Plane Truth


After decades of promising that should the Soviets dare to attack, the American military would hurl missiles and planes into the air to defend the homeland within minutes, how come the country was without any air defense on 9-11, when, as Condi Rice put it last week, the Bush administration was at “battle stations”? Just 13 days before the attack, President Bush assured a group of veterans, “I will not permit any course that leaves America undefended.”

Only two jet fighters were scrambled when news of the first hijackings reached the military, and with American Flight 11 having changed course and heading straight for Manhattan, no one thought to order immediate evacuation of the WTC, a long-standing terrorist target, as well as other tall buildings in New York. There was about half an hour from the moment the FAA learned of the hijacking until a plane smashed into the building. Although there seemed to be sufficient time to protect the Pentagon, nothing was done there. By the time the Pentagon was hit, the military had managed to get two more jet fighters into the air, for a total of four.

In his defensive and sometimes confusing testimony before the 9-11 Commission two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was in his Pentagon office when the building was hit, first said he was without any real help in the Defense Department because appointees had not been approved or cleared to take their jobs. And he was more or less home alone. Anyhow, he couldn’t have done anything about it anyway, because he didn’t have authority over commercial jets. His job was defending the country’s borders and working outside—not inside—the U.S. Controlling commercial jets—even when they had been turned into missiles—was out of his jurisdiction and was the FAA’s responsibility. He did admit to having authority to protect the Pentagon, which despite ample warning, he didn’t do.

As for useful intelligence, while there had been a “spike” indicating some sort of possible activity somewhere in the world, Rumsfeld said, “I am reminded that most of that intelligence was focused on overseas threats and some of it focused on potential hijackings, and that steps were taken by the FAA to warn about potential hijackings. However, I don’t recall receiving anything in the months prior to 9-11 that suggested terrorists might take commercial airliners and use them as missiles to fly into buildings like the World Trade Center towers or the Pentagon.” In fact, as the Senate Intelligence Committee has noted in its report, there were any number of reports on precisely that sort of threat.

What stands out about that day is the complete lack of air defense not just in New York City, but along the borders of the entire country. It turns out that since 1997 there have been only 14 fighter planes on active alert at any one time to defend the continental U.S. And in the months before 9-11, the Pentagon was trying to reduce the number further. Just after 9-11, the Los Angeles Times reported, “While defense officials say a decision had not yet been made, a reduction in air defenses had been gaining currency in recent months among task forces assigned by Rumsfeld to put together recommendations for a reassessment of the military.” Also during this time, FAA officials sought to dispense with “primary” radar altogether, so that if a plane were to turn its transponder off, no radar could see it. Aviation Week & Space Technology reported on June 3, 2002, that NORAD—the warning system agency—had rejected the proposal.

Additional reporting: Alicia Ng