, undetected by radar. And the military was not notified about United Flight 93 until after it crashed in Pennsylvania.
The head of the U.S. air defense system told the commission yesterday that if the FAA had notified military authorities immediately when the planes were hijacked, fighter jets could have reached all four jetliners in time. "If that is the case, yes, we could shoot down the airplanes," testified Air Force Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Yet the Sept. 11 commission's report, issued during the panel's final public hearing in Washington yesterday, cast serious doubt on Eberhart's claim, finding that even if the fighter pilots had had more time, an executive order by Vice President Cheney that gave the military permission to shoot down hostile aircraft that morning did not come until long after the last hijacked airliner had crashed. Furthermore, the panel found, the instruction was never passed on to fighter pilots scrambled from Virginia's Langley Air Force Base to Washington because of uncertainty about the order's ramifications.
"The details of what happened on the morning of September 11 are complex," the commission's investigators concluded. "But the details play out a simple theme. NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001. They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet."
The panel also concluded that jets probably would not have been able to stop the last airplane, United Flight 93, from barreling into the White House or the Capitol if it had not crashed in Pennsylvania.
"We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93," the report's authors wrote, referring to an apparent effort by passengers to foil 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 came 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 book-length final report by the end of next month.
Among the new information contained in the latest report is a detailed reconstruction of the reactions of President Bush, Cheney and other top government leaders on the morning of Sept. 11.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims, scattered throughout the sparsely attended final public hearing in L'Enfant Plaza yesterday, also listened through tears to recordings of two hijackers' voices, which were captured in radio transmissions picked up by air traffic controllers.
"We have some planes," an unidentified hijacker, who may be ringleader Mohamed Atta, said in heavily accented English from American 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, he says: "Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet." The plane was the first to crash, hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. The commission's report 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 one another and frequently seemed unsure of how to respond to the attacks.
Panel investigators also tersely concluded that authorities with NORAD repeatedly misinformed the commission in testimony last fall about its scrambling of fighters from Langley. NORAD officials indicated at the time that the jets were responding to either United Flight 93 or American Flight 77. In fact, the panel found, they were chasing "a phantom aircraft," American Flight 11, which had already struck the World Trade Center.
The commission found that officials were confronted with numerous false reports of hijacked aircraft that morning. "We fought many phantoms that day," testified Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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.