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Panel Questions Officials on Sept. 11 Security Lapses - 2003-05-23

A special commission has been hearing more about the preparedness of America's civil and military air system leading up to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

A second day of testimony to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks focused on how prepared the U.S. air defense command was for terrorist use of commercial aircraft, and how the Federal Aviation Administration responded to the September 11 events.

Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste addressed key questions to Major General Craig McKinley of the NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense command.

Richard Ben-Veniste: "I ask you again, whether it was not your responsibility as NORAD to protect the United States and its citizens against air attack?"
General Craig McKinley: "It is, and it was. I would just caveat your comment by saying that our mission was, at that time, not designed to take internal FAA radar data, to track or to identify tracks originating within our borders. It was to look outward as a Cold War vestige primarily developed during the Cold War to protect against Soviet long range bomber penetration of our intercept zone."

Although this "Cold War" planning was in place on September 11, NORAD officials nonetheless said they were aware of threats by Osama bin Laden, and generally of a heightened risk of attacks.

However, in further probing General McKinley said "basically the comments I received from my staff was that there was no intelligence indication, at any level within NORAD or [the Department of Defense] of a terrorist threat to commercial aviation prior to the attacks."

The commission's attention has also been focused on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) specifically what intelligence it had about terrorist threats, and whether or when it notified NORAD of problems in the air on September 11.

"Should there have been better communication? I think absolutely," said Jane Garvey, the former FAA head. "I think that has been acknowledged really right from the beginning. I think in some cases we got appropriate and right information. I think in other cases we probably didn't get enough."

Since beginning its work earlier this year, the commission has heard testimony about reports government agencies had that terrorists could use aircraft as missiles.

But Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, pointed out that while he had intelligence briefings before September 11, 2001 no information he was given came close to predicting what would occur.

"There was nothing in those intelligence reports that would have been specific to anything that happened on the 11 of September," he said. "There was nothing in the preceding time period about aircraft being used as a weapon or of any other terrorist type of activities of that nature."

Mr. Mineta said most of the attention prior to September 11, 2001 had been on possible aircraft hijackings overseas. Asked if this lack of information could be called an "intelligence failure," he said even if that were the case, it would still have been hard for anyone to imagine what would transpire on that day.