America's defence forces were flat-footed in the minutes and hours after terrorists hi-jacked four commercial airliners on the morning of September 11, 2001. The ensuing chaos and serial miscommunications caused crucial delays in relaying orders for the aircraft to be intercepted and shot down.
Stinging criticism of the country's inadequate readiness for such an attack from within its own borders was contained in a report issued yesterday by the independent commission investigating the attacks. It detailed multiple lapses involving everyone from air-traffic controllers up to the President.
One aircraft entered airspace not covered by domestic radar. Long minutes were wasted before the military learned of the hijacks and was able to scramble jets. Moreover, much of the information provided to the military by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) was either wrong or too late. At one point, a single air-traffic controller was alone tracking two of the four hijacked planes.
The new revelations provided further embarrassment for the Bush administration, one day after the bi-partisan panel insisted there was no link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida.
"On the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen," the report asserted. "What ensued was a hurried attempt to create an improvised defence by officials who had never encountered or trained against the situation they faced."
Things might have turned out differently if the authorities had been better co-ordinated. A commander for Norad, (North American Defence Command) General Ralph Eberhardt, told the Commission that if the FAA had acted more quickly to inform the military of the situation, they could have shot down the airliners. "Yes, we could shoot down those planes," he said.
Such was the lack of co-ordination between air traffic controllers, military officials and senior members of the government on that morning, that when Dick Cheney, the Vice- President, finally authorised fighter planes to shoot down the hijacked planes, they had already crashed. Yet, the report reveals for the first time, Mr Cheney briefly believed that two of the planes had in fact been shot down.
"It's my understanding that they've already taken a couple of aircraft out," Mr Cheney told the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in a telephone conversation, the transcript of which was among materials released last night.
The panel also played segments of tapes carrying portions of other conversations from that day. One apparently carried words spoken by Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, while he was at the controls of American Airliners Flight 11, which took off from Boston and was the first plane to strike the Twin Towers.
"We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport," Atta tells the passengers. Later, he warns: "If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane."
There were also chilling words from President George Bush, who was speaking to a class of schoolchildren when the crisis began to unfold. In a later phone communication with the Vice-President, who was left in command in Washington, Mr Bush remarked: "Sounds like we have a minor war going on here. I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war ... Somebody's going to pay."
Facing members of the Commission, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs said that adding to the confusion were numerous false reports of other attacks around the nation that never actually happened, including one of a car bomb outside the State Department. "We were fighting many phantoms that day," he said.
Yesterday's was the last in a series of numerous public hearings held by the 9/11 Commission as it tries to establish what went wrong with America's preparedness that allowed the terrorists to launch strikes that demolished the Twin Towers in New York, killing almost 3,000 people, and gouging a hole in the side of the Pentagon. A fourth plane crash-landed in a field in Pennsylvania. The panel is scheduled to release a comprehensive report next month.
Even the presence of the President in Florida instead of Washington DC presented numerous problems. He has been criticised for staying with the schoolchildren for several minutes, even after he learned of the attacks. Thereafter he was rushed to Air Force One. The plane took off without anyone knowing in which direction it should fly. The plane then hopped between military bases. Meanwhile, the President sometimes found he was unable to communicate with other members of the government.
"The President himself said in our interview with him how frustrated he was,"said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the panel.
The panel voiced scepticism over Norad's claim that with a better flow of information the planes could have been intercepted. "Norad officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure," the report said. That was the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside.
In one example of the mistakes made by the FAA, it told other government agencies that the first plane to hit the World Trade Centre was still in the air when, in fact, it had already made impact, setting in train the day of devastation.Reuse content