The terror strikes of Sept. 11, 2001 overwhelmed all immediate efforts at response or even full comprehension, a bipartisan commission reported Thursday, and spread confusion to the point that Vice President Dick Cheney mistakenly thought U.S. warplanes shot down two aircraft.
The front line civilian and military agencies struggled to "improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet," the panel said.
"We fought many phantoms that day," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. He noted that reports of car bombings and other terrorist acts spread quickly - and falsely - in the nerves-on-edge hours after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck by planes hijacked by terrorists.
The commission issued its findings as it held the final public session of a momentous review of the worst terror strikes in the nation's history. The panel is expected to make a final report next month into the events that killed nearly 3,000.
The commission said efforts to respond to four hijackings that day were plagued on multiple fronts.
One plane moved into a gap in Federal Aviation Administration radar coverage. A single air traffic controller wound up with responsibility for two hijacked planes simultaneously.
The FAA failed to notify the military that one of the four planes had been hijacked. The FAA also incorrectly told the military that the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center was still in the air after impact.
The report said the military never had more than nine minutes notice from the FAA on any of the four hijackings.
Moreover, there was a delay in passing along an order for pilots to shoot down any hostile aircraft.
Even so, the commission's report steered clear of any claims that the planes could have been intercepted.
"NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure," the report said. That was the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside, evidently after passengers struggled with the terrorists aboard.
"Their actions saved the lives of countless others," the panel said.
If FAA and NORAD officials were scrambling to deal with the strikes, so, too, were top officials of the government.
President Bush was in Florida, leaving Cheney as the senior official in Washington.
On Bush's authorization, Cheney relayed an order for military planes to shoot down aircraft deemed hostile.
At midmorning, more than a half-hour after the order had been given, Cheney told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld he thought it had been carried out.
"It's my understanding that they've already taken a couple of aircraft out," Cheney said, according to the partial transcript of a conference call that the commission released.
The commission session was twice interrupted briefly by protesters. One man, holding an American flag, stood up and shouted, "I'm walking out." He was escorted from the room by police.
While it is customary for commission staff to read their report aloud, this one was augmented by snippets of tape recordings made that day as well as graphics demonstrating the flight paths of the four hijacked plans.
A particularly haunting transmission came from the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11, which took off from Boston and was the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. A person believed to be Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 19 hijackers, who piloted the plane, is heard saying to passengers: "We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be OK. We are returning to the airport."
Later, Atta tells the passengers, "If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane."
The report largely blamed inadequate emergency procedures that contemplated more time to react to a traditional hijacking rather than a suicide hijacking.
In many cases, the panel praised the actions of government personnel forced to make split-second decisions. In the hours just after the attacks occurred, nearly 4,500 planes in the air had to be landed as quickly as possible. To do that, air traffic controllers first had to reroute about a quarter of them - juggling 50 times the usual number of planes rerouted each hour.
"We do not believe that an accurate understanding of the events of that morning reflects discredit on the operational personnel," the report said.
The report issued said air traffic controllers realized at 8:24 a.m. on Sept. 11 that Flight 11 was being hijacked, but lost several minutes notifying layers of command - according to protocol - before contacting NORAD. The plane crashed at 8:46 a.m.
Controllers, meanwhile, didn't realize American Airlines Flight 77 - which took off from Dulles Airport outside Washington - might be hijacked when it mysteriously started veering off course at 8:54 a.m. The plane then traveled undetected for 36 minutes toward Washington, due in part to a radar glitch.
The confusion meant only an unarmed military cargo plane could be diverted to track the plane. The plane located Flight 77 but could do nothing as the commercial jetliner crashed into the Pentagon.
The commission is winding down its 1 1/2-year investigation after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses, including Bush, and reviewing more than 2 million documents.
On the Net:
Sept. 11 panel: http://www.9-11commission.gov
AP Web site for commission report: http://wid.ap.org/documents/911/040617staff17