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about only seven air bases protecting the nation on 9/11 and the Pentagon
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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 cash.
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 terrorist suspects.
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 crisis.
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
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 the plane.
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 toward Washington.
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
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
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
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 says.
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.
Should the FAA act faster to close the nation's airports in a major crisis?
As the air traffic control system faltered while tracking four hijacked
planes, the FAA ordered airport closings in a series of stages during
the 24 minutes after the second World Trade Center impact. During that
period, at least several hundred more airliners, cargo planes and smaller
aircraft continued to take off, at a time when no one knew if more hijackers
were on board some of them, according to a Newsday analysis of federal
Departmen of Transportation flight data.
Why weren't Pentagon leaders alerted and employees evacuated? Although
the military's air defense command got word from the FAA about 13 minutes
before Flight 77's crash that a hijacked airliner was streaking toward
Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top aides remained
unaware of any danger up to the moment of impact, officials said. After
learning of the World Trade Center attacks, Rumsfeld remained in his office,
and Pentagon security officials took no steps to alert or evacuate the
building's 20,000 employees. Neither the White House nor Congress
were evacuated, either.
The hijacking of four airliners by terrorists planning to crash the planes
was unprecedented, and officials say any assessment of government responses
has to recognize that agencies had only a short time to deal with a staggering,
multifaceted threat that nobody else in history had ever faced. Previous
hijackings have been carried out by hijackers who wanted to land safely.
The military has released information on its response times, but an FAA
spokesman told Newsday that because the attacks are under investigation,
the agency is not discussing the timing of its alerts to the military.
Several members of Congress told Newsday they expect oversight hearings
into the crisis. Rep. John McHugh (R-Watertown), an Armed Services Committee
member, said: "Our committee will unquestionably look at what the
shortcomings were in defense." Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), a veteran
House member, said: "We'll see a very methodical review about what
we did well, and what we could do better."
Problems With Watch Lists
For years, federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have compiled
watch lists of suspected criminals and possible terrorist figures. They
are circulated among agencies that include the FBI, the CIA, the Customs
Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The aim is to
alert agents who might want to detain or question suspects when they enter
the United States.
Two of the Flight 77 hijackers, Al-Midhar and Al-Hamzi, had been on a
watch list circulating among agencies since Aug. 23, federal agents said.
Agents said the two names had been supplied by the CIA because of a possible
link between them and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire suspected
of planning and financing many terrorist operations including the Sept.
Officials said the CIA had obtained a videotape of the two men meeting
in Malaysia with operatives for bin Laden in January 2000, and that Al-Midhar's
name also had emerged in the ongoing investigation into the bombing of
the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
It isn't known whether the two terrorists had been on any previous watch
lists or, if not, why the intelligence information collected about them
last year wasn't circulated until Aug. 23. The CIA refused to comment.
A U.S. official, who would speak only if his agency wasn't identified,
said the CIA had gotten additional information this year, but the official
would not say what it was. He said the CIA had "no inkling that these
two individuals, or anyone else for that matter, was planning to do something
along these lines."
After the INS determined in August that the two men already had entered
the United States, the FBI launched a search but couldn't find them before
the Sept. 11 attack.
FBI and American Airlines officials have refused to say if their names
were given to the airline, but the Los Angeles Times reported last week
that they weren't. Generally agencies regard the lists as sensitive intelligence
and do not routinely distribute the information among airlines, officials
Former U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly, now working for the U.S.
Transportation Department on ways to improve airline security, told the
Los Angeles Times that there have been ongoing problems with "coordination
and communication among agencies. I'm not sure all appropriate agencies
get the watch list and if it's kept up in a timely fashion."
Other problems exist. The airline industry has no central reservations
system for all airlines. There's no single database that could be used
to plug in the names of suspected terrorists. Instead, four private companies
run reservations systems used by airlines and travel agents. The largest
one, Sabre, handles 40 percent of the world's airline reservations.
