The 9-11 Commission Report
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American Airlines Flight 77
FAA Awareness. American 77 began deviating from its flight plan at 8:54, with a slight turn toward the south. Two minutes later, it disappeared completely from radar at Indianapolis Center, which was controlling the flight. 138 The controller tracking American 77 told us he noticed the aircraft turning to the southwest, and then saw the data disappear. The controller looked for primary radar returns. He searched along the plane’s projected flight path and the airspace to the southwest where it had started to turn. No primary targets appeared. He tried the radios, first calling the aircraft directly, then the airline.
Again there was nothing. At this point, the Indianapolis controller had no knowledge of the situation in New York. He did not know that other aircraft had been hijacked. He believed American 77 had experienced serious electrical or mechanical failure, or both, and was gone. 139 Shortly after 9:00, Indianapolis Center started notifying other agencies that American 77 was missing and had possibly crashed. At 9:08, Indianapolis Center asked Air Force Search and Rescue at Langley Air Force Base to look for a downed aircraft. The center also contacted the West Virginia State Police and asked whether any reports of a downed aircraft had been received. At 9:09, it reported the loss of contact to the FAA regional center, which passed this information to FAA headquarters at 9:24. 140 By 9:20, Indianapolis Center learned that there were other hijacked aircraft, and began to doubt its initial assumption that American 77 had crashed. A discussion of this concern between the manager at Indianapolis and the Command Center in Herndon prompted it to notify some FAA field facilities that American 77 was lost. By 9:21, the Command Center, some FAA field facilities, and American Airlines had started to search for American 77.They feared
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The failure to find a primary radar return for American 77 led us to investigate this issue further. Radar reconstructions performed after 9/11 reveal that FAA radar equipment tracked the flight from the moment its transponder was turned off at 8:56. But for 8 minutes and 13 seconds, between 8:56 and 9:05, this primary radar information on American 77 was not displayed to controllers at Indianapolis Center. 142 The reasons are technical, arising from the way the software processed radar information, as well as from poor primary radar coverage where American 77 was flying.
According to the radar reconstruction, American 77 reemerged as a primary target on Indianapolis Center radar scopes at 9:05, east of its last known position.
The target remained in Indianapolis Center’s airspace for another six minutes, then crossed into the western portion of Washington Center’s airspace at 9:10. As Indianapolis Center continued searching for the aircraft, two managers and the controller responsible for American 77 looked to the west and southwest along the flight’s projected path, not east—where the aircraft was now heading. Managers did not instruct other controllers at Indianapolis Center to turn on their primary radar coverage to join in the search for American 77. 143
In sum, Indianapolis Center never saw Flight 77 turn around. By the time it reappeared in primary radar coverage, controllers had either stopped looking for the aircraft because they thought it had crashed or were looking toward the west. Although the Command Center learned Flight 77 was missing, neither it nor FAA headquarters issued an all points bulletin to surrounding centers to search for primary radar targets. American 77 traveled undetected for 36 minutes on a course heading due east for Washington, D. C. 144
By 9:25, FAA’s Herndon Command Center and FAA headquarters knew two aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center. They knew American 77
was lost. At least some FAA officials in Boston Center and the New England Region knew that a hijacker on board American 11 had said “we have some planes. ” Concerns over the safety of other aircraft began to mount. A manager at the Herndon Command Center asked FAA headquarters if they wanted to order a “nationwide ground stop. ” While this was being discussed by executives at FAA
headquarters, the Command Center ordered one at 9:25. 145
The Command Center kept looking for American 77. At 9:21, it advised the Dulles terminal control facility, and Dulles urged its controllers to look for primary targets. At 9:32, they found one. Several of the Dulles controllers “observed a primary radar target tracking eastbound at a high rate of speed” and notified Reagan National Airport. FAA personnel at both Reagan National and Dulles airports notified the Secret Service. The aircraft’s identity or type was unknown. 146
Reagan National controllers then vectored an unarmed National Guard C-130H cargo aircraft, which had just taken off en route to Minnesota, to iden
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tify and follow the suspicious aircraft. The C-130H pilot spotted it, identified it as a Boeing 757, attempted to follow its path, and at 9:38, seconds after impact, reported to the control tower:“looks like that aircraft crashed into the Pentagon sir. ”147
Military Notification and Response. NORAD heard nothing about the search for American 77. Instead, the NEADS air defenders heard renewed reports about a plane that no longer existed:American 11.
At 9:21, NEADS received a report from the FAA:
FAA: Military, Boston Center. I just had a report that American 11 is still in the air, and it’s on its way towards—heading towards Washington.
NEADS: Okay. American 11 is still in the air?
NEADS: On its way towards Washington?
FAA: That was another—it was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower. That’s the latest report we have.
FAA: I’m going to try to confirm an ID for you, but I would assume he’s somewhere over, uh, either New Jersey or somewhere further south.
NEADS: Okay. So American 11 isn’t the hijack at all then, right?
FAA: No, he is a hijack.
NEADS: He—American 11 is a hijack?
NEADS: And he’s heading into Washington?
FAA: Yes. This could be a third aircraft. 148
The mention of a “third aircraft”was not a reference to American 77. There was confusion at that moment in the FAA. Two planes had struck the World Trade Center, and Boston Center had heard from FAA headquarters in Washington that American 11 was still airborne. We have been unable to identify the source of this mistaken FAA information.
