United Flight 93 and the Limits of Presidential Power

The 10th year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks reminded Americans once more of the heroism of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93.  Those passengers, it will be recalled, overpowered their hijackers and almost certainly prevented the flight from reaching its intended target: the Capitol building.  One of the more remarkable revelations that came out of the recent media coverage of the 9-11 anniversary is that the two National Guard pilots initially scrambled from Andrews Air Force base with orders to intercept the doomed Flight 93 took to the air essentially unarmed. Lacking the firepower necessary to take down the civilian aircraft, the pilots were prepared to ram the plane in what some journalists labeled a “kamikaze” mission.

Although this revelation received widespread media coverage, the more important story  regarding those military flights, and of the shoot-down orders more generally, as revealed in the definitive report issued by 9-11 Commission (formally the National Commission on Terrorist Strikes Upon the United States) has not received nearly the coverage it deserves. And it is another reminder of just how limited the power of the presidency is – even at the height of a national emergency.

When the 9-11 attacks occurred, standard orders required the permission of the President and Secretary of Defense to shoot down civilian aircraft.  The directive was based on the not unrealistic assumption that in the typical hijacking there would be some time to assess the situation. That is, there would be no effort by the hijackers to try to hide the plane, never mind convert it into a suicide weapon. At the worst, it was presumed that a hijacked plane might be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction.  As we know, those assumptions proved disastrously incorrect.  In fact, the hijackers on all four plans turned off the transponders by which the FAA identified aircraft on radar screens.  The result is that even when the civilian authorities notified the military that suspected hijackings were underway they could not tell them where the planes were. Following standard operating procedures, the fighter planes flew to designations off the coast while waiting for information regarding the location of the hijacked planes.

In the confusion that followed, efforts to work through the chain of command were hampered by poor communications between key decisionmakers and a basic lack of information, not least regarding how many planes were hijacked and where they were located.   In recreating the sequence of events from that fateful day, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney recalled an initial conversation, which the 9-11 commission estimated took place at about 10 a.m., or roughly one hour and 15 minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center, during which Bush authorized Cheney to give orders for the military to shoot down any civilian airliner that did not respond to commands.  However, the documentation for this initial conversation is sketchy, leading some to argue that Cheney went ahead and issued shoot down orders shortly after 10 on his own, and then retroactively sought the President’s authorization.  It is clear from the records the Bush gave (re)authorization for a civilian shootdown in a second (or perhaps initial) conversation with Cheney at about 10:23.  By this time the fourth and final hijacked plane, Flight 93, had already crashed, although no one in the military chain of command knew this.

Conspiracy theorists, of course, have long speculated that the military actually did shoot Flight 93 down, which made the recent revelations that the initial interceptors were unarmed all the more significant. But the real story is actually far more interesting because, for all the debate regarding who really authorized the shootdown of civilian flights, the reality is that the military never relayed that order to the first interceptors that went up.  The military received word of the hijacking at 8:37, and the first interceptors were ordered scrambled out of Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts at 8:46, just as American 11 struck the North Tower.  As it turned out, the 9 minutes of warning was the most the military would have with any of the hijacked flights; military air defense had no advance warning on the three others flights before they crashed.

The President and Vice President had no way of knowing this of course.  At 10:31, through means still not entirely clear, the shootdown order from the President was disseminated through the North American (NORAD) air defense military chain of command when, according to the Commission report, “General Larry Arnold instructed his staff to broadcast the following over a NORAD instant messaging system: ‘10:31 Vice president has cleared to us to intercept tracks of interest and shoot them down if they do not respond per [General Arnold].’”

This simple, direct order from the commander in chief at a time of a military emergency caused – again quoting the 9-11 commission – “considerable confusion over the nature and effect of the order.”  And it was not passed along.  That’s right. The President’s direct order, relayed through the Vice President authorizing the shooting down of civilian airliner was never passed on to the pilots in the air.  Here’s the key passage from the 9-11 Report:

“The NEADS commander told us he did not pass along the order because he was unaware of its ramifications. Both the mission commander and the senior weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to the fighters circling Washington and New York because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID type and tail.”

But what about the second group of interceptors launched from Andrews air force base – the ones on a “kamikaze” mission?  Surely they had shoot-down orders?  No, they did not.  In fact, they were not even scrambled under NORAD order. As the 9-11 Commission explains: “The Vice President was mistaken in his belief that shootdown authorization had been passed to the pilots flying at NORAD’s direction. By 10:45 there was, however, another set of fighters circling Washington that had entirely different rules of engagement.”  Those fights had been launched at 10:38 from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in response to information passed to them by the Secret Service – not NORAD command.  But rather than take the air with orders to shoot, they instead operated under “weapons free-a permissive rule of engagement.” The local commander, General David Wherley was told to “send up the aircraft, with orders to protect the White House and take out any aircraft that threatened the Capitol. General Wherley translated this in military terms to flying “weapons free”-that is, the decision to shoot rests in the cockpit, or in this case in the cockpit of the lead pilot. He passed these instructions to the pilots that launched at 10:42 and afterward.”

In effect, then, the decision whether to shoot down the civilian airliner was the pilots to make – the President’s clear directive notwithstanding. Of course, neither Bush nor Cheney even knew that fighters had been scrambled out of Andrews – that order came from the Secret Service and therefore fell outside the military chain of command.

It is tempting to think that, in a crisis situation that involves national security, ultimate authority lies solely with the President.  Surely the President feels the weight of responsibility in these situations more keenly than anyone else.  In a sense, when national survival is at stake, he comes closest among all elected officials to embodying national sovereignty. The mistake – one that even presidential scholars are susceptible to – is in thinking this heightened sense of urgency increases his actual power to control events.  Alas, the President’s ability to fulfill his constitutional obligations still depends on the actions and judgments of score of individuals, both civilian and military who, although ostensibly in the direct line of command leading to the President, nonetheless must make, often under conditions of intense pressure and with limited information, their own judgments regarding how to respond to the President’s orders.  That is, they view his orders from their own vantage points, and act accordingly.  It is why even in the most urgent matters of national security, presidents rarely can be said to exercise command authority.  And in more mundane matters, the idea that presidents act “unilaterally” is more myth than reality.

And what of United Flight 93?  Given the confusing response to the President’s shootdown orders, it seems the debt we owe to the heroism of the passengers and crew on that flight on September 11, 2001, is even greater than many of us had perhaps realized.   Had they not acted, there’s no certainty anyone else would have been in a position to bring down that plane.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated an incorrect time for the first strike on the World Trade Center.  In fact, the north tower was struck by American Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m. I have corrected the timeline in the post above.

2 comments

  1. Bob,

    What a wonderful question! In the post-Cold War era, I suspect most of us scarcely take note of the fact that Russia and the United States still maintain a sizable nuclear deterrent composed of bomber, ICBM’s and submarine-launched nuclear missiles. As I recall as an undergraduate I wrote a paper on launch control procedures, and seem to remember a dual key process that required the simultaneous action of two individuals. But I think my focus was on preventing an accidental launch – not on disobeying the President’s orders to launch. I assume there are procedures in place designed to insure compliance with the President’s directives, but as 9-11 showed, the human component is not always reliable. Actions that require the compliance of a single individual to succeed are always going to be subject to some uncertainty, I’m guessing.

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