Air Attack on Pentagon Indicates Weaknesses
By Sylvia Adcock, Brian Donovan and Craig Gordon
September 23, 2001
For the terrorist who called himself Khalid Al-Midhar, getting onto the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon was a breeze.
Even though the CIA had alerted other federal agencies 19 days
earlier that Al-Midhar posed a threat, even though the FBI was
searching for him nationwide, apparently nobody told American Airlines.
So Al-Midhar just did the same things any tourist or business
traveler would do. He logged on to American's Web site and made a
reservation under that name on Flight 77 from Washington to Los
Angeles, using his frequent-flyer number. Six days before the
hijacking, he picked up his ticket at a Baltimore airport and paid cash.
On Sept. 11 he walked through airport security at Washington Dulles
International and onto the plane without any problems - along with a
second hijacker, known as Nawaf Al-Hamzi, who also had been listed
since Aug. 23 on the same federal "watch list" of terrorist suspects.
The ease with which the men federal agencies had linked to
terrorism boarded Flight 77 illustrates one of several apparent lapses
by federal agencies that affected the Sept. 11 crisis.
As new details have emerged about government efforts to deal with
the attacks - and with the threat of terrorism in general - some of the
information is raising pointed questions about how civilian and
military agencies handled their roles during and prior to the crisis.
As the country moves from shock and anger to a search for lessons
on how to strengthen national security, such questions are likely to be
examined in detail on Capitol Hill, several members of Congress said
late last week.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said congressional
hearings probably will examine shortcomings in how the government dealt
with the crisis and new ways to safeguard air travel and protect major
potential targets of terrorists. The Sept. 11 suicide hijackings were
unlike any previous terrorist incident government officials have had to
handle, and senior military officers acknowledge that the armed
services hadn't planned for such an attack.
"We want to do better than we did [on Sept. 11]," he said. "And the
only way you're going to do better is to understand where we all failed
and what can be done to improve our performance, to improve procedures,
to improve laws, to improve the performance of everybody who works for
all of these agencies that have strong responsibilities."
The story of Flight 77 - pieced together from government records,
news reports and interviews with military and civilian officials -
suggests that faulty communications among agencies, delays in some key
actions and weaknesses in military preparedness all figured in the way
the disaster unfolded. Many of the questions center on two phases of
the crisis that involved Flight 77:
About 8:55 a.m. Flight 77 was flying west over southern Ohio when
it abruptly turned and headed back toward Washington. At this time, the
Federal Aviation Administration already had notified the military that
two other airliners, the ones that struck the World Trade Center,
apparently had been hijacked and had veered from their expected courses.
But the FAA temporarily lost track of Flight 77, after the
terrorists turned off its transponder, and about 29 minutes went by
before the FAA alerted the military to the new threat from the
airliner, which was carrying Al-Midhar, Al-Hamzi and three other
hijackers. No attempt was made to evacuate the Pentagon before the
plane struck it. The crash killed 125 people in the Pentagon and all 64
people on the plane.
Twice during the crisis, the military launched fighter jets that
raced toward the hijacked planes. Two F-15 fighters raced toward New
York City; two F-16s sped toward Washington.
But the number of air bases where fighter planes are kept on alert
has dwindled sharply in recent years, one of the generals who runs the
system told Newsday. And on Sept. 11, they no longer included any bases
close to two obvious terrorist targets - Washington, D.C., and New York
So the military had to use planes from air bases considerable
distances away from the two cities. The fighters dispatched to New York
came from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, Mass., 153 miles
from the World Trade Center.
When the second tower of the World Trade Center was struck by a
hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 175, at 9:02 a.m., the planes
from Cape Cod were still 71 miles away, about eight minutes behind the
The fighter jets launched toward Washington took off not from
Andrews Air Force Base, 15 miles from the capital, but from Langley Air
Force Base near Hampton, Va., 130 miles from Washington. When Flight 77
smashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., those fighters were still 105
miles from the scene.
At that point, the fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight
93, also had turned around on its way to San Francisco and headed
toward Washington. It crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m. after
passengers reportedly fought with hijackers.
Vice President Dick Cheney has disclosed that President George W.