The NEADS technician who took this call from the FAA immediately passed the word to the mission crew commander, who reported to the NEADS battle commander:
Mission Crew Commander, NEADS: Okay, uh, American Airlines is still airborne. Eleven, the first guy, he’s heading towards Washington.
Okay? I think we need to scramble Langley right now. And I’m gonna take the fighters from Otis, try to chase this guy down if I can find him. 149
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That order was processed and transmitted to Langley Air Force Base at 9:24.
Radar data show the Langley fighters airborne at 9:30. NEADS decided to keep the Otis fighters over NewYork. The heading of the Langley fighters was adjusted to send them to the Baltimore area. The mission crew commander explained to us that the purpose was to position the Langley fighters between the reported southbound American 11 and the nation’s capital. 150
At the suggestion of the Boston Center’s military liaison, NEADS contacted the FAA’s Washington Center to ask about American 11. In the course of the conversation, a Washington Center manager informed NEADS:“We’re looking—
we also lost American 77. ”The time was 9:34. 151This was the first notice to the military that American 77 was missing, and it had come by chance. If NEADS had not placed that call, the NEADS air defenders would have received no information whatsoever that the flight was even missing, although the FAA had been searching for it. No one at FAA headquarters ever asked for military assistance with American 77.
At 9:36, the FAA’s Boston Center called NEADS and relayed the discovery about an unidentified aircraft closing in on Washington:“Latest report. Aircraft VFR [visual flight rules] six miles southeast of the White House. . . . Six, southwest.
Six, southwest of the White House, deviating away. ” This startling news prompted the mission crew commander at NEADS to take immediate control of the airspace to clear a flight path for the Langley fighters:“Okay, we’re going to turn it . . . crank it up. . . . Run them to the White House. ” He then discovered, to his surprise, that the Langley fighters were not headed north toward the Baltimore area as instructed, but east over the ocean. “I don’t care how many windows you break, ” he said. “Damn it. . . . Okay. Push them back. ”152
The Langley fighters were heading east, not north, for three reasons. First, unlike a normal scramble order, this order did not include a distance to the target or the target’s location. Second, a “generic” flight plan—prepared to get the aircraft airborne and out of local airspace quickly—incorrectly led the Langley fighters to believe they were ordered to fly due east (090) for 60 miles. Third, the lead pilot and local FAA controller incorrectly assumed the flight plan instruction to go “090 for 60” superseded the original scramble order. 153
After the 9:36 call to NEADS about the unidentified aircraft a few miles from the White House, the Langley fighters were ordered to Washington, D. C.
Controllers at NEADS located an unknown primary radar track, but “it kind of faded” over Washington. The time was 9:38. The Pentagon had been struck by American 77 at 9:37:46. The Langley fighters were about 150 miles away. 154 Right after the Pentagon was hit, NEADS learned of another possible hijacked aircraft. It was an aircraft that in fact had not been hijacked at all.After the second World Trade Center crash, Boston Center managers recognized that
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both aircraft were transcontinental 767 jetliners that had departed Logan Airport.
Remembering the “we have some planes” remark, Boston Center guessed that Delta 1989 might also be hijacked. Boston Center called NEADS at 9:41 and identified Delta 1989, a 767 jet that had left Logan Airport for Las Vegas, as a possible hijack. NEADS warned the FAA’s Cleveland Center to watch Delta 1989. The Command Center and FAA headquarters watched it too. During the course of the morning, there were multiple erroneous reports of hijacked aircraft. The report of American 11 heading south was the first; Delta 1989 was the second. 155
NEADS never lost track of Delta 1989, and even ordered fighter aircraft from Ohio and Michigan to intercept it. The flight never turned off its transponder. NEADS soon learned that the aircraft was not hijacked, and tracked Delta 1989 as it reversed course over Toledo, headed east, and landed in Cleveland. 156 But another aircraft was heading toward Washington, an aircraft about which NORAD had heard nothing: United 93.
United Airlines Flight 93
FAA Awareness. At 9:27, after having been in the air for 45 minutes, United 93 acknowledged a transmission from the Cleveland Center controller. This was the last normal contact the FAA had with the flight. 157
Less than a minute later, the Cleveland controller and the pilots of aircraft in the vicinity heard “a radio transmission of unintelligible sounds of possible screaming or a struggle from an unknown origin. ”158
The controller responded, seconds later: “Somebody call Cleveland?” This was followed by a second radio transmission, with sounds of screaming. The Cleveland Center controllers began to try to identify the possible source of the transmissions, and noticed that United 93 had descended some 700 feet. The controller attempted again to raise United 93 several times, with no response.
