Our Porous Air Defenses on 9/11
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Published: August 13, 2006
No topic investigated by the 9/11 commission hatched more conspiracy theories than the failure of American air defense systems to intercept any of the four planes that had been hijacked by terrorists. That makes three new reports particularly welcome. Together, they shed some light on why civil aviation authorities, the military and the highest officials of the Bush administration failed to respond quickly enough to avert catastrophe.
The reports include a new book written by the co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission, a Vanity Fair article based on tapes released by the military, and a 2005 report from the inspector general of the Defense Department that was finally released last week. They paint a picture of confusion as civilian and military authorities struggled to grasp and respond to what was happening. There was absolutely no evidence that any air defenders deliberately stood aside to let the terrorists have their way or that the military itself fired a cruise missile into the Pentagon, as conspiracy theories have suggested.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which was monitoring civilian air traffic, dropped the ball repeatedly. Its critical mistake was assuming that the transponders on hijacked planes would stay on, displaying each plane’s identity and altitude. The agency also failed miserably in its duty to alert the military. It provided nine minutes’ warning before the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, two minutes’ warning that an unidentified aircraft was heading toward Washington and no advance notice of the other two hijacked flights. However, the F.A.A. did tell the military, erroneously, that a plane that had already hit the World Trade Center was still headed south toward Washington. As a result, the military scrambled two planes to chase a ghost that no longer existed.
The military had its own problems. The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, had its radars pointing outward to detect external threats. Only four planes were armed and ready to intercept terrorists in the eastern region of the country. And when the military dispatched two of those fighters to protect Washington, they raced out to sea instead of taking a position to defend the city.
The highest civilian officials also floundered. President Bush on Air Force One complained that his communications links were poor. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was largely out of the loop as he supervised rescue operations in the Pentagon parking lot. And for all the bravado surrounding the “shoot down” order issued by Vice President Dick Cheney during the crisis, the order reached Norad too late to be of any use and was not even passed on to the key fighter pilots.
The commission was unable to document that Mr. Cheney had talked to the president before issuing the order, as he and Mr. Bush both testified. No one near him mentioned such a call in their contemporaneous notes and it was not logged in. But the issue is, for the most part, important only to Mr. Bush’s image as commander in chief.
After the fact, military officials gave false testimony that exaggerated their readiness to protect the nation’s capital. They indicated that the F.A.A. had alerted the military more promptly than it actually had, that fighter jets were scrambled to protect Washington from real planes rather than to chase the ghost flight, and that the military was tracking — and ready to shoot down — a plane that it did not even know had been hijacked and that had already crashed in Pennsylvania.
The commission asked the inspectors general for the Defense and Transportation Departments to investigate whether these false statements were made deliberately. An initial report by the Pentagon’s inspector general attributed much of the problem to poor record keeping and insufficient emphasis on reconstructing events before testifying. A military spokesman suggested that the final verdict, in a report still to come, would find no evidence of knowing falsification. If so, someone will still have to explain why the military, with far greater resources and more time for investigation, could not come up with the real story until the 9/11 commission forced it to admit the truth.