Air defense unit faces criticism from 9/11 panel

Interim reports suggest NORAD had time to send jet fighters, down plane

April 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is expected to offer sharp criticism of the Pentagon's domestic air-defense command in the panel's final report. They will suggest that quicker military action on that morning might have prevented a hijacked passenger jet from crashing into the Pentagon according to commission officials.

The performance of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and its failure to protect Washington and New York City from attack on Sept. 11 will be a focus of the remaining public hearings of the 10-member commission, which is in the final weeks of its investigation.

Commission officials said interim reports that were expected to be released at the hearings would suggest that NORAD had time Sept. 11 to launch jet fighters that could have intercepted and possibly shot down American Airlines Flight 77.

The plane crashed into the Pentagon about 9:40 a.m., more than 50 minutes after the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. A total of 184 people died in the Pentagon attack.

The commission is trying to establish a timeline of how and when military pilots reporting to NORAD were informed on Sept. 11 that President Bush had given the order allowing them to shoot down passenger planes.

NORAD officers have said previously that they did not learn of the order until about 10:10 a.m., a few minutes after the last of the four hijacked jets crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania.

But White House officials have suggested that the order was made earlier in the morning and should have been communicated immediately to pilots.

The commission has repeatedly complained that NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canadian military command created at the height of the Cold War in 1958 to defend air space over North America from Soviet missiles and bombers, has been uncooperative in the panel's investigation.

In November, the commission issued a subpoena to the Pentagon after learning that a variety of pertinent documents, tapes and other evidence from NORAD had not been turned over to the panel. The only other federal agency subpoenaed by the commission was the Federal Aviation Administration, which is under scrutiny by the panel for air-safety lapses related to its communications with NORAD on Sept. 11.

A spokesman for NORAD's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., Lt. Col. Roberto Garza, insisted that NORAD had fully cooperated with the commission, although he said he could not discuss issues that are now before the panel. "If we speak, we speak to the commission," he said.

Senior military commanders noted that, before Sept. 11, fighter pilots had no authority to shoot down a passenger plane.

But their defense of NORAD's actions became more difficult this month with the disclosure that NORAD planners had specifically weighed the possibility well before Sept. 11 that passenger planes might be used as missiles against domestic targets.

The disclosure came in the form of a newly unearthed 2001 memo showing that in April of that year, NORAD considered an exercise in which military commanders would weigh how to respond to an attack in which terrorists flew a hijacked plane into the Pentagon, precisely what happened five months later.

The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in an interview that NORAD's actions would be closely scrutinized at hearings next month in New York City, which will focus on the government's emergency response system, and at a final round of public hearings in Washington in June.

"Even with our subpoenas, NORAD has been slow to act on our document requests, and that's why we haven't talked particularly about NORAD in our earlier hearings," Kean said. "Now we will."

Other commission officials said the panel's investigators were focusing on the actions of NORAD during a two-hour period on Sept. 11 after 8:20 a.m., when the Federal Aviation Administration got its first clue that a passenger plane had been hijacked: The electronic transponder on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles had been switched off.

The officials said the commission wants to know why, by NORAD's own timeline, it took 44 minutes after that same American Airlines plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York for NORAD to launch jet fighters in the vicinity of Washington.

By the time three F-16 jet fighters were airborne from Langley Air Force Base, Va., about 105 miles from Washington, American Airlines Flight 77 was seven minutes from plunging into the Pentagon.

Jet fighters stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, which is a few miles outside Washington and is the home base of Air Force One, were not scrambled despite urgent telephone pleas that morning from the Secret Service for help in defending the White House.

NORAD's mission has been overhauled since Sept. 11, with its commanders now focusing intently on the possibility of more domestic terrorist threats from the air.

"The good news is that we've come a remarkable distance," said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander of NORAD, in congressional testimony recently.

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