(Cont'd) 9/11 - Stewardess ID'd Hijackers
Gail Sheehy
(Cont'd) 9/11 - Stewardess ID'd Hijackers
Thu Feb 12 23:39:19 2004

(Cont'd) 9/11 - Stewardess ID'd Hijackers

Even more curious: The F.A.A. states that it established an open phone line with NORAD to discuss both American Airlines Flight 77 (headed for the Pentagon) and United’s Flight 93. If true, NORAD had as many as 50 minutes to order fighter jets to intercept Flight 93 in its path toward Washington, D.C. But NORAD’s official timeline claims that F.A.A. notification to NORAD on United Airlines Flight 93 is "not available." Why isn’t it available?

Asked when NORAD gave an order for fighter planes to scramble in response to United’s Flight 93, the air-defense agency notes only that F-16’s were already airborne from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to intercept American’s Flight 77. The latter jet heaved into the Pentagon at either 9:40 a.m. (according to the F.A.A.) or at 9:38 a.m. (according to NORAD). Although the F-16’s weren’t in the skies over Washington until 9:49, the question is: Did they continue flying north in an attempt to deter the last of the four hijacked jets? The distance was only 129 miles.

The independent commission is in a position to demand such answers, and many more. Have any weapons been recovered from any of the four downed planes? If not, why should the panel assume they were "less-than-four-inch knives," the description repeatedly used in the commission’s hearing on aviation security? Remember the airlines’ first reports, that the whole job was pulled off with box cutters? In fact, investigators for the commission found that box cutters were reported on only one plane. In any case, box cutters were considered straight razors and were always illegal. Thus the airlines switched their story and produced a snap-open knife of less than four inches at the hearing. This weapon falls conveniently within the aviation-security guidelines pre-9/11.

But bombs? Mace or pepper spray? Gas masks? The F.B.I. dropped the clue that the hijackers had "masks" in a meeting with the Four Moms from New Jersey, the 9/11 widows who rallied for this independent commission.

The Moms want to know if investigators have looked into how the pilots were actually disabled. To think that eight pilots—four of whom were formerly in the military, some with combat experience in Vietnam, and all of whom were in superb physical shape—could have been subdued without a fight or so much as a sound stretches the imagination. Even giving the terrorists credit for a militarily disciplined act of war, it is rare for everything to go right in four separate battles.

Shouldn’t the families and the American people know whether or not our government took action to prevent the second attack planned for the command-and-control center in Washington?

Melody Homer is another young widow of a 9/11 pilot. Her husband, LeRoy Homer, a muscular former Air Force pilot, was the first officer of United’s Flight 93. The story put out by United—of heroic passengers invading the cockpit and struggling with the terrorists—is not believable to Melody Homer or to Sandy Dahl, widow of the plane’s captain, Jason Dahl. Mrs. Dahl was a working flight attendant with United and knew the configuration of that 757 like the back of her hand.

"We can’t imagine that passengers were able to get a cart out of its locked berth and push it down the single aisle and jam it into the cockpit with four strong, violent men behind the door," said Ms. Homer. She believes that the victims’ family members who broke a confidentiality agreement and gave their interpretation of sounds they’d heard on the cockpit tape misinterpreted the shattering of china. "When a plane goes erratic, china falls."

Now, the most disturbing disconnect of all: The F.A.A. and NORAD had at least 42 minutes to decide what to do about Flight 93. What really happened?

At 9:30 a.m., six minutes after receiving orders from NORAD, three F-16’s were airborne, according to NORAD’s timeline. At first, the planes were directed toward New York and probably reached 600 miles per hour within two minutes, said Maj. Gen. Mike J. Haugen, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard. Once it was apparent that the New York suicide missions were accomplished, the Virginia-based fighters were given a new flight target: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The pilots heard an ominous squawk over the plane’s transponder, a code that indicates almost an emergency wartime footing. General Haugen says the F-16’s were asked to confirm that the Pentagon was on fire. The lead flier looked down and verified the worst.

Then the pilots received the most surreal order of the morning, from a voice identifying itself as a representative of the Secret Service. According to General Haugen, the voice said: "I want you to protect the White House at all costs."

During that time, Vice President Richard Cheney called President George W. Bush to urge him to give the order that any other commercial airliners controlled by hijackers be shot down. In Bob Woodward’s book, Bush at War, the time of Mr. Cheney’s call was placed before 10 a.m. The Vice President explained to the President that a hijacked airliner was a weapon; even if the airliner was full of civilians, Mr. Cheney insisted, giving American fighter pilots the authority to fire on it was "the only practical answer."

The President responded, according to Mr. Woodward, "You bet."

Defense officials told CNN on Sept. 16, 2001, that Mr. Bush had not given authorization to the Defense Department to shoot down a passenger airliner "until after the Pentagon had been struck."

So what happened in the period between just before 10:00 a.m. and 10:03 (or 10:06, or 10:07)—when, at some point, the United jet crashed in a field in Pennsylvania? Did the President act on Mr. Cheney’s advice and order the last and potentially most devastating of airborne missiles brought down before it reached the Capitol? Did Mr. Cheney act on the President’s O.K.? Did a U.S. fighter shoot down Flight 93? And why all the secrecy surrounding that last flight?

