Panel slams bureaucracy over 9/11 failures

By Chris Strohm

June 17, 2004

The commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist plot concluded more than a year of public hearings Thursday with two federal agencies pointing fingers at each other and the panel's chairman saying the government should have been better prepared for the attacks.

"I think a lot of things about this story make us nervous," said the panel's chairman, retired Republican Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey. "This is the story of a lot of problems, and shame on us if we don't learn from it."

"Would you expect [federal agencies] to be prepared for this totally genius and evil attack and the way it was performed? No," he added. "But should they have been more ready for something coming? Yes."

The commission's final public hearing focused on the timeline of the hijackings and the response of the Federal Aviation Administration and Defense Department, with particular focus on the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the National Military Command Center inside the Pentagon.

"NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001," the report released during the hearing concluded. "They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet."

The timeline the commission lays out is different from the one previously given by Defense officials. Because they were so different, the commission called Defense officials to testify again.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, who commanded the Continental U.S. NORAD Region when the attacks happened, said the commission had helped him understand the facts of the timeline. Arnold testified in May 2003, but gave information that the commission has since found to be incorrect.

Inaccurate accounts from the military have created numerous questions about whether the hijacked aircraft could have been intercepted. The staff report concluded that the military could not have intercepted the aircraft based on the new timeline.

The commission now will step out of the spotlight to compile its final report, due at the end of July. It is expected to offer the most detailed account of the 9/11 plot to date, along with recommendations for reforming federal agencies and processes.

Kean said the report must be vetted by a White House team led by Chief of Staff Andrew Card before being made public. He added that the commission plans to issue a declassified report, even though some family members of victims want a classified report that is then redacted.

The commission found that federal agencies were generally unprepared to handle the attacks when they happened. In some cases, federal workers deliberately bypassed bureaucratic protocols and made decisions in response to the unique and unfolding circumstances.

"On the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen," the report states. "What ensued was the hurried attempt to create an improvised defense by officials who had never encountered or trained against the situation they faced."

In some cases, communication between agencies and officials broke down at critical moments. For example, the military command center could not patch the FAA into a secure teleconference. The FAA, on the other hand, thought it had a communications link established with NMCC through the FAA's "hijack net," only to learn later that the link did not exist.

"We found no evidence that, at this critical time, during the morning of Sept. 11, NORAD's top commanders, in Florida or Cheyenne Mountain, ever coordinated with their counterparts at FAA headquarters to improve situational awareness and organize a common response," the report states.

Additionally, President Bush--who was in Florida when the attacks began and then boarded Air Force One--could not maintain a steady communications link with NMCC. Bush, who testified privately before the commission in April, told the panel he gave an order that military aircraft could fire on aircraft that did not respond, the report said.. That order, however, was never passed to fighter pilots over Washington and New York City because a NORAD commander and a weapons director were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with the order, the report states.

"There was a real problem with communications that morning. There were a lot of people who should have been in the loop who weren't in the loop," Kean said. "If the president of the United States gives a shoot-down order and the pilots who were supposed to carry it out do not get that order, then that's about as serious as it gets."

NORAD commander Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart said he believes the military could have intercepted the hijacked aircraft heading toward New York and Washington had FAA officials given notification that the planes were hijacked as soon as they knew. He added that the military could intercept the aircraft today if the exact circumstances were repeated.

The failures led commissioners Timothy Roemer and John Lehman to conclude that the FAA was more at fault than NORAD.

"If there's one real unescapable failure, it's the failure of the performance of the headquarters of the FAA," Roemer said.

Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said he hopes the government learns from its mistakes.

"I have not been impressed with the way that the federal government generally has looked back on 9/11 and seen what mistakes were made," he said. "I think the commission has helped the government through that process."

By Chris Strohm

June 17, 2004