At 9:30, the controller began to poll the other flights on his frequency to determine if they had heard the screaming; several said they had. 159
At 9:32, a third radio transmission came over the frequency:“ Keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. ”The controller understood, but chose to respond: “Calling Cleveland Center, you’re unreadable. Say again, slowly. ”
He notified his supervisor, who passed the notice up the chain of command. By 9:34, word of the hijacking had reached FAA headquarters. 160
FAA headquarters had by this time established an open line of communication with the Command Center at Herndon and instructed it to poll all its centers about suspect aircraft. The Command Center executed the request and, a minute later, Cleveland Center reported that “United 93 may have a bomb on board.”At 9:34, the Command Center relayed the information concerning United 93 to FAA headquarters.At approximately 9:36, Cleveland advised the Command Center that it was still tracking United 93 and specifically inquired whether someone had requested the military to launch fighter aircraft to intercept the aircraft. Cleveland even told the Command Center it was prepared to
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Between 9:34 and 9:38, the Cleveland controller observed United 93 climbing to 40, 700 feet and immediately moved several aircraft out its way. The controller continued to try to contact United 93, and asked whether the pilot could confirm that he had been hijacked. 162 There was no response.
Then, at 9:39, a fourth radio transmission was heard from United 93:
Ziad Jarrah: Uh, this is the captain. Would like you all to remain seated.
There is a bomb on board and are going back to the airport, and to have our demands [unintelligible]. Please remain quiet.
The controller responded: “United 93, understand you have a bomb on board. Go ahead. ”The flight did not respond. 163
From 9:34 to 10:08, a Command Center facility manager provided frequent updates to Acting Deputy Administrator Monte Belger and other executives at FAA headquarters as United 93 headed toward Washington, D. C. At 9:41, Cleveland Center lost United 93’s transponder signal. The controller located it on primary radar, matched its position with visual sightings from other aircraft, and tracked the flight as it turned east, then south. 164
At 9:42, the Command Center learned from news reports that a plane had struck the Pentagon. The Command Center’s national operations manager, Ben Sliney, ordered all FAA facilities to instruct all aircraft to land at the nearest airport. This was an unprecedented order. The air traffic control system handled it with great skill, as about 4, 500 commercial and general aviation aircraft soon landed without incident. 165
At 9:46 the Command Center updated FAA headquarters that United 93
was now “twenty-nine minutes out of Washington, D. C. ”
At 9:49, 13 minutes after Cleveland Center had asked about getting military help, the Command Center suggested that someone at headquarters should decide whether to request military assistance:
FAA Headquarters: They’re pulling Jeff away to go talk about United 93.
Command Center: Uh, do we want to think, uh, about scrambling aircraft?
FAA Headquarters: Oh, God, I don’t know.
Command Center: Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s gonna have to make probably in the next ten minutes.
FAA Headquarters: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room. 166
At 9:53, FAA headquarters informed the Command Center that the deputy director for air traffic services was talking to Monte Belger about scrambling
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aircraft. Then the Command Center informed headquarters that controllers had lost track of United 93 over the Pittsburgh area. Within seconds, the Command Center received a visual report from another aircraft, and informed headquarters that the aircraft was 20 miles northwest of Johnstown. United 93 was spotted by another aircraft, and, at 10:01, the Command Center advised FAA
headquarters that one of the aircraft had seen United 93 “waving his wings. ”
The aircraft had witnessed the hijackers’ efforts to defeat the passengers’ counterattack.
167 United 93 crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03:11, 125 miles from Washington, D. C. The precise crash time has been the subject of some dispute. The 10:03:11 impact time is supported by previous National Transportation Safety Board analysis and by evidence from the Commission staff ’s analysis of radar, the flight data recorder, the cockpit voice recorder, infrared satellite data, and air traffic control transmissions. 168
Five minutes later, the Command Center forwarded this update to headquarters:
Command Center: O. K. Uh, there is now on that United 93.
Command Center: There is a report of black smoke in the last position I gave you, fifteen miles south of Johnstown.
FAA Headquarters: From the airplane or from the ground?
Command Center: Uh, they’re speculating it’s from the aircraft.
FAA Headquarters: Okay.
Command Center: Uh, who, it hit the ground. That’s what they’re speculating, that’s speculation only. 169
The aircraft that spotted the “black smoke” was the same unarmed Air National Guard cargo plane that had seen American 77 crash into the Pentagon 27 minutes earlier. It had resumed its flight to Minnesota and saw the smoke from the crash of United 93, less than two minutes after the plane went down. At 10:17, the Command Center advised headquarters of its conclusion that United 93 had indeed crashed. 170
Despite the discussions about military assistance, no one from FAA headquarters requested military assistance regarding United 93. Nor did any manager at FAA headquarters pass any of the information it had about United 93
to the military.
Military Notification and Response. NEADS first received a call about United 93 from the military liaison at Cleveland Center at 10:07. Unaware that the aircraft had already crashed, Cleveland passed to NEADS the aircraft’s last known latitude and longitude. NEADS was never able to locate United 93 on radar because it was already in the ground. 171
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negative clearance to shoot” aircraft over the nation’s capital. 172
The news of a reported bomb on board United 93 spread quickly at NEADS. The air defenders searched for United 93’s primary radar return and tried to locate other fighters to scramble. NEADS called Washington Center to report:
NEADS: I also want to give you a heads-up, Washington.
FAA (DC): Go ahead.
NEADS: United nine three, have you got information on that yet?
FAA:Yeah, he’s down.
NEADS: He’s down?
NEADS: When did he land? ’Cause we have got confirmation—
FAA: He did not land.
NEADS: Oh, he’s down? Down?
FAA: Yes. Somewhere up northeast of Camp David.
