Open and Shut

Four years later, we still have ten big questions

On Monday, December 5, the 9-11 Public Discourse Project�a private group formed by 9-11 Commission members after their official mandate lapsed in 2004�held a wrap-up press briefing in Washington, signaling the last gasp of official inquiries into the attacks four years ago. The National Institute of Standards and Technology also recently completed its final report on the twin towers. Already gathering dust are a Federal Emergency Management Agency study, the joint inquiry by Congress, the McKinsey reports on New York City's emergency response, probes by federal inspectors general, and other efforts to resolve the myriad doubts about the hijackings.

Some questions can't be answered: People who lost loved ones will never know exactly how the end came, if it hurt, what the final thoughts and words were. But other questions are more tractable. Here are 10 of them:

1. Where was the "National Command Authority"?

photo: Joe Zeff


See also:
  • Running From the Truth
    9-11 Commission dealt with several issues by simply ignoring them
    by James Ridgeway
  • There has never been a true accounting of why the nation's leaders were out of the loop for so long that morning. George W. Bush and his aides even have told different versions of how the president was actually informed of the first plane striking: The president claimed erroneously that he saw it on TV, while chief of staff Andrew Card said it was Karl Rove who told the president. According to the official version, after Rove told Bush, the president talked to then national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. She told him about the crash but apparently did not know about the reported hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11, which military air defenses learned about 17 minutes earlier.

    Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was informed of the second plane hitting the WTC�yes, the second plane�during his intelligence briefing but continued the briefing and was at his desk when Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.

    Together, the president and secretary of defense are the National Command Authority that is supposed to lead the country in the case of military emergency. But Bush didn't get in touch with Rumsfeld until after 10 a.m., around the time the fourth and final plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When Bush was criticized days after 9-11 for failing to return to Washington until more than 10 hours after the first attack, the White House claimed there had been a threat ("real and credible," in flack Ari Fleischer's words) to Air Force One. There was none. All the 9-11 Commission says of this phantom threat is that it was the product of "a misunderstood communication."

    2. Who gave the order to try to shoot the planes down?

    The commission is noticeably vague on this point. The official version says Dick Cheney told the military a little past 10 a.m. to shoot down a threatening plane, claiming that the president had given his approval for the order. But while a few people in the White House bunker noted a call between Cheney and Bush moments earlier, only Rice says she heard Cheney bring up the shoot-down order. Despite the fact that people at both ends of the call were taking notes, the commission found that "there is no documentary evidence of this call." Meanwhile, some of the fighter jets in the air over D.C. received no orders to shoot down planes, while other military aircraft got the OK from the Secret Service to fly "weapons free," which means they had wide authority to take out suspicious aircraft.

    Since the military was given little or no notice about the planes, maybe it doesn't matter who authorized a shoot-down. But the record is unclear. Neither Cheney nor Bush testified under oath before the 9-11 panel, in public or private.

    3. What exactly were all those firefighters doing in the towers?

    Reports on the disaster reflect confusion over the exact mission of the firefighters who climbed the twin towers, many of whom died. The 9-11 Commission says fire chiefs decided early on that because the fire was so big, their job would "primarily be one of rescue." But NIST reports that some fire commanders thought their men would fight fires to save people trapped above them, and individual fire companies thought their mission was to "get up to the fire as soon as possible, put the fire out, and get ready for their next assignment." According to oral histories collected by the FDNY, some firefighters were told to head up the stairs carrying hoses, and others to drop their hoses in the lobby. Some were ordered simply to head up the stairs without a clear idea of where they were going or why.

    While it is doubtless that first responders saved lives that day, it's not clear that there were many people left to be rescued when late-arriving firefighters began climbing the stairs, especially in the north tower. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg have said up to 25,000 people escaped the towers; NIST has put that figure at around 15,000�still a blessing. But NIST believes that 90 percent of those civilians who survived started descending both towers before the second plane hit. (About 1,000 of them were "mobility impaired" and needed help getting out.) Just shy of 2,000 of the roughly 2,150 civilians who died in the towers were trapped above the impact zones, with no chance of rescue.

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