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2004-06-18

Final 9/11 Commission Hearing: Chaos, Miscommunication Left U.S. Woefully Unprepared For Sept. 11 Attacks

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Plagued by miscommunication and confusion, U.S. aviation and military officials were entirely unprepared for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the 9/11 Commission reported Thursday. We hear excerpts of the hearings, including the voices of the hijackers on the planes and a minute-by-minute account of President Bush’s reactions on the morning of the attacks.[includes transcript]

Plagued by miscommunication and confusion, US aviation and military officials were entirely unprepared for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the 9/11 Commission reported yesterday.

In its final public hearing, the commission detailed a series of communications breakdowns at the White House and the Pentagon so severe that jet fighters were sent to chase phantom aircraft while real airliners crashed undisturbed into their targets, killing 3,000 people.

The staff report included an exhaustive minute-by-minute re-creation of the morning of the attacks, showing how the chaos and communication breakdown left no hope of intercepting and shooting down the planes.

Relatives of Sept. 11 victims attending the hearing listened through tears to recordings of hijackers’ voices, which were captured in radio transmissions and picked up by air traffic controllers. The terrorists’ remarks had been cited in news reports but never before played publicly.

(Tape) At 8:24:38, the following transmission came from American 11:
American 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you’ll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.
The controller only heard something unintelligible; he did not hear the specific words "[w]e have some planes." Then the next transmission came seconds later:
American 11: Nobody move. Everything will be O.K. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
Hearing that, the controller told us he then knew it was a hijacking. The controller alerted his supervisor, who assigned another controller to assist him, and redoubled efforts to ascertain the flight’s altitude. Because the controller didn’t understand the initial transmission, the Manager of Boston Center instructed the Center’s Quality Assurance Specialist to "pull the tape" of the radio transmission, listen to it closely, and report back. Between 8:25 and 8:32, in accordance with the FAA protocol, Boston Center managers started notifying their chain of command that American 11 had been hijacked. At 8:28, Boston Center called the Command Center in Herndon, Virginia to advise management that it believed American 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York Center’s airspace. By this point in time, American 11 had taken a dramatic turn to the south. At 8:32, the Command Center passed word of a possible hijacking to the Operations Center at FAA headquarters. The duty officer replied that security personnel at headquarters had just begun discussing the hijack situation on a conference call with the New England Regional office. The Herndon Command Center immediately established a teleconference between Boston, New York, and Cleveland Centers so that Boston Center could help the others understand what was happening. At 8:34, the Boston Center controller received a third transmission from American 11:
American 11: Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves.

The voice heard in the those recordings is believed to 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. In their recreation of the morning of the attacks, the 9/11 commission detailed a chronology of communications by aviation and military officials:

(Tape)
At 8:37:52, Boston Center reached NEADS. This was the first notification received by the military-at any level-that American 11 had been hijacked:
FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU, we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?
FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
__ NEADS promptly ordered to battle stations the two F-15 alert aircraft at Otis Air Force Base, about 153 miles away from New York City. The air defense of America began with this call.

Accounts of the numerous communications breakdowns on the morning of Sept. 11 were detailed throughout the commission’s report:

(Tape)
NORAD did not know about the search for American 77. Instead, they heard once again about a plane that no longer existed, American 11. At 9:21, NEADS received a report from the FAA:
FAA: Military, Boston Center. I just had a report that American 11 is still in the air, and it’s on its way towards-heading towards Washington.
NEADS: Okay. American 11 is still in the air?
FAA: Yes.
NEADS: On its way towards Washington?
FAA: That was another-it was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower. That’s the latest report we have.
NEADS: Okay.
FAA: I’m going to try to confirm an ID for you, but I would assume he’s somewhere over, uh, either New Jersey or somewhere further south.
NEADS: Okay. So American 11 isn’t the hijack at all then, right?
FAA: No, he is a hijack.
NEADS: He-American 11 is a hijack?
FAA: Yes. .
NEADS: And he’s heading into Washington?
FAA: Yes. This could be a third aircraft.
__ The mention of a "third aircraft" was not a reference to American 77. There was confusion at that moment in the FAA. Two planes had struck the World Trade Center, and Boston Center had heard from FAA headquarters in Washington that American 11 was still airborne. We have been unable to identify the source of this mistaken FAA information.

The Sept. 11 commission’s report also found that an executive order by Vice President Cheney that gave the military permission to shoot down hostile aircraft did not come until long after the last hijacked airliner had crashed:

(Tape)
At 9:49, 13 minutes after getting the question from Cleveland Center about military help, Command Center suggested that someone at headquarters should decide whether to request military assistance:
FAA Headquarters: They’re pulling Jeff away to go talk about United 93. Command Center: Uh, do we want to think about, uh, scrambling aircraft?
FAA Headquarters: Uh, God, I don’t know.
Command Center: Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next ten minutes.
FAA Headquarters: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room.