NEADS: Northeast of Camp David.
FAA: That’s the last report. They don’t know exactly where. 173
The time of notification of the crash of United 93 was 10:15. 174 The NEADS air defenders never located the flight or followed it on their radar scopes. The flight had already crashed by the time they learned it was hijacked.
Clarifying the Record The defense of U.S. airspace on 9/11 was not conducted in accord with preexisting training and protocols. It was improvised by civilians who had never handled a hijacked aircraft that attempted to disappear, and by a military unprepared for the transformation of commercial aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, the NEADS air defenders had nine minutes’
notice on the first hijacked plane, no advance notice on the second, no advance notice on the third, and no advance notice on the fourth.
We do not believe that the true picture of that morning reflects discredit on the operational personnel at NEADS or FAA facilities. NEADS commanders and officers actively sought out information, and made the best judgments they could on the basis of what they knew. Individual FAA controllers, facility managers, and Command Center managers thought outside the box in recommending a nationwide alert, in ground-stopping local traffic, and, ultimately, in deciding to land all aircraft and executing that unprecedented order flawlessly.
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More than the actual events, inaccurate government accounts of those events made it appear that the military was notified in time to respond to two of the hijackings, raising questions about the adequacy of the response. Those accounts had the effect of deflecting questions about the military’s capacity to obtain timely and accurate information from its own sources. In addition, they overstated the FAA’s ability to provide the military with timely and useful information that morning.
In public testimony before this Commission in May 2003, NORAD officials stated that at 9:16, NEADS received hijack notification of United 93 from the FAA. 175This statement was incorrect. There was no hijack to report at 9:16.
United 93 was proceeding normally at that time.
In this same public testimony, NORAD officials stated that at 9:24, NEADS received notification of the hijacking of American 77. 176 This statement was also incorrect. The notice NEADS received at 9:24 was that American 11 had not hit the World Trade Center and was heading for Washington, D. C. 177
In their testimony and in other public accounts, NORAD officials also stated that the Langley fighters were scrambled to respond to the notifications about American 77, 178 United 93, or both. These statements were incorrect as well. The fighters were scrambled because of the report that American 11 was heading south, as is clear not just from taped conversations at NEADS but also from taped conversations at FAA centers; contemporaneous logs compiled at NEADS, Continental Region headquarters, and NORAD; and other records.
Yet this response to a phantom aircraft was not recounted in a single public timeline or statement issued by the FAA or Department of Defense. The inaccurate accounts created the impression that the Langley scramble was a logical response to an actual hijacked aircraft.
In fact, not only was the scramble prompted by the mistaken information about American 11, but NEADS never received notice that American 77 was hijacked. It was notified at 9:34 that American 77 was lost. Then, minutes later, NEADS was told that an unknown plane was 6 miles southwest of the White House. Only then did the already scrambled airplanes start moving directly toward Washington, D. C.
Thus the military did not have 14 minutes to respond to American 77, as testimony to the Commission in May 2003 suggested. It had at most one or two minutes to react to the unidentified plane approaching Washington, and the fighters were in the wrong place to be able to help. They had been responding to a report about an aircraft that did not exist.
Nor did the military have 47 minutes to respond to United 93, as would be implied by the account that it received notice of the flight’s hijacking at 9:16.
By the time the military learned about the flight, it had crashed.
We now turn to the role of national leadership in the events that morning.
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When American 11 struck theWorldTrade Center at 8:46, no one in theWhite House or traveling with the President knew that it had been hijacked. While that information circulated within the FAA, we found no evidence that the hijacking was reported to any other agency in Washington before 8:46. 179
Most federal agencies learned about the crash in NewYork from CNN. 180
Within the FAA, the administrator, Jane Garvey, and her acting deputy, Monte Belger, had not been told of a confirmed hijacking before they learned from television that a plane had crashed. 181 Others in the agency were aware of it, as we explained earlier in this chapter.
Inside the National Military Command Center, the deputy director of operations and his assistant began notifying senior Pentagon officials of the incident.
At about 9:00, the senior NMCC operations officer reached out to the FAA operations center for information. Although the NMCC was advised of the hijacking of American 11, the scrambling of jets was not discussed. 182
In Sarasota, Florida, the presidential motorcade was arriving at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School, where President Bush was to read to a class and talk about education. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told us he was standing with the President outside the classroom when Senior Advisor to the President Karl Rove first informed them that a small, twin-engine plane had crashed into theWorldTrade Center. The President’s reaction was that the incident must have been caused by pilot error. 183
At 8:55, before entering the classroom, the President spoke to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who was at theWhite House. She recalled first telling the President it was a twin-engine aircraft—and then a commercial aircraft—that had struck theWorldTrade Center, adding “that’s all we know right now, Mr. President. ”184
At the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney had just sat down for a meeting when his assistant told him to turn on his television because a plane had struck the NorthTower of theWorldTrade Center. TheVice President was wondering “how the hell could a plane hit the World Trade Center” when he saw the second aircraft strike the South Tower. 185
Elsewhere in theWhite House, a series of 9:00 meetings was about to begin.