Bush authorized military jets to shoot down "as a last resort" a
hijacked airliner, apparently Flight 93, that was heading for
Washington. Officials said later that the decision wasn't made until
after Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
These are some of the questions about the government's handling of the crisis and the circumstances surrounding them:
Did critical information get from the FAA to the military quickly
enough? The record suggests that teenagers on instant-message networks
communicate faster than some federal officials did during the crisis.
After losing track of Flight 77 for about 10 minutes, the FAA
rediscovered the plane heading east over West Virginia, then took about
19 more minutes to alert the military. When Flight 77 hit the Pentagon,
the fighter jets from Langley were 12 minutes away, the military says.
Should terrorists be able to shut off an airliner's transponders?
That's what happened on Flight 77. Transponders send out a signal
giving a plane's position and identity. The simple action of turning
them off appears to have given the Flight 77 terrorists about 10
minutes of valuable invisibility as they sped toward Washington.
Although officials say transponders need an on-off switch for
fire-safety reasons, one aviation expert told Newsday that a simple
modification could alert air traffic controllers whenever a specific
transponder is shut off. That would alert them that there might be a
problem and give them a better chance to continue tracking the plane
with radar, he said.
Are federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies doing enough
with the information on their "watch lists" of suspected terrorists?
Officials say airlines are sometimes warned about specific suspects and
sometimes they aren't. Terrorists sometimes use phony names, which
muddies the picture. But a computer analysis of one watch list obtained
by Newsday suggests a potentially ominous finding: that besides the
Sept. 11 hijackers, at least 10 more terrorist suspects, who may still
be in the United States, are trained as pilots.
Should the FAA act faster to close the nation's airports in a major
crisis? As the air traffic control system faltered while tracking four
hijacked planes, the FAA ordered airport closings in a series of stages
during the 24 minutes after the second World Trade Center impact.
During that period, at least several hundred more airliners, cargo
planes and smaller aircraft continued to take off, at a time when no
one knew if more hijackers were on board some of them, according to a
Newsday analysis of federal Departmen of Transportation flight data.
Why weren't Pentagon leaders alerted and employees evacuated?
Although the military's air defense command got word from the FAA about
13 minutes before Flight 77's crash that a hijacked airliner was
streaking toward Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his
top aides remained unaware of any danger up to the moment of impact,
officials said. After learning of the World Trade Center attacks,
Rumsfeld remained in his office, and Pentagon security officials took
no steps to alert or evacuate the building's 20,000 employees. Neither
the White House nor Congress were evacuated, either.
The hijacking of four airliners by terrorists planning to crash the
planes was unprecedented, and officials say any assessment of
government responses has to recognize that agencies had only a short
time to deal with a staggering, multifaceted threat that nobody else in
history had ever faced. Previous hijackings have been carried out by
hijackers who wanted to land safely.
The military has released information on its response times, but an
FAA spokesman told Newsday that because the attacks are under
investigation, the agency is not discussing the timing of its alerts to
Several members of Congress told Newsday they expect oversight
hearings into the crisis. Rep. John McHugh (R-Watertown), an Armed
Services Committee member, said: "Our committee will unquestionably
look at what the shortcomings were in defense." Rep. John Boehner
(R-Ohio), a veteran House member, said: "We'll see a very methodical
review about what we did well, and what we could do better."
Problems With Watch Lists
For years, federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have
compiled watch lists of suspected criminals and possible terrorist
figures. They are circulated among agencies that include the FBI, the
CIA, the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization
Service. The aim is to alert agents who might want to detain or
question suspects when they enter the United States.
Two of the Flight 77 hijackers, Al-Midhar and Al-Hamzi, had been on
a watch list circulating among agencies since Aug. 23, federal agents
said. Agents said the two names had been supplied by the CIA because of
a possible link between them and Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born
millionaire suspected of planning and financing many terrorist
operations including the Sept. 11 attack.
Officials said the CIA had obtained a videotape of the two men
meeting in Malaysia with operatives for bin Laden in January 2000, and
that Al-Midhar's name also had emerged in the ongoing investigation
into the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
It isn't known whether the two terrorists had been on any previous
watch lists or, if not, why the intelligence information collected
about them last year wasn't circulated until Aug. 23. The CIA refused
to comment. A U.S. official, who would speak only if his agency wasn't
identified, said the CIA had gotten additional information this year,
but the official would not say what it was. He said the CIA had "no
inkling that these two individuals, or anyone else for that matter, was
planning to do something along these lines."