William Vincent, former FAA security director, told Newsday the watch
lists are "not a guarantee that they can keep these people off the
Another problem is that American spellings of Middle Eastern names often
vary widely. If a federal agency's version of a name were plugged into
a computer and the reservation was made in a different version of the
same name, the red flag might not be raised. Vincent also said watch lists
don't include photographs that might help prevent suspects from boarding.
Bungles involving watch lists aren't new. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a
blind Muslim cleric with ties to Islamic radical groups, was already on
a watch list in 1990 when the State Department mistakenly granted him
a visa into the United States. One problem, officials said, was that various
documents had four versions of his name.
He is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up tunnels and other
facilities in New York City, and some of his followers were convicted
in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Off the Screen
Until six minutes before the second airliner hit the World Trade Center,
Flight 77 appeared to air traffic controllers in the FAA's Washington
Air Route Traffic Center in Leesburg, Va., to be just another flight they
were routinely tracking. When the Boeing 757 reached central West Virginia,
it was routinely "handed off" by Leesburg to the next air traffic
control center, outside Indianapolis.
Flight 77 continued west, appearing on the radar screens with a data
block identifying the airline, flight number, altitude and type of plane
- information from the plane's transponders, which are signal transmitting
devices. The plane inched across the screen, the radar updating every
Then Flight 77 began to turn slightly - and abruptly disappeared from
the radar screens. Suddenly there was no transponder signal.
Federal officials say the terrorists apparently shut down the transponders
in all four hijacked airliners as they took control. The air traffic controllers
didn't know it, but Flight 77 was making a U-turn and heading east.
Normally, when an aircraft's transponder cuts off, the plane is still
visible as what's called a "primary target" or "skinpaint"
- a target the radar is picking up but can't identify. The controllers
in Indianapolis kept watching for Flight 77 to appear over Kentucky, Ohio
or Indiana - but they weren't looking for it to reappear far to the east,
over West Virginia where the plane had come from, sources said.
Back in Leesburg, air traffic controllers knew at about 9:05 a.m. that
they had a new eastbound plane on their radar, but they didn't know it
was Flight 77. The aircraft had entered their airspace with no radio contact
and no transponder identification.
During the confusion, rumors circulated that Flight 77 might have exploded
in midair. It wasn't until 9:24 a.m. that the FAA alerted the military
that the plane was heading for Washington.
FAA spokesman William Shumann said the agency would not comment on its
actions during the Sept. 11 crisis. Sources said that in coming weeks,
the FAA may release air traffic control tapes that could tell more about
what the agency knew and how it responded.
Another response-time question involves American Airlines Flight 11,
the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. The New York Times reported
that air controllers first knew at about 8:20 a.m. that there had been
a probable hijacking of that plane. But the FAA didn't notify the military
until 20 minutes later, according to a North American Aerospace Defense
One aviation expert said a simple change in the way airliner transponders
work could have helped significantly on Sept. 11.
Every commercial aircraft has two transponders, one for backup if the
first one fails. It's easy to turn the devices off - the cockpit ceiling
and walls are lined with knobs that control circuit breakers for all the
systems of the plane. The pilot must be able to turn off systems easily
to prevent the spread of a fire.
Ken Susko, a Long Island-based aviation consultant and former Navy flight
engineer, said aircraft should be modified so that if the transponder
is turned off in the cockpit, a signal is generated to the controllers.
"That should trigger a signal, and then you could have a keyword
or phrase to ask if a hijacking is in progress," Susko said. "They
might have been able to prevent the attack if that safety feature was
on it. It's no big engineering feat to do it."
The transponder issue came up briefly at a congressional hearing last
week. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told legislators that the
FAA would be willing to examine the question, but the matter was not discussed
During the confusing first hour of the Sept. 11 emergency, Mineta had
to cope with the unprecedented decision of whether to shut down take-offs
from the nation's airports to stop more planes that might have hijackers
aboard from getting into the air. It was a decision with a big price tag.
