On 9/11, underlings outshone biggies

by Marie Cocco
Tuesday, Jun 22, 2004
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There were no high-level heroes.

We already knew about the firefighters. About the people who sifted toxic dust at Ground Zero in the dreary search for remains. About the passengers aboard United Flight 93, who defeated the hijackers and crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

We didn’t know until now that long after the passengers apparently had saved the nation’s capital from attack, officials in Washington engaged in a frenzied and farcical exercise aimed at shooting the plane down. At one point, Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that on his orders the military had “taken a couple of aircraft out.”

The 9/11 commission’s final public hearing has depicted a government in chaos that morning, unable to comprehend the unfolding disaster or to break free of bureaucratic constraints. Except when underlings took control and rose to the occasion.

The commander-in-chief was not in command. It is not only that President George W. Bush sat in a Florida classroom reading with second graders. This was to project calm, the president told the commission.

Even after leaving the class, Bush wasn’t in the loop. Bush was told at 9:05 a.m. that “America is under attack.” Between 9:15 and 9:30, the commission staff reported, Bush consulted with advisers about planned remarks. No one was in contact with the Pentagon. “The focus was on the president’s statement to the nation. No decisions were made during this time,” the report said.

Around 10 a.m. Bush “apparently” spoke to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The president complained to the panel about lapses in the phone system aboard Air Force One, blaming this for his inability to get information and give orders.

The revelation contrasts with a 2002 Republican fund-raising appeal. Republicans sold a photo of Bush aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001, taken as he was speaking to Cheney. The pitch lauded Bush’s “courageous leadership during this historic time.” Meanwhile, America’s workers did the best they could.

When controllers at the FAA’s Boston area center realized American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked and speeding toward New York, they threw out the rule book that called for military assistance to be requested through a strict chain of command. They contacted the military through a Cape Cod facility, alerting Otis Air Force Base.

Once New York and Boston controllers understood that a second plane had been hijacked, orders were given to halt all aircraft traveling through New York airspace. A Boston request to immediately heighten cockpit security didn’t make it through. But FAA commanders in suburban Virginia did ask headquarters in Washington if they wanted a nationwide halt of air traffic. “While executives at FAA headquarters discussed it, the Command Center went ahead and ordered one anyway at 9:25,” the commission staff said. Controllers in Cleveland who tracked United Flight 93 repeatedly suggested military help but were met with indecision.

“At the local level, people responded with great heroism,” commission member Bob Kerrey told Benedict Sliney, the FAA official who ordered the unprecedented air traffic stop.

There is a pattern to the mosaic of 9/11. The people at the bottom had better instincts and quicker reactions than those at the top.

The FBI in Minneapolis tried in vain to get headquarters to take seriously the detention of Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001. Phoenix agents were ignored when they alerted superiors to suspicious flight school enrollments of Middle Eastern men.

On Aug. 4, 2001, Orlando airport customs officer Jose Melendez-Perez refused to admit al-Qaida member and presumed “muscle” hijacker Mohamed al-Qahtani into the United States. Melendez-Perez contacted the FBI after 9/11 to discuss al-Qahtani, but didn’t hear back. No one called until the 9/11 panel reached him.

Sclerosis afflicts the security bureaucracy. The 9/11 panel believes this condition persists. But its work has revealed a larger truth. Those who serve us best do not get much credit. Nor are they among those who seek it for themselves.