Melody Homer, the wife of Flight 93’s first officer, was at home in Marlton, N.J., the morning of Sept. 11 with their 10-month-old child. Within minutes of seeing the second plane turn into a fireball, Ms. Homer called the Flight Operations Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which keeps track of all New York–based pilots. She was told that her husband’s flight was fine.

"Whether or not my husband’s plane was shot down," the widowed Mrs. Homer said, "the most angering part is reading about how the President handled this."

Mr. Bush was notified 14 minutes after the first attack, at 9 a.m., when he arrived at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla. He went into a private room and spoke by phone with his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and glanced at a TV in the room. Mrs. Homer’s soft voice curdles when she describes his reaction: "I can’t get over what Bush said when he was called about the first plane hitting the tower: ‘That’s some bad pilot.’ Why did people on the street assume right away it was a terrorist hijacking, but our President didn’t know? Why did it take so long to ground all civilian aircraft? In the time between when my husband’s plane took off [at 8:41 a.m.] and when the second plane hit in New York [9:02 a.m.], they could have turned back to airfield."

In fact, the pilots of Flight 93 are seldom mentioned in news reports—only the 40 passengers. And Mrs. Homer says that hurts. "My husband fought for his country in the Persian Gulf War, and he would have seen his role that day as the same thing—fighting for his country. It’s my belief, based on what I’ve been told by people affiliated with the Air Force, that at least one of the pilots was very instrumental in the outcome of that flight. I do believe the hijackers may have taken it down. But stalling the impetus of the plane so it didn’t make it to the Capitol or the White House—that was one of the pilots."

Melody LeRoy later learned from a member of the Air Force who worked with her husband that "a couple of weeks before the incident, they were all sitting around and talking about the intelligence that was filtering through the military that something big was going to happen. For all of this to get ignored," she said as she swallowed a sob, "it’s difficult to excuse that."

John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy and one of the most active interrogators among the commissioners, was told of some of the issues raised in this article. "These are exactly the right questions," he said. "We have to put all these details together and then figure out what went wrong. Who didn’t do their job? Not just what was wrong with the existing system, but human beings."

After 14 months of watching while commissioners politely negotiated with a White House that has used every known ruse and invented some new ones to evade, withhold and play peekaboo with the commissioners, the Four Moms and their Families Steering Committee feel frustrated almost to the boiling point.

Who is going to take a long, hard look at the policy failures and the failures of leadership? This seems to be where some members of the 9/11 commission are heading. Commission member Jamie Gorelick, winding up after the two-day hearings in January, said she was "amazed and shocked at how every agency defines its responsibility by leaving out the hard part." She blasted the F.A.A. for ducking any responsibility for the prevention of terrorism. "We saw the same attitude in the F.B.I. and C.I.A.—not to use common sense to evaluate a mission and say what works and what doesn’t."

Finally, Ms. Gorelick addressed a pointed question to James Loy, the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the vast, Brobdingnagian bureaucracy which now lashes together 22 federal agencies that didn’t talk to one another before the terrorist attacks.

"Who is responsible for driving the strategy to defeat Al Qaeda and holding people accountable for carrying it out?" Ms. Gorelick demanded.

"The President is the guy," said Mr. Loy. "And the person next to the President, who is the national security advisor."

The widows are furious that Dr. Rice was allowed to be interviewed in private and has not agreed—nor been subpoenaed—to give her testimony, under oath, before the American people.

When 9/11 commission chairman Tom Kean gave his sobering assessment last December that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented, the Bush White House saw the bipartisan panel spinning out of its control. In the President’s damage-control interview with NBC’s Tim Russert last weekend, Mr. Bush was clearly still unwilling to submit to questioning by the 9/11 commission. "Perhaps, perhaps," was his negotiating stance.

Asked why he was appointing yet another commission—this one to quell the uproar over why we attacked Iraq to save ourselves from Saddam’s mythical W.M.D.—the President said, "This is a strategic look, kind of a big-picture look about the intelligence-gathering capacities of the United States of America …. Congress has got the capacity to look at the intelligence-gathering without giving away state secrets, and I look forward to all the investigations and looks."

Congress has already given him a big-picture look—in a scathing 900-page report by the joint House and Senate inquiry into the intelligence failures pre-9/11. But the Bush administration doesn’t look at what it doesn’t want to see.

"It is incomprehensible why this administration has refused to aggressively pursue the leads that our inquiry developed," fumes Senator Bob Graham, the former co-chairman of the inquiry, which ended in 2003. The Bush White House has ignored all but one or two of the joint inquiry’s 19 urgent recommendations to make the nation safer against the next attempted terrorist attack. The White House also allowed large portions of the inquiry’s final report to be censored (redacted), claiming national security, so that even some members of the current 9/11 commission—whose mandate was to build on the work of the congressional panel—cannot read the evidence.

Senator Graham snorted, "It’s absurd."

You may reach Gail Sheehy via email at: gsheehy@observer.com .
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This column ran on page 1 in the 2/16/2004 edition of
The New York Observer. 800-542-0420


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