9/11 Panel Criticizes Pentagon for Poor Response to Hijackings

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

Filed at 10:31 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The terror strikes of Sept. 11, 2001 overwhelmed all immediate efforts to counter or even comprehend their scope, a bipartisan commission reported Thursday, and spread confusion to the point that Vice President Dick Cheney mistakenly thought U.S. warplanes shot down two aircraft.

The front line civilian and military agencies struggled to ``improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet,'' the panel said.

``We fought many phantoms that day,'' Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. He noted that reports of car bombings and other terrorist acts spread quickly -- and falsely -- in the nerves-on-edge hours after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck by planes hijacked by terrorists.

The commission issued its findings as it held the final public session of a momentous review of the worst terror strikes in the nation's hist ory. The panel is expected to make a final report next month into the events that killed nearly 3,000.

The commission said efforts to respond to four hijackings that day were plagued on multiple fronts.

One plane moved into a gap in Federal Aviation Administration radar coverage. A single air traffic controller wound up with responsibility for two hijacked planes simultaneously.

The FAA failed to notify the military that one of the four planes had been hijacked. The FAA also incorrectly told the military that the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center was still in the air after impact.

Even so, the commission's report steered clear of any claims that the planes could have been intercepted.

``NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure,'' the report said. That was a reference to a hijacked plan that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, evidently after passengers st ruggled with the terrorists aboard.

If FAA and NORAD officials were having difficulty in dealing with the strikes, so, too, were the top officials of the government.

President Bush was in Florida, leaving Cheney as the senior official in Washington.

On Bush's authorization, Cheney relayed an order for military planes to shoot down aircraft deemed hostile.

At mid-morning, more than a half-hour after the order had been given, Cheney told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld he thought it had been carried out.

``It's my understanding that they've already taken a couple of aircraft out,'' Cheney said, according to the partial transcript of a conference call that the commission released.