Where was the Air Force?
George W. Bush, writes former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, “failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from Al Qaeda despite repeated warnings and then harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks.”
That incendiary charge, coupled with his apologetic testimony before the commission investigating the attacks, has reignited a long-simmering debate: What did Bush know when and how quickly should he have done something about it?
But both the 9/11 commission and liberal opponents of the Bush administration are focusing on the wrong question. Nothing has surfaced from the 2001 “summer of threat” beyond a bunch of vague they’re-up-to-something caveats. The specific details intelligence agencies would have needed to stop the attacks before they happened – potential hijackers’ names, dates and times, targets – were maddeningly elusive.
The really big unanswered question of September 11, 2001, is this: Once it became obvious that at least four passenger jets had been hijacked – at one point that Tuesday morning, Clarke says the FAA thought it had as many as “11 aircraft off course or out of communications” – why didn’t our government intercept them?
To their credit, the Bushies quickly sussed out what was going on. “Well, now we know who we’re dealing with,” Clarke recalls remarking when he heard that United Flight 175 had smashed into the second World Trade Center tower. That was at 9:03 a.m. American 77 hit the Pentagon and United 93 went down over Pennsylvania 40 and 67 minutes later, respectively.
On a flight from Bishkek to Tehran on dilapidated Kyrgyzstan Airlines a few years ago, the pilot announced that the landing gear on my friend’s Tupolev 154 wouldn’t deploy. Tehran refused permission to crash-land the Soviet-era plane at its newly renovated airport. Five minutes later, my pal recalls, fighter jets appeared on each side of the crippled plane to escort it out of Iranian airspace. (It landed safely back in Bishkek.)
Why didn’t we respond to our crisis in the air on 9/11 with the same efficiency as Iran, a Third World country hobbled by international trade sanctions?
The notion of a hijacked passenger jet meandering over the northeastern United States, unmolested for more than an hour before blasting away a chunk of the Pentagon, should appall anyone whose taxes contributed to the quarter of a trillion dollars spent on defense that year. And if you stop and think about it, there was actually two hours in which something could have been done.
Fifteen minutes after taking off from Boston at 7:58 a.m., American Airlines flight attendant Madeline Sweeney telephoned a flight services manager back at Logan airport to report that two of her colleagues had been stabbed and a passenger had had his throat cut by Middle Eastern men. “This flight has been hijacked,” she concluded, maintaining her professional composure as Los Angeles-bound Flight 11 veered south toward Manhattan. Meanwhile, up in the cockpit, the pilot was frantically clicking his transmission button to tell air traffic controllers what was happening.
They figured it out at 8:13 a.m. The drama would end nearly two hours later with the crash in Pennsylvania. There was ample time for the airline to notify federal authorities and for the latter to order the Air Force to begin intercepting unresponsive or off-course planes – but slow-witted bureaucrats and years of doing domestic defense on the cheap whittled away precious minutes.
The North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) claims that it received FAA notification by 8:40 a.m., a dismaying 27 minutes after air traffic controllers determined that hijackings were in progress. According to The New York Times, only a dozen planes, all belonging to the weekend warriors of the Air National Guard, were assigned to protect the continental United States on the morning of 9/11. And not a single one was in the air.
The Air Force waited six minutes before responding to NORAD with a “scramble order,” the pilot needed another six minutes to get the first F-15 aloft and 17 more minutes were required to fly at Mach 0.9 from Otis air base in Cape Cod to New York City. The second hijacked plane had already hit when the Guardsman arrived over Ground Zero. The FAA notified NORAD about the Pentagon-bound plane at 9:24 p.m. and the Pennsylvania flight even later (the exact time remains unavailable). The time needed to scramble planes and travel from distant bases ate up the advance warning.
It’s unreasonable to expect the government to have anticipated 9/11. Once it began, however, previously established safeguards ought to have been deployed by fast-thinking officials to mitigate the damage.
Surface-to-air missiles ought to have protected the Pentagon from the incoming flight. A policy of keeping Air Force fighters aloft 24 hours a day could have allowed the shoot-down of the second New York-bound plane, saving hundreds at the second tower and possibly those who died at the Pentagon. And, rather than leave entire states undefended by air bases, spreading military facilities evenly throughout U.S. territory would have shrunk response time to a bare minimum.
Bush and his cabinet members should explain why they didn’t take such common-sense precautions to defend us before 9/11 – and what they’re waiting for now.
Ted Rall is a columnist and cartoonist who writes for a generation unjustly maligned as a group of lazy slackers. Contact him at 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111. His column appears every Tuesday in The Aspen Times.