Investigators from the September 11 commission are probing two incidents that suggest the communications failures that crippled the response of the nation’s air defenses to the multiple suicide hijackings that day persist.
“The [Federal Aviation Administration] was just as broken as the CIA or FBI,” said Republican commission member John Lehman in an interview.
“Things have improved, but as these incidents show, we are nowhere near where we need to be,” the Reagan-era Navy secretary said.
One incident, earlier this month, in which a plane with a malfunctioning transponder entered the restricted airspace over Washington, led to military aircraft being scrambled and the evacuation of the Capitol.
But the plane was an official jet of the Kentucky State Police, carrying Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher to the state funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, and the pilot had been in communication with air-traffic controllers, according to FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown.
“Controllers had manually entered the plane’s ID into the FAA system,” Miss Brown said. This meant that air-traffic controllers could identify the plane, even though its transponder — which transmits a unique radio signal to aid recognition — was broken.
But the radar being monitored by security and air-defense officials at the Department of Homeland Security’s regional center showed the plane as unidentified.
Moreover, when officials at the center queried FAA controllers — who could see the plane’s identification on their system — the controllers did not immediately realize which plane they were being asked about, Miss Brown said.
She said that what controllers should have done when the plane entered Washington airspace — and which they eventually did — was “to get on [the 24-hour open phone bridge known as] the domestic event net and let everyone know the plane’s transponder was not operating properly.”
By then, the decision had already been made to evacuate the Capitol.
The second incident occurred two or three weeks ago, FAA operations manager Benedict Sliney told the September 11 commission last week.
Mr. Sliney, who runs an air-traffic control center in New York, said an unidentified aircraft approaching New York aroused the suspicions of air-traffic control.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command was contacted, but Mr. Sliney and his counterpart there were unsure who had the power to order a military intervention.
It took Mr. Sliney more than five minutes to ascertain where the authority lay, by which time the plane had turned out to be harmless.
“I don’t believe the lines of communication are as clear as they should be devolving from the decision-making process down to the operational level,” he told the commission.
Committee Chairman Thomas Kean was more blunt. “It gave me the jitters,” he said after the hearing. “This was very, very disturbing.”
The really disturbing thing about it, said Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, was the shadow of doubt it cast over all the assurances the commission had received.
“We have repeatedly heard again and again and again that, ‘That problem has been fixed; We’ve got it worked out,’” he said. “You have to have some doubts about that, and you have to be skeptical.”