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In the confusion that reigned on September 11, 2001, the U.S. military was never positioned to shoot down any of the hijacked planes and even sent fighters after one of the flights long after it had crashed into the World Trade Center. “The civilian and military defenders of the nation’s airspace — FAA [the Federal Aviation Administration] and NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defense Command] — were unprepared for the attacks launched against them,” the 9/11 Commission concluded. “Given that lack of preparedness, they attempted and failed to improvise an effective homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge.” Despite statements by Bush administration officials that it was unimaginable that terrorists would use hijacked places as missiles to crash into planes, NORAD actually ran drills in preparation for that scenario – which proved ineffective. Confronted by an actual attack, Air Force officials “did not know where to go or what targets they were to intercept.” according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “And once the shootdown order was given, it was not communicated to the pilots,” The 9/11 Commission had to dig to uncover the extent of the U.S. air defense system’s failure, including issuing subpoenas to both the FAA and NORAD to learn the truth, which was at odds with agency officials’ statements. Some Commission members reportedly urged a criminal investigation; instead, the matter was turned over to the inspectors general of the Transportation and Defense departments to determine whether to make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice. The inspectors general found no evidence that officials were knowingly misleading.

The GAO stated in 2007 that the FAA, NORAD and the Transportation Security Administration have taken action to “address the communications and coordination problems that were highlighted by 9/11.” But the effectiveness of that response remains an open question. In October 2006, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report reported that an Air Force plan to “better marry military and civilian radar networks” and respond to a 9/11-style attack was running nearly two years behind schedule and costing more than three times the initial budget. A NORAD spokesman told the Center a variety of improvements have been implemented to boost responsiveness “to a 9/11-style attack or other kinds of asymmetric aerial attacks on the U.S.”

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