In the absence of information that the crash was anything other than an accident, the White House staff monitored the news as they went ahead with their regular schedules. 186
The Agencies Confer When they learned a second plane had struck the World Trade Center, nearly everyone in the White House told us, they immediately knew it was not an accident. The Secret Service initiated a number of security enhancements
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around the White House complex. The officials who issued these orders did not know that there were additional hijacked aircraft, or that one such aircraft was en route to Washington. These measures were precautionary steps taken because of the strikes in New York. 187
The FAA and White House Teleconferences. The FAA, the White House, and the Defense Department each initiated a multiagency teleconference before 9:30. Because none of these teleconferences—at least before 10:00—included the right officials from both the FAA and Defense Department, none succeeded in meaningfully coordinating the military and FAA response to the hijackings.
At about 9:20, security personnel at FAA headquarters set up a hijacking teleconference with several agencies, including the Defense Department. The NMCC officer who participated told us that the call was monitored only periodically because the information was sporadic, it was of little value, and there were other important tasks. The FAA manager of the teleconference also remembered that the military participated only briefly before the Pentagon was hit.
Both individuals agreed that the teleconference played no role in coordinating a response to the attacks of 9/11. Acting Deputy Administrator Belger was frustrated to learn later in the morning that the military had not been on the call. 188
At theWhite House, the video teleconference was conducted from the Situation Room by Richard Clarke, a special assistant to the president long involved in counterterrorism. Logs indicate that it began at 9:25 and included the CIA; the FBI; the departments of State, Justice, and Defense; the FAA; and the White House shelter. The FAA and CIA joined at 9:40. The first topic addressed in the White House video teleconference—at about 9:40—was the physical security of the President, the White House, and federal agencies.
Immediately thereafter it was reported that a plane had hit the Pentagon. We found no evidence that video teleconference participants had any prior information that American 77 had been hijacked and was heading directly toward Washington. Indeed, it is not clear to us that the video teleconference was fully under way before 9:37, when the Pentagon was struck. 189
Garvey, Belger, and other senior officials from FAA headquarters participated in this video teleconference at various times. We do not know who from Defense participated, but we know that in the first hour none of the personnel involved in managing the crisis did. And none of the information conveyed in the White House video teleconference, at least in the first hour, was being passed to the NMCC. As one witness recalled, “[It] was almost like there were parallel decisionmaking processes going on; one was a voice conference orchestrated by the NMCC . . . and then there was the [White House video teleconference]. . . . [I]n my mind they were competing venues for command and control and decisionmaking. ”190
At 10:03, the conference received reports of more missing aircraft, “2 pos
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The Pentagon Teleconferences. Inside the National Military Command Center, the deputy director for operations immediately thought the second strike was a terrorist attack. The job of the NMCC in such an emergency is to gather the relevant parties and establish the chain of command between the National Command Authority—the president and the secretary of defense—
and those who need to carry out their orders. 192
On the morning of September 11, Secretary Rumsfeld was having breakfast at the Pentagon with a group of members of Congress. He then returned to his office for his daily intelligence briefing. The Secretary was informed of the second strike in New York during the briefing; he resumed the briefing while awaiting more information. After the Pentagon was struck, Secretary Rumsfeld went to the parking lot to assist with rescue efforts. 193
Inside the NMCC, the deputy director for operations called for an allpurpose “significant event” conference. It began at 9:29, with a brief recap: two aircraft had struck the World Trade Center, there was a confirmed hijacking of American 11, and Otis fighters had been scrambled. The FAA was asked to provide an update, but the line was silent because the FAA had not been added to the call. A minute later, the deputy director stated that it had just been confirmed that American 11 was still airborne and heading toward D. C. He directed the transition to an air threat conference call. NORAD confirmed that American 11 was airborne and heading toward Washington, relaying the erroneous FAA
information already mentioned. The call then ended, at about 9:34. 194
It resumed at 9:37 as an air threat conference call, * which lasted more than eight hours. The President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley all participated in this teleconference at various times, as did military personnel from the White House underground shelter and the President’s military aide on Air Force One. 195
Operators worked feverishly to include the FAA, but they had equipment problems and difficulty finding secure phone numbers. NORAD asked three times before 10:03 to confirm the presence of the FAA in the teleconference.
The FAA representative who finally joined the call at 10:17 had no familiarity with or responsibility for hijackings, no access to decisionmakers, and none of the information available to senior FAA officials. 196
* All times given for this conference call are estimates, which we and the Department of Defense believe to be accurate within a ± 3 minute margin of error.
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We found no evidence that, at this critical time, NORAD’s top commanders, in Florida or Cheyenne Mountain, coordinated with their counterparts at FAA headquarters to improve awareness and organize a common response.
Lower-level officials improvised—for example, the FAA’s Boston Center bypassed the chain of command and directly contacted NEADS after the first hijacking. But the highest-level Defense Department officials relied on the NMCC’s air threat conference, in which the FAA did not participate for the first 48 minutes. 197
At 9:39, the NMCC’s deputy director for operations, a military officer, opened the call from the Pentagon, which had just been hit. He began:“An air attack against North America may be in progress. NORAD, what’s the situation?”
