Friday, June 18, 2004

Chaos slowed response to 9-11

Panel's report details failures

Philip Shenon and Christopher Marquis

Offering an extraordinary window into the government's chaotic response on Sept. 11, 2001, the commission investigating the terrorist attacks detailed yesterday communications breakdowns at the White House and the Pentagon so severe that military commanders did not tell fighter pilots they had been given the authority by Vice President Dick Cheney to shoot down hijacked planes.

In its final public hearing after an 18-month investigation, the commission showed that White House communication systems were so close to collapse in the hours after the attack that President Bush, who was visiting a Florida elementary school that morning, could not obtain an open line to Cheney at the White House and had to resort to a cell phone to reach him.

Commission members said Bush had complained to them in his recent interview that the communications problems continued after he boarded Air Force One.

A staff report released at the hearing provided previously undisclosed details about the confusion that enveloped the White House, the Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration.

It found that Cheney did not issue a shoot-down order - on Bush's behalf - until after 10 a.m., more than an hour after Bush had been told by his chief of staff that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and that "America is under attack."

After the hearing, White House spokesmen rejected any suggestion that the response on Sept. 11 had been any more confused than would have been expected after a major terrorist attack. They continued to question the findings of a staff report issued Wednesday by the commission that said there was no credible evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

That finding contradicted statements made by Bush and Cheney about what they called long-standing ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, and it brought an aggressive public response yesterday from Bush and Cheney. The vice president said there was "clearly a relationship" between Saddam and the terror network.

In the final two days of public hearings before issuing a final report next month, the bipartisan 10-member commission has attempted to bring its investigation full circle by focusing this week on the details of the Sept. 11 plot, how it was conceived by Osama bin Laden and his terror network, and how the White House, the military and other government agencies responded to the attacks.

The interim staff report issued yesterday offered harsh criticism of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is responsible for defending the nation's airspace, and the FAA, which tracked the hijacked flights, and said they had been unable to share information quickly or coherently as the terrorist attack unfolded.

Gen. Ralph Eberhart, NORAD's commander, testified to the commission that if information about the hijackings had been passed along faster from the FAA - and had there been an immediate shoot-down order - fighter jets could have intercepted and shot down most or all of the hijacked planes.

The statement was received by commission members with skepticism.

"I'm assuming that they told us, FAA told us as soon as they knew," Gen. Eberhart said.

The staff report included an exhaustive, minute-by-minute re-creation of the morning of the attacks, showing that there had never been a hope of intercepting and shooting down the hijacked passenger planes before they hit their targets because of communication gaps between NORAD and the FAA that prevented fighter jets from being scrambled fast enough.

The report found, as the panel has indicated before, that a passenger uprising against the hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field in western Pennsylvania, was what had prevented the plane from reaching its intended target in Washington, believed to have been the Capitol or the White House.

"The nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93," the staff wrote. "Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction."

Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged in testimony to the commission yesterday that the Pentagon's planning had always focused on threats from abroad - not from a terrorist strike launched from within the nation's borders - and that "the lessons learned from 9-11 are many."

After the hearing, Thomas H. Kean, the panel's chairman and the former Republican governor of New Jersey, said there was "great chaos" within the government on the morning of Sept. 11. "This is a story of a lot of problems, and shame on us if we don't learn from them," he said.

Kean suggested that the military's faults went far beyond a failure of planning and strategy, and that the events of Sept. 11 posed a more fundamental question about the adequacy of the military's ability to follow a chain of command that begins with the president.

"That's very, very disturbing," said Kean, whose commission is expected to recommend a sweeping overhaul of the structure of the nation's intelligence community and of the government's emergency-response systems. "When the president of the United States gives a shoot-down order, and the pilots who are supposed to carry it out do not get that order, then that's about as serious as it gets as far as the defense of this country goes."

Photo below

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies yesterday about the 9-11 attacks. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)