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Air defense flaws detail in 911 panel { April 25 2004 }

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April 25, 2004
9/11 Panel Set to Detail Flaws in Air Defenses

WASHINGTON, April 24 -- The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is expected to offer sharp criticism of the Pentagon's domestic air-defense command in its final report, according to commission officials who said they believed that quicker military action might have prevented a hijacked passenger plane from crashing into the Pentagon itself.

While other officials stressed that the panel had not reached any final conclusions on the performance of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, or whether the Pentagon attack could have been prevented, they said that Norad's failure to defend Washington and New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, would be subjected to intensive scrutiny at the remaining public hearings of the 10-member commission. The panel is in the final weeks of its investigation.

Norad has previously acknowledged that if jet fighters had scrambled faster on Sept. 11, they might have been able to reach American Airlines Flight 77 before it crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., more than 50 minutes after the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. A total of 184 people were killed in the Pentagon attack, including the 59 aboard the hijacked plane.

The panel's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in an interview that there had been no formal deliberations by the commission about how to judge Norad's performance and said that he was waiting to be briefed on the findings of the panel's investigators.

The commission's executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, said in an interview on Saturday that his investigators had reached no conclusion on whether the plane could have been stopped before striking the Pentagon. "Any inference that the commission is preparing to reach any such conclusion is false and terribly misleading," he said.

Other commission officials said the timeline presented to them by Norad suggested that there might have been time to launch jet fighters that could have intercepted -- and possibly shot down -- Flight 77.

In testimony last May at a preliminary hearing on Norad's performance, Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, a retired Norad commander, acknowledged that if fighters had been scrambled faster, they could have reached the airliner, a Boeing 757.

"I believe that'd be true," General Arnold said in response to questions from Mr. Kean. "It would have to happen very fast. But I believe that to be true." He noted that pilots at that moment had no authority to shoot down a passenger plane but said "it is certainly physically possible that they could have gotten into the area."

The commission is trying to establish a detailed timeline of how and when military pilots reporting to Norad were informed on Sept. 11 that President Bush had given the extraordinary order that allowed them to shoot down passenger planes.

Norad officers have said previously that they did not learn of the order until about 10:10 a.m., a few minutes after the last of the four hijacked jets crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania. But White House officials have suggested that the order was made earlier in the morning and should have been communicated immediately to pilots.

The commission has repeatedly complained that Norad, a joint American-Canadian military command created in 1958 to defend airspace over North America from Soviet missiles and bombers, has been uncooperative in the commission's investigation.

In November, the commission issued a subpoena to the Pentagon after learning that a variety of pertinent documents, tapes and other evidence from Norad had not been turned over to the panel. The only other federal agency subpoenaed by the commission was the Federal Aviation Administration, which is under scrutiny by the panel for air-safety lapses related to its communications with Norad on Sept. 11.

A spokesman for Norad's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Lt. Col. Roberto Garza, insisted that Norad had fully cooperated with the commission, although he said he could not discuss issues that are now before the panel. "If we speak, we speak to the commission," he said.

Senior military commanders have said previously that Norad may have been slow to act on Sept. 11 because of the command's traditional cold- war-era focus on threats that originated from outside the United States, not on a terrorist strike carried out within American borders. They noted that before Sept. 11, fighter pilots had no authority to shoot down a passenger plane.

But their defense of Norad's actions became more difficult this month with the disclosure that Norad planners had specifically weighed the possibility well before Sept. 11 that passenger planes might be used as missiles against domestic targets.

The disclosure came in the form a newly unearthed 2001 memo showing that in April of that year, Norad considered an exercise in which military commanders would weigh how to respond to an attack in which terrorists flew a hijacked plane into the Pentagon, precisely what happened five months later.

"Even with our subpoenas, Norad has been slow to act on our document requests, and that's why we haven't talked particularly about Norad in our earlier hearings," Mr. Kean said. "Now we will."

Asked what information has been gathered about Norad since the subpoena, he said he could not comment until he had reviewed the work of the commission's investigators, noting that he had been consumed in recent days with preparations for the panel's scheduled interview on Thursday with Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Other commission officials said the panel's investigators were focusing on the actions of Norad during a two-hour period on Sept. 11 after 8:20 a.m., when the Federal Aviation Administration got its first clue that a passenger plane had been hijacked; the electronic transponder on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles had been switched off.

The officials said the commission wanted to know why, by Norad's own timeline, it took 44 minutes after Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center for Norad to launch fighters in the Washington area.

By the time three F-16 jet fighters were airborne from Langley Air Force Base, Va., about 105 miles from Washington, American Airlines Flight 77 was only seven minutes from plunging into the Pentagon.

Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor and a Democratic member of the panel, would not discuss the evidence that has been presented to the commission since it held a preliminary public hearing on Norad in May of last year.

But Mr. Ben-Veniste said the commission had "substantial" new information and would want to question Norad's commanders about "why the nation's air defenses were in an outward cold-war posture rather than one that the reflected" a new generation of threats, including the use of hijacked passenger planes as missiles.

Norad's mission has been overhauled since Sept. 11, with its commanders now told to focus intently on the possibility of more domestic terrorist threats from the air.

"The good news is that we've come a remarkable distance," said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of Norad and the newly created United States Northern Command, in Congressional testimony last month. He said that Norad had been "re-engineered" to focus on the possibility of domestic threats -- "to look inward, as opposed to outward."

Since Sept. 11, Norad has been given new rules of engagement, allowing a senior Air Force general to order the shooting down of hijacked passenger planes, and pilots are now routinely drilled on how they would use air-to-air missiles to bring down a large commercial jet.

Norad also now frequently scrambles fighter jets to investigate when passenger planes go off course or report other trouble.

There is also much closer communication between Norad and the F.A.A., which now supplies Norad with instantaneous feeds of its domestic air-traffic control radars, allowing military commanders to track individual passenger jets.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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