Last update: July 30, 2004 at 10:07 PM

Dayton: FAA, NORAD hid 9/11 failures

Greg Gordon,  Star Tribune Washington Bureau Correspondent
July 31, 2004 DAYT0731

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., charged Friday that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) have covered up "catastrophic failures" that left the nation vulnerable during the Sept. 11 hijackings.

"For almost three years now, NORAD officials and FAA officials have been able to hide their critical failures that left this country defenseless during two of the worst hours in our history," Dayton declared during a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

During the hearing, leaders of the Sept. 11 commission urged Congress to promptly create a national intelligence chief to command a fragmented U.S. counterterrorism effort before Al-Qaida strikes again.

"The intelligence community is not going to get its job done unless somebody is really in charge," said the commission's vice chair, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. Hamilton and commission chairman Tom Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, also pressed for creation of a National Counterterrorism Center to end intelligence-sharing failures that may have enabled the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"What we're trying to do is force the sharing of information and then make one person responsible," Kean said.

The Senate committee, moving with urgency despite Congress' summer recess, gave the two leaders a warm reception in the first of 15 or more congressional hearings in coming weeks on the 40 recommendations laid out in the commission's book-length report.

"I think you stood your ground very convincingly," Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the committee's ranking Democrat, told Kean and Hamilton as the hearing concluded.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee chair, said she plans to hold several more hearings in hopes that the panel can adopt legislation by Oct. 1, possibly for floor consideration after the November election.

Dayton: 'NORAD lied'

During the hearing, Dayton told leaders of the Sept. 11 commission, that, based on the commission's report, a NORAD chronology made public a week after the attacks was grossly misleading.

The chronology said the FAA notified the military's emergency air command of three of the hijackings while those jetliners were still airborne. Dayton cited commission findings that the FAA failed to inform NORAD about three of the planes until after they had crashed.

And, he said, a squadron of NORAD fighter planes that was scrambled was sent east over the Atlantic Ocean and was 150 miles from Washington, D.C., when the third plane struck the Pentagon -- "farther than they were before they took off."

Dayton said NORAD officials "lied to the American people, they lied to Congress and they lied to your 9/11 commission to create a false impression of competence, communication and protection of the American people."

He told Kean and Hamilton that if the commission's report is correct, President Bush "should fire whoever at FAA, at NORAD ... betrayed their public trust by not telling us the truth."

Asked about Dayton's allegation, a spokesman for Colorado Springs-based NORAD said, "We stand on our testimony to the commission" and declined to discuss the 2001 chronology.

Erin Utzinger, a spokeswoman for Dayton, said the senator "assumes the FAA knew of NORAD's coverup."

FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said the agency "has never and would never intentionally misrepresent or alter information. We worked very closely with the 9/11 commission and provided them with everything that was available to us."

Dayton told reporters that he skipped festivities at the Democratic National Committee Tuesday night and sat in his hotel room until 2:30 a.m. reading the commission report. After piecing together the section about the FAA and NORAD, he said, he could not fall asleep.

Dayton outraged

"I'm a strong defender of government," he said. "When government fails, it really outrages me. It just destroys peoples' trust and faith."

Using the chronology, Dayton argued that if the FAA had promptly sent a systemwide message about the hijackings, the pilot of the fourth plane seized, United Airlines Flight 93, might have been able to secure the cockpit doors and land the plane.

Passengers, including Minnesota native Tom Burnett, Jr., "could very well be alive," he said.

"This is unbelievable negligence," Dayton said. "It doesn't matter if we spend $550 billion annually on our national defense, if we reorganize our intelligence or if we restructure congressional oversight if people don't pick up the phone to call one another."

He also noted that NORAD could not find the hijacked jetliners because terrorists turned off their transponders and NORAD lacked adequate radar to locate them without that beamed signal.

Dayton said NORAD also falsely claimed that during the hijackings, it had F-16 Combat Air Patrol planes in place at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and an AWAC command ship in the air to protect the nation's capital.

Dayton, a former Minnesota state auditor, called the FAA's and NORAD's failures "the most gross incompetence and dereliction of responsibility and negligence that I've ever, under those extreme circumstances, witnessed in the public sector."

Greg Gordon is at ggordon@mcclatchydc.com.

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