WASHINGTON - US fighter jets had virtually no chance to shoot down or intercept four hijacked planes on September 11, 2001, because of confusion and poor communication among "unprepared" officials responsible for America's air defences, a special commission said on Thursday.
The confusion was shared by Vice President Dick Cheney, who wrongly believed at one point that the military had downed "a couple" of aircraft under orders he conveyed, the panel said.
In a report that included chilling quotes from hijackers commandeering the doomed aircraft, the commission's staff found a White House order to shoot down hijacked planes did not reach Air Force jets until after the last airliner had crashed.
Although fighter jets were airborne seven minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, military officials received insufficient notice of the other hijackings to stop the planes, the staff statement said.
The civilian Federal Aviation Administration came under particular attack. "I think (FAA) headquarters blew it," said panel member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator.
Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), said that if the FAA had immediately reported all it knew to the military command, jets could have shot down the planes.
The earliest notice the military had of any of the hijackings was nine minutes before a plane crashed.
The report was presented at the final hearing of the 10-member government-established panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people. In the audience sat grieving relatives of some of victims, several clutching photographs of their loved ones.
The report said NORAD and FAA officials were "unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001," and "struggled under difficult circumstances to improvise a homeland defence against an unprecedented challenge."
It said many front-line military and aviation personnel responded well, despite confusion, inaction and sometimes wildly inaccurate information at higher levels.
RACE AGAINST TIME
In the two hours between the take-off of the first hijacked plane at 8 am and the fourth plane's crash, officials raced against time to discover the extent of the crisis.
"We have some planes," a hijacker said from American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am EDT. "Nobody move ... If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane."
At one point, unnamed senior FAA officials mistakenly directed Air Force fighter planes to chase American Airlines Flight 11, which had struck the World Trade Center's north tower 30 minutes earlier.
NORAD also said it was not alerted to the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 175 until after it hit the trade center's south tower.
FAA controllers lost track of Flight 77's route for 36 minutes. Once the agency identified an unknown plane "six miles from the White House," fighters were too far away to help, and Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
"Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war," President Bush told Cheney. "Somebody's going to pay."
The report said Bush and Cheney acted quickly to approve an order to shoot down hijacked aircraft and convey it to military officials.
But by that time, the last plane had already crashed, brought down in rural Pennsylvania by passengers on United Flight 93. The commission said the passengers "saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the US Capitol or the White House from destruction."
The report said no FAA officials asked the military for help with Flight 93.
It quoted Cheney as telling Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at about 10.39am that he had conveyed orders from Bush to shoot down hijacked planes approaching Washington.
"It's my understanding they've already taken a couple of the aircraft out," Cheney said. Rumsfeld told Cheney he could not confirm any planes had been shot down.
Former FAA acting deputy director Monte Belger acknowledged communications and plans were inadequate, but said steps had since been taken to improve coordination.
"We cannot go back and rescue those that were taken from us on 9/11. But we can and we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that other Americans don't suffer that same fate," Chairman Thomas Kean said at the hearing's end. A final report is due at the end of July.