After the INS determined in August that the two men already had
entered the United States, the FBI launched a search but couldn't find
them before the Sept. 11 attack.
FBI and American Airlines officials have refused to say if their
names were given to the airline, but the Los Angeles Times reported
last week that they weren't. Generally agencies regard the lists as
sensitive intelligence and do not routinely distribute the information
among airlines, officials say.
Former U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly, now working for the
U.S. Transportation Department on ways to improve airline security,
told the Los Angeles Times that there have been ongoing problems with
"coordination and communication among agencies. I'm not sure all
appropriate agencies get the watch list and if it's kept up in a timely
Other problems exist. The airline industry has no central
reservations system for all airlines. There's no single database that
could be used to plug in the names of suspected terrorists. Instead,
four private companies run reservations systems used by airlines and
travel agents. The largest one, Sabre, handles 40 percent of the
world's airline reservations.
William Vincent, former FAA security director, told Newsday the
watch lists are "not a guarantee that they can keep these people off
Another problem is that American spellings of Middle Eastern names
often vary widely. If a federal agency's version of a name were plugged
into a computer and the reservation was made in a different version of
the same name, the red flag might not be raised. Vincent also said
watch lists don't include photographs that might help prevent suspects
Bungles involving watch lists aren't new. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman,
a blind Muslim cleric with ties to Islamic radical groups, was already
on a watch list in 1990 when the State Department mistakenly granted
him a visa into the United States. One problem, officials said, was
that various documents had four versions of his name.
He is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up tunnels and
other facilities in New York City, and some of his followers were
convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Off the Screen
Until six minutes before the second airliner hit the World Trade
Center, Flight 77 appeared to air traffic controllers in the FAA's
Washington Air Route Traffic Center in Leesburg, Va., to be just
another flight they were routinely tracking. When the Boeing 757
reached central West Virginia, it was routinely "handed off" by
Leesburg to the next air traffic control center, outside Indianapolis.
Flight 77 continued west, appearing on the radar screens with a
data block identifying the airline, flight number, altitude and type of
plane - information from the plane's transponders, which are signal
transmitting devices. The plane inched across the screen, the radar
updating every 12 seconds.
Then Flight 77 began to turn slightly - and abruptly disappeared
from the radar screens. Suddenly there was no transponder signal.
Federal officials say the terrorists apparently shut down the
transponders in all four hijacked airliners as they took control. The
air traffic controllers didn't know it, but Flight 77 was making a
U-turn and heading east.
Normally, when an aircraft's transponder cuts off, the plane is
still visible as what's called a "primary target" or "skinpaint" - a
target the radar is picking up but can't identify. The controllers in
Indianapolis kept watching for Flight 77 to appear over Kentucky, Ohio
or Indiana - but they weren't looking for it to reappear far to the
east, over West Virginia where the plane had come from, sources said.
Back in Leesburg, air traffic controllers knew at about 9:05 a.m.
that they had a new eastbound plane on their radar, but they didn't
know it was Flight 77. The aircraft had entered their airspace with no
radio contact and no transponder identification.
During the confusion, rumors circulated that Flight 77 might have
exploded in midair. It wasn't until 9:24 a.m. that the FAA alerted the
military that the plane was heading for Washington.
FAA spokesman William Shumann said the agency would not comment on
its actions during the Sept. 11 crisis. Sources said that in coming
weeks, the FAA may release air traffic control tapes that could tell
more about what the agency knew and how it responded.
Another response-time question involves American Airlines Flight
11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. The New York Times
reported that air controllers first knew at about 8:20 a.m. that there
had been a probable hijacking of that plane. But the FAA didn't notify
the military until 20 minutes later, according to a North American
Aerospace Defense Command document.
One aviation expert said a simple change in the way airliner transponders work could have helped significantly on Sept. 11.
Every commercial aircraft has two transponders, one for backup if
the first one fails. It's easy to turn the devices off - the cockpit
ceiling and walls are lined with knobs that control circuit breakers
for all the systems of the plane. The pilot must be able to turn off
systems easily to prevent the spread of a fire.
Ken Susko, a Long Island-based aviation consultant and former Navy
flight engineer, said aircraft should be modified so that if the
transponder is turned off in the cockpit, a signal is generated to the
"That should trigger a signal, and then you could have a keyword or
phrase to ask if a hijacking is in progress," Susko said. "They might
have been able to prevent the attack if that safety feature was on it.
