By PHILIP SHENON and CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS
The New York Times
Published: June 18, 2004
WASHINGTON, June 17 - Offering an extraordinary window into the government's chaotic response on Sept. 11, 2001, the commission investigating the terrorist attacks detailed on Thursday a series of communications breakdowns at the White House and the Pentagon that were so severe that military commanders did not tell fighter pilots that they had been given the authority by Vice President Dick Cheney to shoot down hijacked planes.
The commission showed that White House communication systems were so close to collapse in the hours after the attack that President Bush, who was visiting a Florida elementary school that morning, could not obtain an open line to Mr. Cheney at the White House and had to resort to a cellphone to reach him.
In the commission's final public hearing after an 18-month investigation, members said that Mr. Bush had complained to them in his recent interview that the communications problems continued after he boarded Air Force One.
A staff report released at the hearing provided new details about the confusion that enveloped the White House, the Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration. It found that Mr. Cheney did not issue a shoot-down order - on Mr. Bush's behalf - until after 10 a.m., more than an hour after Mr. Bush had been told by his chief of staff that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and that "America is under attack."
After the hearing, White House spokesmen rejected any suggestion that the response on Sept. 11 had been any more confused than would have been expected after a major terrorist attack, and they continued to question the findings of a staff report issued Wednesday by the commission that said there did not appear to have been a "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
In justifying the invasion of Iraq, President Bush and Vice President Cheney cited what they called long-standing ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. And on Thursday they both repeated the assertion.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney cited what they called longstanding ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda. And on Thursday, they both repeated the assertion. Mr. Bush said there had been "numerous contacts" between Al Qaeda and Mr. Hussein, while Mr. Cheney said "there was clearly a relationship" between the two.
The bipartisan 10-member commission has tried to bring its investigation full circle by focusing this week on the details of the attack plot, how it was conceived by Osama bin Laden and his terror network and how the White House, the military and other government agencies responded on the morning of Sept. 11.
The interim staff report issued Thursday offered harsh criticism of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, which is responsible for defense of the nation's airspace, and the F.A .A., which tracked the hijacked flights, and said they had been unable to share information quickly or coherently as the terrorist attack unfolded.
Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the commander of Norad, testified to the commission that had information about the hijackings been passed along faster from the F.A.A. - and had there been an immediate shoot-down order - fighter jets could have intercepted and shot down most or all of the hijacked planes, a statement that was received by commission members with skepticism. "I'm assuming that they told us, F.A.A. told us as soon as they knew," General Eberhart said.
The staff report included an exhaustive minute-by-minute re-creation of the morning of the attacks, showing that there had never been a hope of intercepting and shooting down the planes before they hit their targets because of communication gaps between Norad and the F.A.A., which prevented armed fighter jets from being scrambled fast enough. The timeline demonstrated that the last of the four planes had crashed before Mr. Cheney ordered the shoot downs.
The report found, as the panel has indicated before, that a passenger uprising aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, was what had prevented the plane from reaching its intended target in Washington.