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Panel probes failures of air defenses

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Sept. 11 Panel to Probe Failures of Air Defenses
c.2004 Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON -- The failure of the nation's air defense system to protect New York and Washington from suicide hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, will be the next focus of the national commission investigating the terrorist attacks.

The panel will present evidence of an air defense network that was outdated, riddled with holes and ill-prepared to deal with a major domestic threat -- in this case a successful terrorist strike on the nation's military headquarters, the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of almost 3,000 people.

The 10-member commission, through a staff report and testimony, will examine delays by the Federal Aviation Administration in relaying information to the military about the commandeering of four commercial jetliners by terrorists.

It also is likely to point to a shortage of military jets on alert on Sept. 11. It will look at problems with communications within the military command and control structure, and explore why military officials waited almost three-quarters of an hour after the first airliner crashed into the World Trade Center before sending fighter jets to protect the nation's capital.

"The whole issue of a lack of preparedness to defend New York and Washington will be a central subject of the next round of hearings," said commission member Richard Ben-Veniste.

"There is an issue about the time of notification of the hijackings by the FAA, the interaction between the FAA and the North American Aerospace Defense Command and what information was provided to the air defense squadrons involved," said Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor.

The hearings, to be held in Washington June 16 and 17, also will examine the 19 al-Qaida hijackers and how they plotted and carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

It will be the last set of hearings before the commission issues its final report in mid- to late July. That report will chronicle significant failures by the nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies; on the diplomatic and military fronts; in immigration control, airport and airline security; and in New York's emergency response to the tragedy.

The commissioners also will issue a series of recommendations for the future to protect the nation against terrorism. They have been debating several controversial proposals, including creating a new national intelligence czar and a domestic spy agency.

The commission a year ago began examining the missteps by the air defense system, but discovered that its information was incomplete and in some cases full of contradictions.

Finding its investigation impeded by a lack of cooperation, the panel subpoenaed records from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the FAA, and interviewed additional witnesses in an effort to get a clear time line of the events of Sept. 11 and exactly how and when each government entity responded.

One nagging question has been when the air defense command and its pilots learned of a White House order to shoot down the hijacked planes. NORAD officials have said they did not know of the order until about five minutes after the fourth and last hijacked airliner had crashed in Pennsylvania, but White House officials have indicated the order was issued earlier.

In addition, the panel will explore whether speedier notification from the FAA to the military could have allowed interception of hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 before it crashed into the Pentagon. The Pentagon attack resulted in the deaths of 125 people inside the building, serious injury to 110 others and the deaths of 64 aboard the plane.

"That is an important question that needs to be answered," said Ben-Veniste.

The retired commander of NORAD, Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, last spring told the Sept. 11 panel during a preliminary fact-finding hearing that fighter jets might have reached the hijacked airliner before it hit the Pentagon if they had been told sooner by the FAA.

The FAA said last year it learned at 8:55 a.m. Sept. 11 that Flight 77 was off course and headed toward Washington. NORAD claimed it was not alerted by the FAA until 9:24 -- just 13 minutes before the plane slammed into the Pentagon. The FAA later said it made informal telephone contact with NORAD before 9:24.

Two F-16s were dispatched by NORAD from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., and were airborne by 9:30 a.m. but arrived at the Pentagon too late.

Earlier, two fighter jets were ordered into the air from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod at 8:46, just as American Flight 175 struck the World Trade Center's North Tower, according to a publicly released NORAD time line. The jets were airborne at 8:52 a.m., and were eight minutes away from New York when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower.

One of the unanswered questions is whether the FAA ever alerted New York City or the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operated the twin towers, when it realized a second plane was heading toward the World Trade Center.

At a press conference in 2002, Mike McCormick, the air traffic control manager in the New York center on Sept. 11, 2001, recounted how he helplessly watched United Flight 175 head toward New York City.

"Probably one of the most difficult moments of my life was the 11 minutes from the point I watched the aircraft when we first lost communications to the point that the aircraft hit the World Trade Center. For those 11 minutes, we knew what was going to happen," he said.

During that time, according to the commission's investigation, public address announcements in the South Tower informed workers that the building was secure and they should remain in their offices.

In previous testimony before the commission and Congress, NORAD officials, charged with protecting the United States and Canada from a foreign attack, acknowledged they had no direct access to domestic FAA radar and, in effect, could not see the interior of the country on Sept. 11.

They also said the NORAD headquarters responsible for the continental United States' air defense did not have an open line to the FAA on Sept. 11, and that the NORAD commanders at the headquarters couldn't talk directly to their fighter pilots.

Military officers lower on the chain of the command, however, did have radio contact with the fighter jets and did talk to FAA air controllers as the crisis was unfolding, according to testimony from NORAD officials.

"On the morning of Sept. 11 we were looking out primarily on our coasts at the air defense identification zone, which extends outward 100 to 200 miles off our shore," NORAD Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley told the Sept. 11 panel last May. "Our mission at the time was not designed to take internal FAA radar data to track or to identify tracks originating within our borders," he said. "It was to look outward, as a Cold War vestige, primarily developed during the Cold War to protect against Soviet long-range bomber penetration."

It subsequently was revealed that despite its Cold War orientation, NORAD conducted exercises before Sept. 11 simulating the use of hijacked airliners crashing into targets. One imagined target was the World Trade Center. One NORAD planner proposed an exercise targeting the Pentagon, but the military abandoned the idea as unrealistic.

Officials said these exercises, conducted on a regional basis, envisioned planes coming from outside, not inside the country.

Since Sept. 11 NORAD has revamped its operations, instituted closer contact with the FAA and gained the ability to track domestic flights. It also has more fighter jets on alert, conducts more frequent exercises, and has adopted new rules of engagement that under specific circumstances will allow the Air Force to shoot down hijacked airliners.

June 2, 2004

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