- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

The United States was so unprepared for the September 11 terrorist attacks that warplanes dispatched to intercept a highjacked airliner thought to be headed for the White House were unarmed, the panel investigating the attacks was told yesterday.

The two F-16s, part of the 113th Air National Guard based at Andrews Air Force Base, were visible in the sky above the Pentagon as it was evacuated after being struck by American Airlines Flight 77, Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley, commander of the 1st Air Force, told the panel.

Gen. McKinley is also in charge of the division of the Northern Air Defense Command (NORAD) responsible for protecting the continental United States. He was one of a number of federal officials who gave evidence on the second day of public hearings held by the commission to find out what wrong and why on September 11.

The picture that emerged was one of military and federal agencies scrambling desperately to respond to an attack for which they were completely unprepared, but officials said much had been done to improve the nation’s readiness since that time.

The F-16s — which were not assigned to NORAD — had been launched at the request of the Secret Service after the first two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, Gen. McKinley explained. But they had just returned from a training exercise and were not equipped with any weaponry to shoot down either Flight 77 or the remaining hijacked airliner, Flight 93, which was thought headed for the White House.

The two pilots showed “incredible bravery,” said Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.

NORAD also scrambled F-16s from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, he said. They were in the air within six minutes, which he said was “exceedingly quick.” But they were still 12 minutes away from Washington when Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

Moreover, the man who had Gen. McKinley’s job on September 11, retired Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, told the panel that he could not have ordered the hijacked airliners shot down even if either set of F-16s had been able to make it to the capital in time.

“To my knowledge, I did not have the authority to shoot it down at that time,” he said. Of Flight 77, he said, “Even if we were there, I don’t think we would have shot it down.”

He said that he only learned President Bush had made the decision to give him that authority five minutes after the last plane, Flight 93, crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, after passengers had learned the fate of the other airliners and apparently had stormed the cockpit.

Gen. McKinley admitted that NORAD was utterly unprepared for the attack.

“Our mission was at that time … to look outward, as a Cold War vestige … to protect against Soviet long-range bomber penetration of our intercept zone,” he said.

“Would you agree,” asked Mr. Ben-Veniste, that on the basis of the information available there could have been better preparedness by NORAD?”

“In retrospect, sir,” the general replied, “I think I would agree with your comment.”

Gen. Arnold explained that NORAD commanders had no radar cover in the United States — relying instead on civilian air-traffic-control radar data relayed to them over the phone — and could not even talk directly to their pilots while they were in the air.

Gen. McKinley explained that many changes had been made since September 11.

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