- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

The September 11 hijacking of four commercial jetliners by al Qaeda terrorists overwhelmed both civilian and military officials, who struggled to respond to an airborne “challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet,” a federal commission said yesterday.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), along with the White House, lacked any specific or timely information on the terrorist hijackings, creating a confused response by those U.S. authorities seeking to defend America, according to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

“We fought many phantoms that day,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the 10-member commission, which noted in a statement that the chaotic nature of the U.S. response resulted in numerous bogus reports of hijackings, car bombings and other terrorist acts.

The statement, issued during the commission’s final meeting yesterday in the nation’s capital, said Vice President Dick Cheney — who had been hustled to a secure underground location at the White House — even mistakenly reported that U.S. warplanes had shot down two of the hijacked jetliners.

It also said Mr. Cheney issued orders to the military to “take out” the hijacked aircraft, but the order was never relayed to the pilots who had scrambled to confront the threat.

The commission is investigating the government’s response to the September 11 attacks by 19 al Qaeda terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people. A final report on its 18-month, $15 million investigation is expected to be issued next month.

Yesterday’s hearing was highlighted by the playing of cockpit transmissions of American Airlines Flight 11, the first airplane to hit its target, which crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

A hijacker, believed to be Mohammed Atta, the pilot and suspected al Qaeda ringleader, can be heard telling the passengers: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you’ll be OK. We are returning to the airport … If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane.”

The commission also showed visual re-creations of the routes of each of the aircraft, including the moment of impact.

In its statement, the commission concluded that NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks conducted against the United States on September 11, despite 2001 intelligence warnings that the al Qaeda network intended to strike against U.S. targets.

The commission blamed emergency procedures that had been designed and put into place to respond to traditional hijackings, rather than the use of aircraft as fuel-laden missiles. But it also praised the efforts of government officials who improvised new scenarios on the spot to confront the unfolding challenge.

“We do not believe that an accurate understanding of the events of that morning reflects discredit on the operational personnel,” the commission said.

The commission also noted that the nation owed “a debt to the passengers of United 93,” who are believed to have thwarted an al Qaeda effort to crash that aircraft into a target in the District. The plane was headed to the nation’s capital when it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

“Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction,” the commission said.

Gen. Myers told the commission that the military posture on September 11 “by law, by policy and in practice” was focused on responding to “external threats, threats originating outside of our borders.” He said intelligence data had been forwarded to the military beginning in May 2001 on the potential al Qaeda threat, but it focused primarily overseas, on the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

He added, however, that the military’s effort to respond to September 11, to reorganize and redefine, to effectively resource evolving tasks and missions, and to revise processes “have been colossal and are still ongoing.”

Commission investigator Philip Zelikow said that on Sept. 11, 2001, the defense of U.S. air space depended on close interaction between the FAA and NORAD.

Mr. Zelikow said that on that date, the FAA was mandated by law to regulate the safety and security of civil aviation, through its air traffic controllers, and that the hijacked aircraft were monitored mainly by four FAA air route traffic control centers in Boston, New York, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

He said the hijacked aircraft were required to emit a unique transponder signal while in flight, but that the terrorists on three of the planes turned off the transponders — making it difficult for the planes to be tracked.

Mr. Zelikow said NORAD was — and is — responsible for the air defense of the continental United States, and that the diminished threat of Soviet bombers attacking the United States had resulted in a reduction to seven in the number of NORAD alert sites, each with two fighter aircraft ready to scramble.

He said all of the hijacked aircraft were in one of NORAD’s continental U.S. sectors, the Northeast Air Defense Sector, also known as NEADS, based in Rome, N.Y., and that on September 11, NORAD could call on two alert sites, each with a pair of jet fighters — one at Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Mass., and the other at Langley Air Force Base in Langley, Va.

On September 11, he said, the protocols for the FAA to obtain military assistance from NORAD required multiple levels of notification and approval at the highest levels of government.

“On the morning of September 11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen. What ensued was the hurried attempt to create an improvised defense by officials who had never encountered or trained against the situation they face,” Mr. Zelikow said.

He and other commission investigators described a series of chaotic responses to radio transmissions confirming that the jets had been hijacked:

• “We have a problem here,” said an air traffic controller in Boston. “We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to — we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, to help us out.”

• “Is this real-world or exercise?” asked a NORAD official at the NEADS center in New York.

• “No, this is not an exercise, not a test,” responded the air traffic controller.

The air defense of America began with this call, and two F-15 alert aircraft were scrambled out of Otis Air Force Base some 150 miles away.

The commission investigation showed that the hijackings were relayed immediately to Battle Commander Col. Robert Marr, who telephoned Major Gen. Larry Arnold, commanding general of the First Air Force. Col. Marr sought authorization to scramble the Otis fighters.

The investigation said Gen. Arnold then called NORAD headquarters to report F-15 fighters were ordered scrambled from Otis Air Force Base, but that officials at the NEADS center did not know where to send the fighters.

“I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination,” Col. Marr is quoted as saying.

Because the hijackers had turned off the planes’ transponders, the commission said NEADS personnel spent the next minutes searching their radar scopes for the hijacked planes.

The commission said NEADS received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. It said that nine-minute notice “was the most the military would receive that morning of any of the four hijackings.”

According to commission investigators, the first indication that NORAD air defenders had of the second hijacked aircraft, United 175, came in a phone call from New York Center to NEADS at about the time the plane was hitting the south tower.

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