Rumsfeld and Bush Failed Us on Sept. 11Donald Rumsfeld, one of the chief opponents of investing real power over purse and personnel in a new national intelligence chief, told the 9/11 commission that an intelligence czar would do the nation “a great disservice.” It is fair to ask what kind of service Rumsfeld provided on the day the nation was under catastrophic attack.
“Two planes hitting the twin towers did not rise to the level of Rumsfeld’s leaving his office and going to the War Room? How can that be?” asked Mindy Kleinberg, one of the widows known as the Jersey Girls, whose efforts helped create and guide the 9/11 commission. The fact that the final report failed to offer an explanation is one of the infuriating holes in an otherwise praiseworthy accounting.
Rumsfeld was missing in action that morning — “out of the loop” by his own admission. The lead military officer that day, Brig. Gen. Montague Winfield, told the commission that the Pentagon’s command center had been essentially leaderless: “For 30 minutes we couldn’t find” Rumsfeld.
For more than two hours after the Federal Aviation Administration became aware that the first plane had been violently overtaken by Middle Eastern men, the man whose job it was to order air cover over Washington did not show up in the Pentagon’s command center. It took him almost two hours to “gain situational awareness,” he told the commission. He didn’t speak to the vice president until 10:39 a.m., according to the report. Since that was more than 30 minutes after the last hijacked plane crashed, it would seem to be an admission of dereliction of duty.
Rumsfeld’s testimony before the commission last March was bizarre. Asked point-blank by Commissioner Jamie Gorelick what he had done to protect the nation — or even the Pentagon — during the “summer of threat” preceding the attacks, Rumsfeld replied simply that “it was a law enforcement issue.” That obfuscation — was the FBI expected to be out on the Beltway with shoulder-launched missiles? — has been accepted at face value by the commission and media.
Rumsfeld is in charge of NORAD, which has the specific mission of protecting the United States and Canada by responding to any form of air attack. The official chain of command in the event of a hijacking calls for the president to empower the secretary of Defense to send up a military escort and, if necessary, give shoot-down orders.
Yet President Bush told the panel he spoke to Rumsfeld for the first time that morning shortly after 10 a.m. — 23 minutes after the Pentagon was hit and moments before the last plane went down. It was, says the report, “a brief call in which the subject of shoot-down authority was not discussed.”
As a result, NORAD’s commanders were left in the dark about what their mission was. When fighters were told to scramble from Langley, Va., they were sent not to cover Washington but on a fool’s mission to tail and identify American Airlines Flight 11, which was already boiling the first Trade Center tower to the ground.
Why wasn’t Rumsfeld able to see on TV what millions of civilians already knew? After the Pentagon was attacked, why did he run outside to play medic instead of moving to the command center and taking charge? The 9/11 report records the fatal confusion in which command center personnel were left: Three minutes after the FAA command center told FAA headquarters in an update that Flight 93 was 29 minutes out of Washington, D.C., the command center said, “Uh, do we want to, uh, think about scrambling aircraft?”
FAA headquarters: “Oh, God, I don’t know.”
Command center: “Uh, that’s a decision somebody’s going to have to make probably in the next 10 minutes.”
But nobody did. Three minutes later, Flight 93 was wrestled to the ground by heroic civilians.
How is it that civilians in a hijacked plane were able to communicate with their loved ones, grasp a totally new kind of enemy and weaponry and act to defend the nation’s Capitol, yet the president had “communication problems” on Air Force One and the nation’s defense chief didn’t know what was going on until the horror was all over?
The failures of 9/11 were not inherent in the system; they were human failures. Yet, so far, no one has been fired, which leaves the 9/11 families — and all of us — in a conundrum.
The inaction of both the president and the Defense chief under the ultimate test offer little reassurance to a nervous nation under the shadow of new terror warnings. Before we attempt to revamp the entire security system, shouldn’t our government look first at why the people in charge failed to communicate or coordinate a response to the catastrophe?
Gail Sheehy reported on the 9/11 commission’s findings for Mother Jones. She is the author of “Middletown, America: One Town’s Passage From Trauma to Hope” (Random House, 2003).