The timeline of events detailed in the commission’s report demonstrated that the last of the four planes had crashed well before Cheney authorized the shoot downs. The panel also found that due to miscommunication and uncertainty, the shoot down orders were never passed on to fighter pilots:

(Tape)
In upstate New York, NEADS personnel first learned of the shoot down order from that chat log message:
Floor Leadership: You need to read this...The Region Commander has declared that we can shoot down aircraft that do not respond to our direction. Copy that?
Controllers: Copy that, sir.
Floor Leadership: So if you’re trying to divert somebody and he won’t divert-
Controllers: DO [Director of Operations] is saying no.
Floor Leadership: No? It came over the chat... You got a conflict on that direction?
Controllers: Right now no, but -
Floor Leadership: Okay? Okay, you read that from the Vice President, right? Vice President has cleared. Vice President has cleared us to intercept traffic and shoot them down if they do not respond per CONR CC [General Arnold].
In interviews with us, NEADS personnel expressed considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order. Indeed, the NEADS Commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York City because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed the fighters circling above them had been instructed to "take out" hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the Langley pilots were to "ID type and tail."

After its exhaustive account of the events on Sept. 11, 2001 the commission summarized its conclusions:

(Tape)
NORAD officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure. We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction. The details of what happened on the morning of September 11 are complex. But the details play out a simple theme. NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001. They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet.

That was the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion on US defense systems. Among the new information contained in the report is a detailed reconstruction of the reactions of President Bush on the morning of the attacks:

(Tape)
The President was seated in a classroom of second graders when, at approximately 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The national press corps was standing behind the children in the classroom; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening. The President remained in the classroom for another five to seven minutes, while the children continued reading. He then returned to a holding room shortly before 9:15, where he was briefed by staff and saw television coverage. He then spoke to Vice President Cheney, Dr. Rice, Governor Pataki, and FBI Director Mueller. He decided to make a brief statement from the school before leaving for the airport. The Secret Service told us they were anxious to move the President to a safer location, but did not think it imperative for him to run out the door. Between 9:15 and 9:30, the staff was busy arranging a return to Washington, while the President consulted his senior advisers about his remarks. No one in the traveling party had any information during this time that other aircraft were hijacked or missing. As far as we know, no one was in contact with the Pentagon. The focus was on the President’s statement to the nation. No decisions were made during this time, other than the decision to return to Washington. The President’s motorcade departed at 9:35, and arrived at the airport between 9:42 and 9:45. During the ride the President learned about the attack on the Pentagon. He boarded the aircraft, asked the Secret Service about the safety of his family, and called the Vice President. According to notes of the call, at about 9:45 the President told the Vice President: "Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We’re at war....somebody’s going to pay."

A detailed account of President Bush’s reaction on the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks in the 9/11 Commission report. The report is the last interim staff report before the commission races to complete book-length final report by the end of July.

  • John Nichols, is the Editorial Editor of the Madison Capital Times and a correspondent for The Nation magazine.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn to John Nichols, who is the editor of "The Madison Capitol Times" and correspondent for "The Nation" magazine. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JOHN NICHOLS: And welcome to Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Great to be here.

JOHN NICHOLS: That’s good.

AMY GOODMAN: So, John, as we listen to these different voices, the summary of the commission’s account of what happened on 9/11, your response.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, first off, I’m sure glad Henry Kissinger didn’t write this. Initially the bush administration tried desperately to throw roadblocks in the way of this investigation and in a number of steps, Cheney, for instance, wanted to block it all together. When they couldn’t block it, they tried to put Henry Kissinger in charge, knowing they could always count on him to sweep anything important under the rug. That was beaten and it is one of the biggest victories, I think, for really the forces of light in this country. Because this report is imperfect. We’ll find plenty of things in it that we disagree with and, you know, would like to see more explore ration of. But at the bottom line, it is certainly a good first draft of history that we didn’t know. It provides us with a lot of information we didn’t know and it also does something in this periods of really skepticism on most issues some real challenges to this administration. It says that, they never followed any of the instructions or advice of former senator Gary Hart and former Senator Warren Husbandman who put a report in at that time start of 2001 over these issues that we just heard about and should have been addressed and it also tells us that, you know, excruciating detail how, if this country had its act together, as regards Internal Defense, rather than rushing abroad looking for countries to invades, we might well have been able to, if not avert this attack all together, at least lessened its significance.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols of the "Madison Capitol Times" and "The Nation" magazine. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the authors of a new book called "Banana Republicans" and then we’ll be back with John Nichols and Edgar Garvey have, the nation’s leading rebel lawyer, to talk about Wisconsin as a battleground state. This is Democracy Now! Broadcasting from Wisconsin.

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