WASHINGTON – Members of the independent commission on Sept. 11 pressed Bush administration and military officials Friday on whether the federal government should have been more prepared for a terrorist attack using airplanes as weapons.
Commissioner Jamie Gorelick said there were "frantic" warnings in the months before the attacks that a major act of terrorism was in the works.
"Did this higher level of chatter ... result in any action across the government? I take it your answer is no," Gorelick told Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.
Mineta replied, "That's correct."
Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley, commander of the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, said the nation's air defense system on Sept. 11, 2001, was not directed toward domestic civilian flights.
"It was to look outward, as a Cold War vestige, primarily developed during the Cold War, to defend against long-range Soviet bomber penetration of our intercept zone," McKinley said.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste suggested that in light of previous clues that terrorists might use planes as weapons, the government's defense network could have been better oriented.
"In retrospect, sir, I think I would agree with your comment," McKinley said.
On the second day of a public hearing on aviation security, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States focused on the immediate response by government to the simultaneous hijackings of passenger planes on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mineta said terrorism was not "high on the list of priorities" for civil aviation at that time. "We were still dealing with the whole issue of delay, congestion, capacity issues," he said. "So terrorism was really not something I was prepared to deal with, except as it came up on that tragic day."
Commissioner Tim Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana, on Thursday recited a list of warnings issued in the years before the attacks that terrorists might try to fly airplanes into buildings.
"Why didn't the FAA do more to look at the possibility that this could happen in the United States?" he asked Jane Garvey, who was federal aviation administrator on Sept. 11,
Garvey replied that most credible assessments of the threat focused on overseas targets.
She said the hijackers understood and exploited the nation's strategy for keeping planes safe.
"The most powerful weapon the hijackers carried on 9-11 ... was their knowledge that our policy was to get the passengers on the ground safely, and that meant negotiation, not confrontation," Garvey told the commission.
The commission also heard from Bogdan Dzakovic, who worked on an FAA security team charged with finding holes in airport security. Dzakovic, who now works at the Transportation Security Agency, accused the FAA of not acting on the team's discoveries.
"Criticism is not accepted at FAA," he said. "That's not part of the culture."
Aviation security is a major line of inquiry for the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. But its chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, took care to point out that the panel will also be exploring failures in intelligence, law enforcement, border security and other areas.
To avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, three members of the 10-member commission - James R. Thompson, Gorelick and Ben-Veniste - will not participate in writing recommendations for commercial aviation, chairman Thomas H. Kean said. The three work for law firms that represent airlines.