Air Attack on
Pentagon Indicates Weaknesses
By Sylvia Adcock, Brian Donovan and
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
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
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
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
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 terrorists.
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
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
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 the military.
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 fashion."
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
William Vincent, former FAA security director, told
Newsday the watch lists are "not a guarantee that
they can keep these people off the planes."
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 from boarding.
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,
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
Then Flight 77 began to turn slightly - and abruptly
disappeared from the radar screens. Suddenly there was no
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
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 controllers.
"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 government, respond."
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 Pentagon.
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
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 told Newsday.
"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 from within."
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
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
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
"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
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 us.'"
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
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
7:58 United Airlines Flight 175 leaves Boston for Los
8:01 United Airlines Flight 93 leaves Newark for San
8:10 American Airlines Flight 77 leaves
Washington for Los Angeles.
8:20 Air trafÞc 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
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
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
9:48 Capitol and West Wing of White House evacuated.
10:03 United Flight 93 crashes 80 miles southeast of
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
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.