Airlines frequently complain about temporary shutdowns for weather or
congestion, called "ground stops," because if planes aren't
flying, the airlines aren't making money. The nation's 10 largest airlines
alone spend close to $250 million a day, and a majority of those costs
continue even if the planes are grounded.
The FAA responded by closing airports completely or stopping take-offs
in a series of stages and did not ban all take-offs across the country
until 9:26 a.m., 24 minutes after the second impact at the World Trade
Air traffic data for major airports examined by Newsday suggest that
at least several hundred additional planes entered the nation's airspace
during the crisis before the nationwide shutdown. The total would be higher
when take-offs from smaller airports are considered.
Shumann, the FAA spokesman, said he didn't know if there had been any
discussion in the agency of whether the airspace should have been closed
"If there have been such discussions, we would not be commenting
on those discussions," he said. "Decisions like that are part
of the investigation into what happened ... how quickly did we, the government,
The Vulnerable Capital
By the time employees inside the Pentagon realized they were the terrorists'
next target, it was already over. The sound of Flight 77 slamming into
the building - a deafening crash to those nearby, a dull thump elsewhere
in the massive structure - was their first alert.
There had been no warning broadcast inside the building that a plane
might be approaching, and no orders given to evacuate, even though the
FAA had notified air defense commanders that a hijacked airliner was heading
toward Washington 13 minutes before it hit the Pentagon.
Even the clear sign of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil - the second plane
slamming into the World Trade Center 35 minutes before one hit the Pentagon
- barely elevated the state of readiness inside the nation's military
headquarters, leaving many of the building's 20,000 workers still sitting
at their desks when the plane struck. Some told Newsday they heard the
crash but didn't know the plane had hit the Pentagon until they saw it
To many Americans, it probably seems inconceivable that an unauthorized
aircraft could get that close to the nation's military command center
on any day, let alone one when the nation was under attack. Yet U.S. continental
air defenses, slashed dramatically since the Cold War ended and never
designed to thwart an internal threat, were helpless to stop the attacks,
leaving the nation's capital and its most populated city exposed.
The nation's sharpest military thinkers simply had never planned for
such a massive and well-coordinated assault, one defense official told
"I don't think any of us envisioned an internal air threat by big
aircraft," he said. "I don't know of anybody that ever thought
through that. We're probably all at fault in some way for not thinking
through the scope of that."
Despite Andrews Air Force Base's proximity to the capital, fighter jets
don't "sit alert" there the way they do at Langley, ready to
take to the air in 15 minutes. Until Sept. 11, one defense official said,
they didn't have to - fighters at Langley would have plenty of time to
intercept any enemy aircraft coming from outside the United States.
On Sept. 11, the Langley jets still were 105 miles away when the Pentagon
"We normally sit alert looking out and what happened with this is
the threat was from within, and we hadn't looked into our own country
before," Maj. General Paul A. Weaver Jr., director of the Air National
Guard, said shortly after the attacks. "All of a sudden the threat
was from within."
Some relatives of Pentagon victims are angry not only a the terrorists
but also the federal government.
"Why is it that a plane can get so close to us?" asked Trisha
McCants, whose mother is missing. "I'm mad. Once they knew the plane
was off course, they should have stopped it."
Others accepted what happened as an unpredictable risk. "It's not
my job to second guess," said Army employee Floyd Rasmussen, whose
wife, also a Pentagon worker, was killed.
At the height of the Cold War, U.S. warplanes used to stand ready
at 90 to 100 sites across the nation, there to intercept a Soviet bomber
coming down from Alaska, and later to ward off intercontinental ballistic
When the Soviet Union fell, nearly all of those readiness patrols
were eliminated. Before the attack, the number of alert bases had dropped
to just seven sites around the country, mostly ringing the coast in the
South and West for drug interdiction and other purposes.
In 1993, Colin Powell, then chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of
Staff and now Secretary of State - recommended that the number of bases
on alert be sharply reduced or eliminated. More recently, before the attacks,
Air Force planners also had considered scaling back the number of alert
bases to shift money toward new technologies.
