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No radar hits on 77 for 36 minutes

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Posted 6/16/2004 11:22 PM Updated 6/17/2004 5:11 AM
Air defense unprepared for attack, report says
By Alan Levin and Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Military and aviation officials reacted to the Sept. 11 hijackings through a fog of bad information and poor communication that caused serious lapses in the nation's defense, the commission investigating the attacks will report today.
The report offers the most in-depth look so far at how the nation's military command was so unprepared for attacks using aircraft as missiles that "the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen." (Related item: Sept. 11 attacks timeline)

Among the findings, according to a copy of the report obtained Wednesday by USA TODAY:

•NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, mistakenly sent jets assigned to guard the nation's capital to positions over the Atlantic Ocean.

•An order by Vice President Cheney to shoot down hijacked jets did not reach pilots for at least 30 minutes, long after United Airlines Flight 93, the last of the four hijacked jets, crashed in Pennsylvania. Had the passengers on Flight 93 not revolted against the terrorists, the jet probably would have reached Washington.

•The Federal Aviation Administration was slow to notify the military about the hijackings and to warn air traffic controllers around the country to be on guard for other hijacked jets.

•FAA controllers lost track of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, for 36 minutes because of a glitch in a radar system. It was hijacked hundreds of miles east of Washington, but controllers did not spot it on radar until it was only five minutes from the building.

A spokesman for NORAD declined to comment on the report. Spokesman Michael Kucharek said Gen. Ralph Eberhart, NORAD's commander, will address the report's findings before the commission today.

The FAA issued a statement defending its actions that day, saying its managers and controllers had acted valiantly to shut down the aviation system. The agency has improved cooperation with NORAD, it said. "None of us ever wants to see another September 11th, which is why the FAA is committed to doing everything in its power to prevent another similar attack," the statement said.

Officials at FAA have long insisted that they kept NORAD apprised on Sept. 11. Several FAA officials told USA TODAY in 2002 that military representatives participated in conference calls and sat in at the agency's headquarters as information about the flights was being discussed.

The commission's report stops short of saying that Flight 77 could have been shot down before it hit the Pentagon. Cheney did not issue an order to shoot down hijacked jets until well after Flight 77 crashed.

Much of the report paints a picture of widespread confusion. The FAA told NORAD at one point that American Airlines Flight 11 was headed toward Washington, and a commander ordered fighter jets to intercept it. Flight 11, the first jet to be hijacked, had already hit the World Trade Center in New York.

Cheney told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a recorded phone call that he'd given an order to shoot down three jets over Washington. "And it's my understanding that they've already taken a couple aircraft out," he told Rumsfeld.

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