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Air Authorities Were in Chaos, 9/11 Panel Says

The government was vastly unprepared and fumbled its response to the terrorist strikes, investigators find. The FAA is taken to task.

June 18, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Federal aviation authorities and the nation's air defense command were unprepared in virtually every way for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and were forced to improvise amid chaos and miscommunication, the commission staff investigating the attacks said Thursday.

The report faulted the government for failing to anticipate a suicide-style hijacking and then bungling the response at nearly every level once the terrorist operation began to unfold that morning at Boston's Logan International Airport.

A top official of the North American Aerospace Defense Command said that if it had received better and more timely information from the Federal Aviation Administration, the military could have intercepted and shot down the three hijacked planes that subsequently hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Commission members expressed doubt about that.

The report also noted that none of the agencies involved was trained to handle such a crisis, and told a story of overwhelmed air traffic controllers, fighter pilots and others doing the best they could to respond.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Sept. 11 commission -- An article in Friday's Section A said the Federal Aviation Administration lost track of Los Angeles-bound American Airlines Flight 11 for 36 minutes during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The flight was American Airlines Flight 77.

Among a litany of mistakes and missed opportunities cited in the report, most were traced to the FAA. Although the military came in for its share of criticism, its response to the hijackings in large measure was constrained by tardy notification from the aviation agency.

"I think headquarters blew it," commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator, said to a panel of FAA officials testifying at a final public hearing Thursday.

Kerrey and other commission members said that some of the smartest actions of the day were taken by individuals who went outside established protocols -- such as a decision by the Secret Service to enlist the help of the District of Columbia Air National Guard to help patrol the capital when the military response seemed to lag.

"We fought many phantoms that day," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified.

Among them:

* One Boston air traffic controller, through a twist of fate, was left to juggle responsibility for American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, which both crashed into the twin towers. Precious minutes were lost when he failed to notice -- because he was fixed on Flight 11 -- that the transponder on Flight 175 was changing signals.

* An FAA regional operations manager in the Northeast tried to get his supervisors in Washington to issue a nationwide cockpit-security alert after he realized that multiple aircraft were involved. The requested order -- which was sought minutes before the cockpit door was breached on United Airlines Flight 93, which eventually crashed in Pennsylvania -- was either lost or ignored at FAA headquarters.

* FAA officials at one point concluded that American Airlines Flight 11 was headed to Washington, even though it had already crashed in New York. The FAA made an urgent plea to the military to try to find the missing jet. The result, according to the staff report, was that the military was responding to "a plane that no longer existed."

* FAA headquarters never alerted the military to the existence of American Airlines Flight 77, which later hit the Pentagon, or of United Airlines Flight 93, which at one point seemed on a course for Washington.

* The FAA lost track of Los Angeles-bound American Airlines Flight 11 for 36 minutes and failed to realize it had reversed course and was heading east.

* Top FAA and NORAD officials -- the supposed main line of defense against such attacks -- never coordinated their response the day of the strikes in part because the FAA did not have a secure telephone line.

* Vice President Dick Cheney issued an order to military aircraft to intercept and shoot down suspicious planes, a command that was never passed along to fighters circling Washington and New York.

Commission staff members read their 29-page report aloud, with haunting audiotapes of air traffic controllers and others, apparently including the voice of Mohamed Atta, ringleader of the plot who piloted American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

Shortly after takeoff from Logan airport, Atta was heard to say, apparently in remarks intended for passengers: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport."

Moments later, the same voice said: "Nobody move. Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet."

In part, the report blamed emergency procedures that were based on assumptions of a traditional hijacking that would afford more time to react, unlike a suicide hijacking.

But other problems were harder to justify.

President Bush, in Florida at the time of the attacks, told interviewers that he had been frustrated at delays in establishing secure phone links with officials in Washington.

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