Since the attacks, fighter jets at 26 sites near heavily populated areas
have been put on 15-minute alert.
Inside the Pentagon before it was struck, the civilian police force that
patrols the building elevated the "force protection level" just
one notch, from "normal" to "alpha," after the second
World Trade Center tower was struck but did not order an evacuation.
"To call for a general evacuation, at that point, it would have
been just guessing," said a Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood. "We
evacuate when we know something is a real threat to us." Flood and
others now say an evacuation could have put more employees at risk by
moving them outside the protective walls of the building.
Air Force Lt. Col. Vic Warzinski, another Pentagon spokesman, added:
"The Pentagon was simply not aware that this aircraft was coming
our way, and I doubt prior to Tuesday's event, anyone would have expected
anything like that here. There was no foreshadowing, no particular
warning that would have led anyone with any reasonable view of the world
to think this was a threat we faced."
Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who co-chaired a homeland security commission
that in 1999 predicted a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil, scoffs
at that explanation.
"The Pentagon's been ground zero for 50 years, ever since the Soviets
got a missile, so it shouldn't have been a great surprise," said
Hart, who believes military planners envisioned nothing more than "a
madman in a single-engine Cessna" coming after the Pentagon, in much
the way such a plane once landed on the White House lawn.
"A cold war ended 10 years ago but a new one began," Hart said.
"If you could drive a bomb into the Twin Towers in 1993, I would
think someone at the Pentagon would have said, 'They could do something
Staff writers Richard J. Dalton Jr., Elaine S. Povich, Ellen Yan, Eden
Laikin and Deborah Barfield contributed to this story.
--Cities where fighter jets were launched from:
1) Washington, D.C., High Altitude Air Traffic Control Center coverage
2) Indianapolis High Altitude Air Traffic Control Center coverage area
3) Last tracked location of Flight 77 (flight heads back to D.C. and
crashes into Pentagon)
Timeline of Events
7:45 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 leaves Boston for Los Angeles.
7:58 United Airlines Flight 175 leaves Boston for Los Angeles.
8:01 United Airlines Flight 93 leaves Newark for San Francisco.
8:10 American Airlines Flight 77 leaves Washington for Los Angeles.
8:20 Air trafÞc controllers in New England suspect Flight 11 has
8:40 FAA notifies NEADS (Northeast Air Defense Sector) of NORAD, the
military's civil defense system, about Flight 11.
8:43 FAA notifies NEADS about Flight 175.
8:46 American Airlines Flight 11 hits the World Trade Center's north
tower. Two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape
Cod, 153 miles from New York City, are ordered to go to New York.
8:52 F-15s become airborne.
8:55 Flight 77 stops flying west and turns east.
8:56 Air traffic controllers in Indianapolis lose radar contact with
9:02 United Flight 175 hits the World Trade Center's south tower.
9:03 Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center halts traffic from its airports
to all New York area airspace.
9:05 Flight 77 appears as an unidentified blip on radar over West Virginia.
9:06 Order is expanded to include the entire Northeast from Washington
to Cleveland. FAA's air traffic control center outside Washington notifies
all air traffic facilities nationwide of the suspected hijacking of Flight
9:08 FAA orders all aircraft to leave New York area airspace and orders
all New York-bound planes nationwide to stay on the ground.
9:17 New York City airports shut down.
9:24 FAA notifies NEADS about Flight 77.
9:24 Two F-16 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va.,
ordered to take off for Washington.
9:26 FAA halts takeoffs nationwide. Airborne international flights told
to land in Canada.
9:30 Two F-16s take off from Langley AFB.
9:37 Flight 77 hits the Pentagon.
9:45 FAA orders all planes in the air to land at the nearest airport.
9:48 Capitol and West Wing of White House evacuated.
10:03 United Flight 93 crashes 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
10:15 2,000 planes have landed in the U.S. since 9:45 order was issued.
12:16 All aircraft ordered to land at 9:45 have landed.
SOURCE: Compiled from wire sources, press reports and government records
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.