NORAD said it had conflicting reports. Its latest information was “of a possible hijacked aircraft taking off out of JFK en route to Washington D. C. ”
The NMCC reported a crash into the mall side of the Pentagon and requested that the Secretary of Defense be added to the conference. 198
At 9:44, NORAD briefed the conference on the possible hijacking of Delta 1989. Two minutes later, staff reported that they were still trying to locate Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice Chairman Myers. The Vice Chairman joined the conference shortly before 10:00; the Secretary, shortly before 10:30. The Chairman was out of the country. 199
At 9:48, a representative from the White House shelter asked if there were any indications of another hijacked aircraft. The deputy director for operations mentioned the Delta flight and concluded that “that would be the fourth possible hijack. ”At 9:49, the commander of NORAD directed all air sovereignty aircraft to battle stations, fully armed. 200
At 9:59, an Air Force lieutenant colonel working in the White House Military Office joined the conference and stated he had just talked to Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. TheWhite House requested (1) the implementation of continuity of government measures, (2) fighter escorts for Air Force One, and (3) a fighter combat air patrol over Washington, D. C. 201
By 10:03, when United 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, there had been no mention of its hijacking and the FAA had not yet been added to the teleconference.
The President and the Vice President The President was seated in a classroom when, at 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack. ”The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The press was standing behind the children; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening. 203
The President remained in the classroom for another five to seven minutes,
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He next spoke toVice President Cheney, Dr. Rice, NewYork Governor George Pataki, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. He decided to make a brief statement from the school before leaving for the airport. The Secret Service told us they were anxious to move the President to a safer location, but did not think it imperative for him to run out the door. 204
Between 9:15 and 9:30, the staff was busy arranging a return to Washington, while the President consulted his senior advisers about his remarks. No one in the traveling party had any information during this time that other aircraft were hijacked or missing. Staff was in contact with theWhite House Situation Room, but as far as we could determine, no one with the President was in contact with the Pentagon. The focus was on the President’s statement to the nation. The only decision made during this time was to return to Washington. 205
The President’s motorcade departed at 9:35, and arrived at the airport between 9:42 and 9:45. During the ride the President learned about the attack on the Pentagon. He boarded the aircraft, asked the Secret Service about the safety of his family, and called the Vice President. According to notes of the call, at about 9:45 the President told theVice President:“Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We’re at war . . . somebody’s going to pay. ”206
About this time, Card, the lead Secret Service agent, the President’s military aide, and the pilot were conferring on a possible destination for Air Force One.
The Secret Service agent felt strongly that the situation in Washington was too unstable for the President to return there, and Card agreed. The President strongly wanted to return to Washington and only grudgingly agreed to go elsewhere. The issue was still undecided when the President conferred with the Vice President at about the time Air Force One was taking off. TheVice President recalled urging the President not to return toWashington. Air Force One departed at about 9:54 without any fixed destination. The objective was to get up in the air—as fast and as high as possible—and then decide where to go. 207
At 9:33, the tower supervisor at Reagan National Airport picked up a hotline to the Secret Service and told the Service’s operations center that “an aircraft [is] coming at you and not talking with us. ” This was the first specific report to the Secret Service of a direct threat to the White House.
No move was made to evacuate the Vice President at this time. As the officer who took the call explained, “[I was] about to push the alert button when the tower advised that the aircraft was turning south and approaching Reagan National Airport. ”208
American 77 began turning south, away from the White House, at 9:34. It continued heading south for roughly a minute, before turning west and beginning to circle back.This news prompted the Secret Service to order the immediate evacuation of the Vice President just before 9:36. Agents propelled him
40 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT
out of his chair and told him he had to get to the bunker. The Vice President entered the underground tunnel leading to the shelter at 9:37. 209
Once inside, Vice President Cheney and the agents paused in an area of the tunnel that had a secure phone, a bench, and television. The Vice President asked to speak to the President, but it took time for the call to be connected.
He learned in the tunnel that the Pentagon had been hit, and he saw television coverage of smoke coming from the building. 210
The Secret Service logged Mrs. Cheney’s arrival at theWhite House at 9:52, and she joined her husband in the tunnel. According to contemporaneous notes, at 9:55 theVice President was still on the phone with the President advising that three planes were missing and one had hit the Pentagon. We believe this is the same call in which the Vice President urged the President not to return to Washington. After the call ended, Mrs. Cheney and the Vice President moved from the tunnel to the shelter conference room. 211
United 93 and the Shootdown Order On the morning of 9/11, the President and Vice President stayed in contact not by an open line of communication but through a series of calls. The President told us he was frustrated with the poor communications that morning.
He could not reach key officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld, for a period of time. The line to theWhite House shelter conference room—and theVice President—
kept cutting off. 212
The Vice President remembered placing a call to the President just after entering the shelter conference room. There is conflicting evidence about when theVice President arrived in the shelter conference room. We have concluded, from the available evidence, that theVice President arrived in the room shortly before 10:00, perhaps at 9:58. TheVice President recalled being told, just after his arrival, that the Air Force was trying to establish a combat air patrol over Washington. 213
TheVice President stated that he called the President to discuss the rules of engagement for the CAP. He recalled feeling that it did no good to establish the CAP unless the pilots had instructions on whether they were authorized to shoot if the plane would not divert. He said the President signed off on that concept. The President said he remembered such a conversation, and that it reminded him of when he had been an interceptor pilot. The President emphasized to us that he had authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft. 214
The Vice President’s military aide told us he believed the Vice President spoke to the President just after entering the conference room, but he did not hear what they said. Rice, who entered the room shortly after the Vice President and sat next to him, remembered hearing him inform the President, “Sir, the CAPs are up. Sir, they’re going to want to know what to do. ” Then she recalled hearing him say, “Yes sir. ” She believed this conversation occurred a few minutes, perhaps five, after they entered the conference room. 215
We believe this call would have taken place sometime before 10:10 to 10:15.
