Officials: Government failed to react to FAA warning
Officials: Government failed to react to FAA warning
Thu Mar 7 17:16:29 2002
Officials: Government failed to react to FAA warning
September 17, 2001 Posted: 9:12 AM EDT (1312 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The fede
ral government failed to heed a
warning from the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) to evacuate
key Washington buildings following
Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Center, senior
Defense Department officials told
The officials said no action was taken
for at least 12 minutes after the FAA
warned the military's air defense
command that a hijacked airliner
appeared to be headed toward
Only after the 9:38 a.m. impact into the
side of the Pentagon were other
government buildings evacuated,
including the White House and the
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) at Peterson Air
Force Base in Colorado was informed by the FAA at 9:25 a.m. that American
Airlines flight 77 might have been hijacked and appeared headed toward
Military officials at NORAD ordered fighter jets
from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to
intercept the flight, but neither the FAA,
NORAD, nor any other federal government
organization made any effort to evacuate the
buildings in Washington.
Officials at the Pentagon said that no
mechanism existed within the U.S. government
to notify various departments and agencies
under such circumstances.
Officials also told CNN that President George
W. Bush had not given authorization to the
Defense Department to shoot down a passenger
airliner until after the Pentagon had been struck.
Officials at the Pentagon also said that they
were never made aware of the threat from
hijacked United Airlines flight 93 until after it
crashed in Pennsylvania.
The informed defense officials laid out a timeline of the events surrounding the
series of terrorist attacks as follows: (Times are EDT and reflect actual, rather
than scheduled departure times of flights.)
--7:59 a.m.: American Airlines flight 11 takes off from Boston's Logan
--8:14 a.m.: United Airlines flight 175 takes off from Boston's Logan
--8:20 a.m.: American Airlines flight 11 stops transmitting IFF beacon signal
while over the Hudson River.
--8:20 a.m.: American Airlines flight 77 departs Dulles International Airport near
--8:38 a.m.: Boston air traffic center notifies NORAD that American Airlines
flight 11 has been hijacked.
--8:43 a.m.: FAA notifies NORAD that United Airlines flight 175 has been
--8:44 a.m.: Otis Air National Guard Base in Mass. orders to fighters scrambled.
--8:46 a.m.: American Airlines flight 11 strikes the World Trade Center's north
--8:47 a.m.: NORAD informed of the plane striking the World Trade Center.
--8:50 a.m.: United Airlines flight 175 deviates from its assigned flight path.
--8:52 a.m.: Two F-15 Eagles take off from Otis ANG Base in effort to
intercept hijacked plane(s) after first plane has struck the World Trade Center.
--9:02 a.m.: United Airlines flight 175 strikes the World Trade Center's south
tower (F-15 fighter jets from Otis ANG Base are still 70 miles away.)
--9:25 a.m.: FAA notifies NORAD that United flight 77 may have been hijacked.
--9:27 a.m.: (approximate time) NORAD orders jets scrambled from Langley Air
Force Base in Virginia to head to intercept United Airlines flight 77.
--9:35 a.m.: Three F-16 Fighting Falcons take off from Langley AFB headed
toward Washington area.
--9:37 a.m.: American Airlines flight 77 is lost from radar screens.
--9:38 a.m.: American Airlines flight 77 strikes the Pentagon.
--9:49 a.m.: F-16 fighter jets arrive over Washington, D.C. to perform Combat
Air Patrol (CAP) over city. (The fighters broke the sound barrier and traveled
supersonic at 720 knots to Washington, making the approximately 130 miles in
The following timeline is for United Airlines flight 93, scheduled to fly from
Newark International Airport to San Francisco. The flight crashed in
--8:42 a.m.: United Airlines flight 93 takes off from Newark International
--9:16 a.m.: FAA informs NORAD that United Airlines flight 93 may have been
--9:40 a.m.: Transponder signal from United flight 93 ceases and radar contact
--10:02 a.m.: After a review of radar tapes, a radar signal is detected near
Air Attack on Pentagon Indicates Weaknesses
By Sylvia Adcock, Brian Donovan and Craig Gordon
September 23, 2001
For the terrorist who called himself Khalid Al-Midhar,
getting onto the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon
was a breeze.
Even though the CIA had alerted other federal agencies
19 days earlier that Al-Midhar posed a threat, even
though the FBI was searching for him nationwide,
apparently nobody told American Airlines.
So Al-Midhar just did the same things any tourist or
business traveler would do. He logged on to American's
Web site and made a reservation under that name on
Flight 77 from Washington to Los Angeles, using his
frequent-flyer number. Six days before the hijacking, he
picked up his ticket at a Baltimore airport and paid
On Sept. 11 he walked through airport security at
Washington Dulles International and onto the plane
without any problems - along with a second hijacker,
known as Nawaf Al-Hamzi, who also had been listed
since Aug. 23 on the same federal "watch list" of
The ease with which the men federal agencies had
linked to terrorism boarded Flight 77 illustrates one of
several apparent lapses by federal agencies that
affected the Sept. 11 crisis.