It's no big engineering feat to do it."
The transponder issue came up briefly at a congressional hearing
last week. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told legislators that
the FAA would be willing to examine the question, but the matter was
not discussed in detail.
During the confusing first hour of the Sept. 11 emergency, Mineta
had to cope with the unprecedented decision of whether to shut down
take-offs from the nation's airports to stop more planes that might
have hijackers aboard from getting into the air. It was a decision with
a big price tag.
Airlines frequently complain about temporary shutdowns for weather
or congestion, called "ground stops," because if planes aren't flying,
the airlines aren't making money. The nation's 10 largest airlines
alone spend close to $250 million a day, and a majority of those costs
continue even if the planes are grounded.
The FAA responded by closing airports completely or stopping
take-offs in a series of stages and did not ban all take-offs across
the country until 9:26 a.m., 24 minutes after the second impact at the
World Trade Center.
Air traffic data for major airports examined by Newsday suggest
that at least several hundred additional planes entered the nation's
airspace during the crisis before the nationwide shutdown. The total
would be higher when take-offs from smaller airports are considered.
Shumann, the FAA spokesman, said he didn't know if there had been
any discussion in the agency of whether the airspace should have been
closed more quickly.
"If there have been such discussions, we would not be commenting on
those discussions," he said. "Decisions like that are part of the
investigation into what happened ... how quickly did we, the
The Vulnerable Capital
By the time employees inside the Pentagon realized they were the
terrorists' next target, it was already over. The sound of Flight 77
slamming into the building - a deafening crash to those nearby, a dull
thump elsewhere in the massive structure - was their first alert.
There had been no warning broadcast inside the building that a
plane might be approaching, and no orders given to evacuate, even
though the FAA had notified air defense commanders that a hijacked
airliner was heading toward Washington 13 minutes before it hit the
Even the clear sign of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil - the second
plane slamming into the World Trade Center 35 minutes before one hit
the Pentagon - barely elevated the state of readiness inside the
nation's military headquarters, leaving many of the building's 20,000
workers still sitting at their desks when the plane struck. Some told
Newsday they heard the crash but didn't know the plane had hit the
Pentagon until they saw it on TV.
To many Americans, it probably seems inconceivable that an
unauthorized aircraft could get that close to the nation's military
command center on any day, let alone one when the nation was under
attack. Yet U.S. continental air defenses, slashed dramatically since
the Cold War ended and never designed to thwart an internal threat,
were helpless to stop the attacks, leaving the nation's capital and its
most populated city exposed.
The nation's sharpest military thinkers simply had never planned
for such a massive and well-coordinated assault, one defense official
"I don't think any of us envisioned an internal air threat by big
aircraft," he said. "I don't know of anybody that ever thought through
that. We're probably all at fault in some way for not thinking through
the scope of that."
Despite Andrews Air Force Base's proximity to the capital, fighter
jets don't "sit alert" there the way they do at Langley, ready to take
to the air in 15 minutes. Until Sept. 11, one defense official said,
they didn't have to - fighters at Langley would have plenty of time to
intercept any enemy aircraft coming from outside the United States.
On Sept. 11, the Langley jets still were 105 miles away when the Pentagon was struck.
"We normally sit alert looking out and what happened with this is
the threat was from within, and we hadn't looked into our own country
before," Maj. General Paul A. Weaver Jr., director of the Air National
Guard, said shortly after the attacks. "All of a sudden the threat was
Some relatives of Pentagon victims are angry not only a the terrorists but also the federal government.
"Why is it that a plane can get so close to us?" asked Trisha
McCants, whose mother is missing. "I'm mad. Once they knew the plane
was off course, they should have stopped it."
Others accepted what happened as an unpredictable risk. "It's not
my job to second guess," said Army employee Floyd Rasmussen, whose
wife, also a Pentagon worker, was killed.
At the height of the Cold War, U.S. warplanes used to stand ready
at 90 to 100 sites across the nation, there to intercept a Soviet
bomber coming down from Alaska, and later to ward off intercontinental
ballistic missile attacks.
When the Soviet Union fell, nearly all of those readiness patrols
were eliminated. Before the attack, the number of alert bases had
dropped to just seven sites around the country, mostly ringing the
coast in the South and West for drug interdiction and other purposes.
