Evan Vucci  /  AP
Family members of Sept. 11 attack victims listen to testimony during the last public hearing of the Sept. 11 Commission on Thursday in Washington.
updated 6/17/2004 3:47:30 PM ET 2004-06-17T19:47:30

The terror strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, overwhelmed all immediate efforts at response or even full comprehension, a bipartisan commission reported Thursday, and spread confusion to the point that Vice President Dick Cheney mistakenly thought U.S. warplanes shot down two aircraft.

The front line civilian and military agencies struggled to “improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet,” the panel said.

“We fought many phantoms that day,” Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. He noted that reports of car bombings and other terrorist acts spread quickly — and falsely — in the nerves-on-edge hours after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck by planes hijacked by terrorists.

The bipartisan commission issued its latest findings as it held the final public session of a momentous review of the worst terror strikes in the nation’s history. The panel is expected to make a final report next month into the events that killed nearly 3,000.

Problems on multiple fronts
In a staff report released Thursday, the commission said efforts to respond to the four hijackings that day were plagued on multiple fronts. The examples cited included these:

  • The military never received more than nine minutes' notice from the Federal Aviation Administration on any of the four hijackings.
  • There was a delay in passing along an order for pilots to shoot down any hostile aircraft.
  • The first call from the FAA to the military for help prompted a question: “Is this real-world or exercise?"
  • One plane moved into a gap in Federal Aviation Administration radar coverage.
  • A single air traffic controller wound up with responsibility for two hijacked planes simultaneously.
  • The FAA failed to notify the military that one of the four planes had been hijacked.
  • The FAA incorrectly told the military that the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center was still in the air after impact.

The commission’s report steered clear, however, of any claims that the planes could have been intercepted.

“NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure,” the report said. That was a reference to the plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers struggled with the terrorists aboard.

“Their actions saved the lives of countless others,” the panel said.

In testimony before the panel, Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the NORAD commander, said that if the FAA had informed the military of the hijackings as soon as it learned of them, “yes, we could shoot down the airplanes.”

It was a claim the commission did not second in its report.

If FAA and NORAD officials were scrambling to deal with the strikes, so, too, were top officials of the government.

Cheney, in a secure, below-ground White House facility, received Bush’s approval for pilots to shoot down aircraft deemed hostile. The vice president conveyed the order.

At mid-morning, more than a half-hour after the order had been given, Cheney told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld he thought it had been carried out.

“It’s my understanding that they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out,” Cheney said, according to the partial transcript of a conference call that the commission released.

Tapes of hijackers played
The reading of the report was interspersed with tape recordings from the planes and control towers that had not been heard in public before. Accompanying graphics traced the flight paths of the four planes.

A particularly haunting transmission came from the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11, which took off from Boston and was the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.

A person believed to be Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 19 hijackers, who piloted the plane, is heard saying to passengers: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you’ll be OK. We are returning to the airport.”

The Darkest DayLater, Atta tells the passengers, “If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane.”

Another tape was played of a transmission from United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers fought back against the hijackers. On the transmission, a hijacker is heard telling passengers “there is a bomb on board.”

Minutes detailed
The report recounted confusion at the FAA and NORAD that led to delays in scrambling fighter jets to intercept the planes.

The report said air traffic controllers realized at 8:24 a.m. on Sept. 11 that American Airlines Flight 11 was being hijacked, but lost several minutes notifying layers of command — according to protocol — before contacting NORAD. The plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.

Moment by momentNORAD didn't immediately know that, and scrambled jet fighters to look for Flight 11. In fact, they were chasing "a phantom aircraft," the panel found.

Controllers, meanwhile, didn’t realize American Airlines Flight 77 — which took off from Dulles Airport outside Washington — might be hijacked when it mysteriously started veering off course at 8:54 a.m. The plane then traveled undetected for 36 minutes toward Washington, due in part to a radar glitch.

The confusion meant only an unarmed military cargo plane could be diverted to track the plane. The plane located Flight 77 but could do nothing as the commercial jetliner crashed into the Pentagon.

Military pilots did not receive Cheney's shoot-down order until the last of the four planes — United Airlines Flight 93 — crashed when passengers fought back against the hijackers.

'Unprepared' for attack
The report largely blamed inadequate emergency procedures that contemplated more time to react to a traditional hijacking rather than a suicide hijacking.

“NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001,” the report said.

In many cases, the panel praised the actions of government personnel forced to make split-second decisions. In the hours just after the attacks occurred, nearly 4,500 planes in the air had to be landed as quickly as possible. To do that, air traffic controllers first had to reroute about a quarter of them — juggling 50 times the usual number of planes rerouted each hour.

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

The commission is winding down its 1 1/2-year investigation after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses, including Bush, and reviewing more than 2 million documents. It will issue a final report by July 26 that will include recommendations on how the government can improve its homeland defense.

9/11 plot was Wednesday's focus
On Wednesday, the commission opened the hearing by focusing on the Sept. 11 plot. It found the terror network had originally envisioned a much larger attack and was working hard to strike again, most likely in the form of a chemical, radiological or biological attack.

The commission staff said Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed initially outlined an attack involving 10 aircraft targeting both U.S. coasts. Mohammed proposed that he pilot one of the planes, kill all the male passengers, land the plane at a U.S. airport and make a “speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all the women and children,” commission staff said in a new report.

Bin Laden rejected that plan as too complex, deciding instead on aircraft piloted by hand-picked suicide operatives. The report said the targets were chosen based on symbolism: the Pentagon, which represented the U.S. military; the World Trade Center, a symbol of American economic strength; the Capitol, the perceived source of U.S. support for Israel; and the White House. Training for the attacks began in 1999.

The attacks were planned for as early as May 2001, but they were pushed back to September, partly because al-Qaida sought to strike when Congress would be at the Capitol. A second wave of hijackings never materialized because Mohammed was too busy planning the Sept. 11 attacks, the report said.

Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said, “I believe that we missed a tremendous opportunity very early in this game to inform the Congress, inform the American people who bin Laden was, what he was doing, what he had done, and as a consequence I think we simply didn’t rally until it was too late.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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