As new details have emerged about government efforts
to deal with the attacks - and with the threat of
terrorism in general - some of the information is raising
pointed questions about how civilian and military
agencies handled their roles during and prior to the
As the country moves from shock and anger to a search for lessons on how to
strengthen national security, such questions are likely to be examined in detail
on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress said late last week.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said congressional hearings
probably will examine shortcomings in how the government dealt with the crisis
and new ways to safeguard air travel and protect major potential targets of
terrorists. The Sept. 11 suicide hijackings were unlike any previous terrorist
incident government officials have had to handle, and senior military officers
acknowledge that the armed services hadn't planned for such an attack.
"We want to do better than we did [on Sept. 11]," he said. "And the only way
you're going to do better is to understand where we all failed and what can be
done to improve our performance, to improve procedures, to improve laws, to
improve the performance of everybody who works for all of these agencies that
have strong responsibilities."
The story of Flight 77 - pieced together from government records, news reports
and interviews with military and civilian officials - suggests that faulty
communications among agencies, delays in some key actions and weaknesses
in military preparedness all figured in the way the disaster unfolded. Many of the
questions center on two phases of the crisis that involved Flight 77:
About 8:55 a.m. Flight 77 was flying west over southern Ohio when it abruptly
turned and headed back toward Washington. At this time, the Federal Aviation
Administration already had notified the military that two other airliners, the ones
that struck the World Trade Center, apparently had been hijacked and had veered
from their expected courses.
But the FAA temporarily lost track of Flight 77, after the terrorists turned off its
transponder, and about 29 minutes went by before the FAA alerted the military to
the new threat from the airliner, which was carrying Al-Midhar, Al-Hamzi and
three other hijackers. No attempt was made to evacuate the Pentagon before the
plane struck it. The crash killed 125 people in the Pentagon and all 64 people on
Twice during the crisis, the military launched fighter jets that raced toward the
hijacked planes. Two F-15 fighters raced toward New York City; two F-16s sped
But the number of air bases where fighter planes are kept on alert has dwindled
sharply in recent years, one of the generals who runs the system told Newsday.
And on Sept. 11, they no longer included any bases close to two obvious terrorist
targets - Washington, D.C., and New York City.
So the military had to use planes from air bases considerable distances away
from the two cities. The fighters dispatched to New York came from Otis Air
National Guard Base on Cape Cod, Mass., 153 miles from the World Trade
When the second tower of the World Trade Center was struck by a hijacked
airliner, United Airlines Flight 175, at 9:02 a.m., the planes from Cape Cod were
still 71 miles away, about eight minutes behind the terrorists.
The fighter jets launched toward Washington took off not from Andrews Air Force
Base, 15 miles from the capital, but from Langley Air Force Base near Hampton,
Va., 130 miles from Washington. When Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon at
9:37 a.m., those fighters were still 105 miles from the scene.
At that point, the fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, also had turned
around on its way to San Francisco and headed toward Washington. It crashed in
Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. after passengers reportedly fought with hijackers.
Vice President Dick Cheney has disclosed that President George W. Bush
authorized military jets to shoot down "as a last resort" a hijacked airliner,
apparently Flight 93, that was heading for Washington. Officials said later that the
decision wasn't made until after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
These are some of the questions about the government's handling of the crisis
and the circumstances surrounding them:
Did critical information get from the FAA to the military quickly enough? The
record suggests that teenagers on instant-message networks communicate
faster than some federal officials did during the crisis. After losing track of Flight
77 for about 10 minutes, the FAA rediscovered the plane heading east over West
Virginia, then took about 19 more minutes to alert the military. When Flight 77 hit
the Pentagon, the fighter jets from Langley were 12 minutes away, the military
Should terrorists be able to shut off an airliner's transponders? That's what
happened on Flight 77. Transponders send out a signal giving a plane's position
and identity. The simple action of turning them off appears to have given the Flight
77 terrorists about 10 minutes of valuable invisibility as they sped toward
Washington. Although officials say transponders need an on-off switch for
fire-safety reasons, one aviation expert told Newsday that a simple modification
could alert air traffic controllers whenever a specific transponder is shut off. That
would alert them that there might be a problem and give them a better chance to
continue tracking the plane with radar, he said.
Are federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies doing enough with the
information on their "watch lists" of suspected terrorists? Officials say airlines are
sometimes warned about specific suspects and sometimes they aren't. Terrorists
sometimes use phony names, which muddies the picture. But a computer
analysis of one watch list obtained by Newsday suggests a potentially ominous
finding: that besides the Sept. 11 hijackers, at least 10 more terrorist suspects,
who may still be in the United States, are trained as pilots.
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