(WASHINGTON, D.C., June 17th, 2004, 8:20 a.m.) -- Plagued by miscommunication and confusion, the Pentagon's air-defense command missed an opportunity to possibly intercept at least one of the hijacked planes on Sept. 11, the federal panel reviewing the attacks said Thursday.
A report released by the commission at its final public hearing offered a chilling account of the day America suffered its worst terrorist attack. It details a series of missteps by aviation and military officials that squandered precious moments between the time air traffic controllers became aware of the first hijacking and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field more than an hour later.
A particularly haunting section of the report includes transcripts of three brief transmissions from the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11, which took off from Boston and was the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 19 hijackers, who piloted the plane, is
heard instructing passengers to "just stay quiet. We are returning to the airport."
Later, Atta tells the passengers, "If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane."
The report recounted confusion at the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) that led to delays in scrambling fighter jets to intercept the planes.
Vice President Dick Cheney eventually issued an order to shoot down hijacked planes, but military pilots did not receive it until the last of the four planes -- United Airlines Flight 93 -- crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against the hijackers. Cheney said he received the authorization in an earlier phone call with President Bush.
The report largely blamed inadequate emergency procedures that contemplated more time to react to a traditional emergency rather than a suicide hijacking.
"NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001," the report said. "They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet."
In many cases, the panel praised the actions of government personnel forced to make split-second decisions. In the hours just after the attacks occurred, nearly 4,500 planes in the air had to be landed as quickly as possible. To do that, air traffic controllers first had to reroute about a quarter of them -- juggling
50 times the usual number of planes rerouted each hour.
"We do not believe that an accurate understanding of the events of that morning reflects discredit on the operational personnel," the report said.
The commission is winding down its 1 1/2-year investigation after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses, including Bush, and reviewing more than 2 million documents. It will issue a final report by July 26 that will include recommendations on how the government can improve its homeland defense.
Scheduled to testify Thursday were Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as officials from NORAD and the FAA.
"The real issue is first establishing the facts minute-by-minute," said Republican commissioner John Lehman, a former Navy secretary. "Who knew what when? What orders were given? From there we can learn the lessons of what went right."
The report issued said air traffic controllers realized at 8:24 a.m. on Sept. 11 that Flight 11 was being hijacked, but lost several minutes notifying layers of command -- according to protocol -- before contacting NORAD. The plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.
Controllers, meanwhile, didn't realize American Airlines Flight 77 -- which took off from Dulles Airport outside Washington -- might be hijacked when it mysteriously started veering off course at 8:54 a.m. The plane then traveled undetected for 36 minutes toward Washington, due in part to a radar glitch.
The confusion meant only an unarmed military cargo plane could be diverted to track the plane. The plane located Flight 77 but could do nothing as the commercial jetliner crashed into the Pentagon.
Other findings by the commission:
- When Bush was told of the multiple hijackings, according to notes of the call, he told Cheney: "Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war. ... Somebody's going to pay."
- Although NORAD officials disagree, fighter jets might not have been able to intercept United Flight 93, believed to be headed for the Capitol or the White House. It crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers stormed the cockpit. "Their actions saved the lives of countless others," the panel said.
On Wednesday, the commission reported al-Qaida originally envisioned a much larger attack and is working hard to strike again, most likely in the form of a chemical, radiological or biological attack.
The commission staff said Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed initially outlined an attack involving 10 aircraft targeting both U.S. coasts. Mohammed proposed that he pilot one of the planes, kill all the male passengers, land the plane at a U.S. airport and make a "speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all the women and children," the report said.
Bin Laden rejected that plan as too complex, deciding instead on four aircraft piloted by hand-picked suicide operatives.
The commission also said there was no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.