Why Were We on Our Own?


NEW YORK—The 9-11 Commission inquiry is full of unspoken questions. One of them is whether poor communications impeded the city’s fire department at the scene of the World Trade Center’s collapse and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of firefighters.

A second issue, looming just below the surface, is the unspoken battle between New York City and the federal government. At Wednesday’s hearing, the focus on the failures of city rescue agencies obliterated any inquiry into the broader question of whether New York got up-to-date intelligence from the FBI and CIA—and if not, why not. In his testimony earlier today, Rudy Giuliani said it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Focusing on what went wrong with the city’s fire and police communications systems is small stuff compared with trying to figure out why George W. Bush jumped around the country from one bunker to another, finally turning up in New York three days after the attack.

That larger question may never be answered. But some ugly facts about the federal government’s action—or rather, inaction—is seeping out during testimony before the commission. Consider the following:

According to Giuliani’s testimony, when he was first told of the crash, upon leaving a midtown hotel, he immediately realized it must be a terrorist attack. Speeding downtown, the mayor tried to reach the White House on his cellphone, but couldn’t get through.

After reaching ground zero, he went to the city’s command center and, from a secure phone, he spoke to Governor George Pataki, who offered to mobilize the National Guard. Giuliani accepted the offer. He called the White House and spoke to a presidential aide, asking if it were true the Pentagon had been hit. “Confirmed” was the reply. Giuliani asked whether the city had air cover. Fighters had been sent aloft 12 minutes before, said the aide. The mayor was told that Vice President Dick Cheney would call him shortly. Almost immediately, the phone rang and an operator said Cheney was on the line. Then, the room started to shake under the tremendous crash of the first tower coming down.

Check out the chronology of events on 9-11 (for instance, at 11 Sept 2001 the Center for Cooperative Research’s detailed and heavily sourced timeline of accounts, news stories, and documents), and think about it:

American Flight 11 took off from Boston at 7:59 a.m. By probably 8:13 and certainly 8:15, the FAA knew it had been hijacked. Now, according to government officials quoted in a January 2002 Slate article, NORAD is notified by the FAA “about one minute” after it notices anything amiss, and NORAD says the military can scramble fighters “within a matter of minutes to anywhere in the United States.” That didn’t happen on 9-11. At 8:46, half an hour after the FAA knew that Flight 11 was hijacked, it crashed into the World Trade Center, unimpeded by any air-defense system. At almost exactly the same moment, Flight 77 from D.C. goes radically off course. Meanwhile, Flight 175 hits the WTC at 9:03. Just afterwards, Secret Service agents burst into Dick Cheney’s office, grab him under his arms and propel downstairs to the White House basement and then into a bunker. Bush, at a Florida grade school, is told about the second crash into the WTC but spends the next ten minutes with second-graders, listening to them read a story called “Pet Goat.”

At 9:59, the South Tower of the WTC collapses. At 10:28, the North Tower collapses.

During this entire time, New York City authorities were on their own. Beyond that, it seems scarcely conceivable, that with a nation under attack, the mayor of New York had to call Bush—not the other way around. Why was Giuliani not immediately alerted by the Pentagon or the White House or even the FAA?

It’s a “scandal,” says former Reagan Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, a member of the 9-11 Commission, that the city had such a lousy command structure. Not even the caliber of the Boy Scouts, he says. Instead of dwelling on the technical inadequacies of the fire and police, why won’t this commission get to the bottom of things? Why did the federal government not alert the city to what was going on? Why did the mayor have to call the White House? Where were the Air Force fighter jets? Where were the other federal agencies? Giuliani is high on his Office of Emergency Management. In that case, since the FAA knew almost immediately there was a hijacked plane, changing course and heading toward New York, why didn’t the Port Authority officials at the city airports receive an alert and pass it on?

If the federal agencies had acted promptly, passing on the news of the hijacking to the Pentagon and White House and from there to New York, it might well have been possible to fully evacuate at least one of the buildings before it was struck.

The responsibility for these massive failures lies with the Bush government, not local fire and police. Already many of the families are furious with the commission for ducking tough questions. To many of them, the commission is just another cover-up.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated where George Bush was on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in Florida, not Texas.