In 1993, Colin Powell, then chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs
of Staff and now Secretary of State - recommended that the number of
bases on alert be sharply reduced or eliminated. More recently, before
the attacks, Air Force planners also had considered scaling back the
number of alert bases to shift money toward new technologies.
Since the attacks, fighter jets at 26 sites near heavily populated areas have been put on 15-minute alert.
Inside the Pentagon before it was struck, the civilian police force
that patrols the building elevated the "force protection level" just
one notch, from "normal" to "alpha," after the second World Trade
Center tower was struck but did not order an evacuation.
"To call for a general evacuation, at that point, it would have
been just guessing," said a Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood. "We
evacuate when we know something is a real threat to us." Flood and
others now say an evacuation could have put more employees at risk by
moving them outside the protective walls of the building.
Air Force Lt. Col. Vic Warzinski, another Pentagon spokesman,
added: "The Pentagon was simply not aware that this aircraft was coming
our way, and I doubt prior to Tuesday's event, anyone would have
expected anything like that here. There was no foreshadowing, no
particular warning that would have led anyone with any reasonable view
of the world to think this was a threat we faced."
Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who co-chaired a homeland security
commission that in 1999 predicted a massive terrorist attack on U.S.
soil, scoffs at that explanation.
"The Pentagon's been ground zero for 50 years, ever since the
Soviets got a missile, so it shouldn't have been a great surprise,"
said Hart, who believes military planners envisioned nothing more than
"a madman in a single-engine Cessna" coming after the Pentagon, in much
the way such a plane once landed on the White House lawn.
"A cold war ended 10 years ago but a new one began," Hart said. "If
you could drive a bomb into the Twin Towers in 1993, I would think
someone at the Pentagon would have said, 'They could do something to
Staff writers Richard J. Dalton Jr., Elaine S. Povich, Ellen Yan, Eden Laikin and Deborah Barfield contributed to this story.
--Cities where fighter jets were launched from:
1) Washington, D.C., High Altitude Air
Traffic Control Center coverage area
2) Indianapolis High Altitude Air Traffic Control Center coverage area
3) Last tracked location of Flight 77
(flight heads back to D.C. and crashes into Pentagon)
Timeline of Events
7:45 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 leaves Boston for Los Angeles.
7:58 United Airlines Flight 175 leaves Boston for Los Angeles.
8:01 United Airlines Flight 93 leaves Newark for San Francisco.
8:10 American Airlines Flight 77 leaves Washington for Los Angeles.
8:20 Air trafŢc controllers in New England suspect Flight 11 has been hijacked.
8:40 FAA notifies NEADS (Northeast Air Defense Sector) of NORAD, the military's civil defense system, about Flight 11.
8:43 FAA notifies NEADS about Flight 175.
8:46 American Airlines Flight 11 hits the World Trade Center's north tower.
Two F-15 fighter jets from Otis Air National
Guard Base on Cape Cod, 153 miles from New
York City, are ordered to go to New York.
8:52 F-15s become airborne.
8:55 Flight 77 stops flying west and turns east.
8:56 Air traffic controllers in Indianapolis lose radar contact with Flight 77.
9:02 United Flight 175 hits the World Trade Center's south tower.
9:03 Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center halts traffic from its airports to all New York area airspace.
9:05 Flight 77 appears as an unidentified blip
on radar over West Virginia.
9:06 Order is expanded to include the entire Northeast from Washington to Cleveland. FAA's air traffic control center outside
Washington notifies all air traffic facilities nationwide of the suspected hijacking of Flight 11.
9:08 FAA orders all aircraft to leave New York area airspace and
orders all New York-bound planes nationwide to stay on the ground.
9:17 New York City airports shut down.
9:24 FAA notifies NEADS about Flight 77.
9:24 Two F-16 fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., ordered to take off for Washington.
9:26 FAA halts takeoffs nationwide. Airborne international flights told to land in Canada.
9:30 Two F-16s take off from Langley AFB.
9:37 Flight 77 hits the Pentagon.
9:45 FAA orders all planes in the air to land at the nearest airport.
9:48 Capitol and West Wing of White House evacuated.
10:03 United Flight 93 crashes 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
10:15 2,000 planes have landed in the U.S. since 9:45 order was issued.
12:16 All aircraft ordered to land at 9:45 have landed.
SOURCE: Compiled from wire sources, press reports and government records
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