“WE HAVE SOME PLANES” 41
Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the Vice President’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the President andVice President immediately after theVice President entered the conference room. 216
At 10:02, the communicators in the shelter began receiving reports from the Secret Service of an inbound aircraft—presumably hijacked—heading towardWashington. That aircraft was United 93. The Secret Service was getting this information directly from the FAA. The FAA may have been tracking the progress of United 93 on a display that showed its projected path to Washington, not its actual radar return. Thus, the Secret Service was relying on projections and was not aware the plane was already down in Pennsylvania. 217
At some time between 10:10 and 10:15, a military aide told the Vice President and others that the aircraft was 80 miles out. Vice President Cheney was asked for authority to engage the aircraft. 218 His reaction was described by Scooter Libby as quick and decisive, “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing. ” The Vice President authorized fighter aircraft to engage the inbound plane. He told us he based this authorization on his earlier conversation with the President. The military aide returned a few minutes later, probably between 10:12 and 10:18, and said the aircraft was 60 miles out. He again asked for authorization to engage. TheVice President again said yes. 219
At the conference room table was White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. Bolten watched the exchanges and, after what he called “a quiet moment, ”suggested that theVice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order. Bolten told us he wanted to make sure the President was told that the Vice President had executed the order. He said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the President. 220
The Vice President was logged calling the President at 10:18 for a twominute conversation that obtained the confirmation. On Air Force One, the President’s press secretary was taking notes; Ari Fleischer recorded that at 10:20, the President told him that he had authorized a shootdown of aircraft if necessary. 221
Minutes went by and word arrived of an aircraft down in Pennsylvania.
Those in the shelter wondered if the aircraft had been shot down pursuant to this authorization. 222
At approximately 10:30, the shelter started receiving reports of another hijacked plane, this time only 5 to 10 miles out. Believing they had only a minute or two, the Vice President again communicated the authorization to “engage or “take out” the aircraft. At 10:33, Hadley told the air threat conference call: “I need to get word to Dick Myers that our reports are there’s an inbound aircraft flying low 5 miles out. The Vice President’s guidance was we need to take them out. ”223
Once again, there was no immediate information about the fate of the
42 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT
inbound aircraft. In the apt description of one witness, “It drops below the radar screen and it’s just continually hovering in your imagination; you don’t know where it is or what happens to it. ” Eventually, the shelter received word that the alleged hijacker 5 miles away had been a medevac helicopter. 224
Transmission of the Authorization from the White House to the Pilots The NMCC learned of United 93’s hijacking at about 10:03. At this time the FAA had no contact with the military at the level of national command. The NMCC learned about United 93 from the White House. It, in turn, was informed by the Secret Service’s contacts with the FAA. 225
NORAD had no information either. At 10:07, its representative on the air threat conference call stated that NORAD had “no indication of a hijack heading to DC at this time. ”226
Repeatedly between 10:14 and 10:19, a lieutenant colonel at the White House relayed to the NMCC that the Vice President had confirmed fighters were cleared to engage inbound aircraft if they could verify that the aircraft was hijacked. 227
The commander of NORAD, General Ralph Eberhart, was en route to the NORAD operations center in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, when the shootdown order was communicated on the air threat conference call. He told us that by the time he arrived, the order had already been passed down NORAD’s chain of command. 228
It is not clear how the shootdown order was communicated within NORAD. But we know that at 10:31, General Larry Arnold instructed his staff to broadcast the following over a NORAD instant messaging system: “10:31
Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond per [General Arnold]. ”229
In upstate New York, NEADS personnel first learned of the shootdown order from this message:
Floor Leadership: You need to read this. . . . The Region Commander has declared that we can shoot down aircraft that do not respond to our direction. Copy that?
Controllers: Copy that, sir.
Floor Leadership: So if you’re trying to divert somebody and he won’t divert—
Controllers: DO [Director of Operations] is saying no.
Floor Leadership: No? It came over the chat. . . . You got a conflict on that direction?
Controllers: Right now no, but—
Floor Leadership: Okay? Okay, you read that from the Vice President, right? Vice President has cleared. Vice President has cleared us to
“WE HAVE SOME PLANES” 43
In interviews with us, NEADS personnel expressed considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order.
The NEADS commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the senior weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID
type and tail. ”231
In most cases, the chain of command authorizing the use of force runs from the president to the secretary of defense and from the secretary to the combatant commander. The President apparently spoke to Secretary Rumsfeld for the first time that morning shortly after 10:00. No one can recall the content of this conversation, but it was a brief call in which the subject of shootdown authority was not discussed. 232
At 10:39, the Vice President updated the Secretary on the air threat conference:
Vice President: There’s been at least three instances here where we’ve had reports of aircraft approaching Washington—a couple were confirmed hijack. And, pursuant to the President’s instructions I gave authorization for them to be taken out. Hello?
