By DAVID STOUT
The New York Times
Published: June 17, 2004
WASHINGTON, June 17 - The doomed passengers who fought with terrorist hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 probably saved "countless" other lives and might well have prevented an attack on the White House or the Capitol, the staff of the commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said today.
The heroism of the passengers was vital because - contrary to some earlier official statements and impressions - the pilots of F-16 fighters that had been scrambled to protect Washington did not have the authority to shoot down a hijacked aircraft, the report said.
Noting that officials of the North American Aerospace Defense Command have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down Flight 93, which crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania, had it reached Washington, the staff of the 9/11 commission differed.
"We are not so sure," the report said of Norad's assertions. "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 staff report was presented at the final round of public hearings by the Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the independent, bipartisan commission is formally known. It is to present an all-encompassing final report of its findings on the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people by July 26.
President Bush singled out one finding of the commission staff today when he asserted that "there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," even though the staff reported finding no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein had any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The staff said in a report on Wednesday that there had been "numerous contacts" between Osama bin Laden and the Baghdad dictatorship, but that nothing had come of them. Mr. Bush embraced the first part of that finding today, asserting that Mr. Hussein had "not only Al Qaeda connections but other connections to terrorist organizations."
As for the events of Sept. 11, the heroism of some of the approximately 40 passengers on Flight 93, which crashed in Stony Creek Township, Pa., at 10:03 a.m., 1 hour and 21 minutes after taking off from Newark International Airport bound for San Francisco, has been widely acknowledged before.
But the importance of the passengers' contributions in fighting off their four hijackers, apparently causing the Boeing 757 to fly erratically and ultimately plunge to earth, emerged in far greater detail today.
What also became starkly clear today is that even many months afterward, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were still not fully understood by Norad officials. In May 2003, the staff report said, Norad officials gave incorrect accounts of how Norad's Northeast Air Defense Sector tracked Flight 93 and the other three jetliners hijacked that day, American Airlines Flights 11 and 77 and United Airlines Flight 175.
American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175, both Boeing 767's, took off from Boston and were bound for Los Angeles. They were flown into the World Trade Center, destroying the Twin Towers. (Fighters were scrambled from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass., after it became clear that hijackings were under way, but the fighters were miles away from New York by the time the towers were hit.) American Flight 77 departed from Dulles Airport near Washington bound for Los Angeles but was flown into the Pentagon.
Had Flight 93 not crashed in Pennsylvania, it would have arrived in the Washington area 10 to 20 minutes later, the staff report said.
"There was only one set of fighters orbiting Washington, D.C., during this time frame," the report said, referring to a pair of F-16's from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. "They were armed and under Norad's control."
But they had not been told that they were authorized to shoot down an aircraft, contrary to what Vice President Dick Cheney thought at that time. In fact, the report noted, "the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled" and did not know that the vice president had ordered that a Washington-bound hijacked jet be shot down.