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One of the most controversial questions the commission looked into was whether the military could have shot down United 93 if it had continued on to its target in Washington.
The commission concluded this:
After the fourth plane crashed, the military and government officials in Washington didn't know of the crash right away, and didn't know whether more planes would be hijacked. Believing United 93 was still in the air, Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the military to shoot down any unresponsive aircraft. The shootdown order was passed on by the regional military commander about 15 minutes after the Vice President issued it. NEADS personnel in upstate New York got the message:
FLOOR LEADERSHIP: You need to read this… The region commander has declared that we can shoot down aircraft that do not respond to our direction. Copy that?
CONTROLLERS: Copy that, sir.
FLOOR LEADERSHIP: So if you're trying to divert somebody and he won't divert …
CONTROLLERS: DO (Director of Operations) is saying no.
FLOOR LEADERSHIP: No? It came over the chat...You got a conflict on that direction?
CONTROLLERS: Right now no, but-
FLOOR LEADERSHIP: Okay. Okay, you read that from the Vice President, right? Vice President has cleared. Vice President has cleared us to intercept traffic and shoot them down if they do not respond per General Arnold.
But the shootdown order was not passed on to the pilots. Military officials told the commission that the pilots didn't get the order because they didn't have specific targets yet; they couldn't be told to just shoot down any commercial plane.
"In short," the report says, "while leaders in Washington believed the fighters circling above them had been instructed to 'take out' hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the Langley pilots were to 'ID type and tail.'"
In any case, the shootdown order from the commander came too late. The order came at 10:31. But the commission staff estimates that - if it hadn't crashed - United 93 would have reached Washington before then, by 10:23 at the latest.
"There was only one set of fighters orbiting Washington, D.C. during this timeframe - the Langley F-16s," the report says. "They were armed and under NORAD's control. But the Langley pilots were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled. As the lead pilot explained, 'I reverted to the Russian threat. I'm thinking cruise missile threat from the sea. You know you look down and see the Pentagon burning and I thought the bastards snuck one by us. You couldn't see any airplanes, and no one told us anything.'"
The report concludes, "NORAD officials have maintained that they would have intercepted and shot down United 93. We are not so sure. We are sure that the nation owes a debt to the passengers of United 93. Their actions saved the lives of countless others, and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction."
Military officials told the commission that until 9/11, the United States' defenses were geared toward meeting a threat from the outside. They say that since 9/11, FAA and military protocols have changed. Military officials told the commission that if a hijacking happened today, word would get to the military faster and the military could react faster. The commander of NORAD testified that if a similar attack happened today, the military could shoot down all four hijacked planes, but he pointed out that in many instances, shooting down a hijacked plane could be a terrible error. The plane might not be intended as a weapon. The passengers might wrestle control back from the hijackers. If terrorists did hijack planes again, military commanders would still be left to make agonizing decisions, and make them fast.
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