SecDef:Yes, I understand. Who did you give that direction to?
Vice President: It was passed from here through the [operations] center at the White House, from the [shelter].
SecDef: OK, let me ask the question here. Has that directive been transmitted to the aircraft?
Vice President:Yes, it has.
SecDef: So we’ve got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?
Vice President: That is correct. And it’s my understanding they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.
SecDef: We can’t confirm that. We’re told that one aircraft is down but we do not have a pilot report that did it. 233
As this exchange shows, Secretary Rumsfeld was not in the NMCC when the shootdown order was first conveyed. He went from the parking lot to his office (where he spoke to the President), then to the Executive Support Center, where he participated in theWhite House video teleconference.He moved
44 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT
to the NMCC shortly before 10:30, in order to join Vice Chairman Myers.
Secretary Rumsfeld told us he was just gaining situational awareness when he spoke with theVice President at 10:39. His primary concern was ensuring that the pilots had a clear understanding of their rules of engagement. 234
TheVice President was mistaken in his belief that shootdown authorization had been passed to the pilots flying at NORAD’s direction. By 10:45 there was, however, another set of fighters circling Washington that had entirely different rules of engagement. These fighters, part of the 113th Wing of the District of Columbia Air National Guard, launched out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in response to information passed to them by the Secret Service. The first of the Andrews fighters was airborne at 10:38. 235
General DavidWherley—the commander of the 113thWing—reached out to the Secret Service after hearing secondhand reports that it wanted fighters airborne. A Secret Service agent had a phone in each ear, one connected to Wherley and the other to a fellow agent at the White House, relaying instructions that the White House agent said he was getting from theVice President.
The guidance for Wherley was to send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol. General Wherley translated this in military terms to flying “weapons free”—that is, the decision to shoot rests in the cockpit, or in this case in the cockpit of the lead pilot. He passed these instructions to the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward. 236
Thus, while the fighter pilots under NORAD direction who had scrambled out of Langley never received any type of engagement order, the Andrews pilots were operating weapons free—a permissive rule of engagement. The President and theVice President indicated to us they had not been aware that fighters had been scrambled out of Andrews, at the request of the Secret Service and outside the military chain of command. 237 There is no evidence that NORAD headquarters or military officials in the NMCC knew—during the morning of September 11—that the Andrews planes were airborne and operating under different rules of engagement.
NORAD officials have maintained consistently that had the passengers not caused United 93 to crash, the military would have prevented it from reaching Washington, D. C. That conclusion is based on a version of events that we now know is incorrect. The Langley fighters were not scrambled in response to United 93; NORAD did not have 47 minutes to intercept the flight;
NORAD did not even know the plane was hijacked until after it had crashed.
It is appropriate, therefore, to reconsider whether United 93 would have been intercepted.
Had it not crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03, we estimate that United 93
“WE HAVE SOME PLANES” 45
could not have reachedWashington any earlier than 10:13, and probably would have arrived before 10:23. There was only one set of fighters circling Washington during that time frame—the Langley F-16s. They were armed and under NORAD’s control. After NEADS learned of the hijacking at 10:07, NORAD
would have had from 6 to 16 minutes to locate the flight, receive authorization to shoot it down, and communicate the order to the pilots, who (in the same span) would have had to authenticate the order, intercept the flight, and execute the order. 238
At that point in time, the Langley pilots did not know the threat they were facing, did not know where United 93 was located, and did not have shootdown authorization.
First, the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled. As the lead pilot explained, “I reverted to the Russian threat. . . . I’m thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know you look down and see the Pentagon burning and I thought the bastards snuck one by us. . . . [Y]ou couldn’t see any airplanes, and no one told us anything. ”The pilots knew their mission was to divert aircraft, but did not know that the threat came from hijacked airliners. 239
Second, NEADS did not have accurate information on the location of United 93. Presumably FAA would have provided such information, but we do not know how long that would have taken, nor how long it would have taken NEADS to locate the target.
Third, NEADS needed orders to pass to the pilots. At 10:10, the pilots over Washington were emphatically told, “negative clearance to shoot. ” Shootdown authority was first communicated to NEADS at 10:31. It is possible that NORAD commanders would have ordered a shootdown in the absence of the authorization communicated by theVice President, but given the gravity of the decision to shoot down a commercial airliner, and NORAD’s caution that a mistake not be made, we view this possibility as unlikely. 240
NORAD officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure. 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 Capitol or the White House from destruction.
The details of what happened on the morning of September 11 are complex, but they play out a simple theme. NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11, 2001. They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never before encountered and had never trained to meet.
At 10:02 that morning, an assistant to the mission crew commander at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York, was working
46 THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT
with his colleagues on the floor of the command center. In a brief moment of reflection, he was recorded remarking that “This is a new type of war. ”241 He was, and is, right. But the conflict did not begin on 9/11. It had been publicly declared years earlier, most notably in a declaration faxed early in 1998 to an Arabic-language newspaper in London. Few Americans had noticed it. The fax had been sent from thousands of miles away by the followers of a Saudi exile gathered in one of the most remote and impoverished countries on earth.
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