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U.S.: As Nation Recovers, Many Questions Remain Unanswered

  • Jeremy Bransten

A day after the worst set of coordinated terrorist attacks the United States has ever faced, rescue operations in New York City and Washington continue. The casualty toll, expected to tally into the thousands, remains unclear and the perpetrators remain unknown. In this report, we bring you up to date on what is happening today, what we know so far and what remains to be answered about the attacks.

Prague, 12 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It all began yesterday, on a sunny morning at the start of a regular work day. At 8:45 am local time, a hijacked passenger plane slammed into the north tower of New York City's World Trade Center, setting the upper portion of the building ablaze.

Eighteen minutes later, as a disbelieving nation watched on television, a second aircraft struck the skyscraper's twin south tower. Both aircraft had been en route from Boston to Los Angeles, with scores of passengers on board, when they were hijacked and changed course for New York City.

Within two hours, both buildings -- at 110 stories, the fourth-tallest buildings in the world and the highest skyscrapers in New York City -- crumbled into a pile of ash and rubble. On an ordinary day, 50,000 people worked in the buildings and more than 10,000 tourists would visit.

It is not known how many perished in the calamity. What is known is that some 300 firefighters and 85 police officers -- summoned to the scene to direct evacuation efforts after the initial strike -- are missing. New York hospitals have so far treated hundreds of wounded.

The entire lower part of Manhattan -- nerve center of the U.S. financial world -- has been sealed off, and rescue workers are attempting to reach survivors, some of whom have contacted the authorities from under the rubble using their cell phones.

Soon after the New York attacks, a third hijacked airliner -- en route from Washington to Los Angeles -- crashed into a wing of the U.S. Defense Department, known as the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. A fourth commercial jet, which had taken off from Newark, New Jersey, and was headed for San Francisco, crashed in a wooded area near the city of Pittsburgh. That plane had also been hijacked, but it remains unclear where the terrorists had wanted it to go.

America and much of the world today is numb, trying to come to terms with an attack previously only imagined in the movies. U.S. President George W. Bush spent yesterday criss-crossing the country aboard Air Force One, under tight security and almost total secrecy, stopping briefly at different air bases where he made statements to reassure the American people that the perpetrators would be found and America would go on.

Finally, yesterday evening and back at the White House, Bush addressed the nation:

"These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

Congress was set to reconvene later in the day after an unprecedented shutdown of the U.S. Capitol building. The Senate and U.S. House of Representatives planned to pass a resolution condemning the terrorist strikes and promising retaliation.

But in order to retaliate, the perpetrators of this atrocity -- those who masterminded and financed such a complex operation -- will have to be found. No credible claim of responsibility has yet been received. The earliest clues came from several desperate phone calls made by passengers on at least two of the doomed flights.

They described a similar situation: hijackers, working in groups of three to five and wielding knives or knife-like objects, apparently took control of the aircraft after herding passengers and crew to the back of the planes. The identities of the hijackers were never made clear.

Recovery of any of the downed planes' instrument data and voice recorders -- the so-called "black boxes" -- could provide more information. At this point, it remains unclear whether the hijackers were at the controls when the planes crashed or whether they forced the legitimate pilots to execute the deadly maneuvers.

Given the enormous amount of debris caused by the World Trade Center destruction and the partial Pentagon collapse, whether those black boxes can be recovered remains open to question. The crash site near Pittsburgh, which occurred in a wooded area, may offer more hope in this respect.

Another question to be answered is whether anything could have been done to prevent the hijacked airliners from reaching their targets. It took the first airliner, which was hijacked out of Boston, at least 30 minutes to reach the World Trade Center, from the time it was diverted from its planned flight route.

Chris Yates, an aviation security expert, is publisher of the magazine "Aviation Security, Standards and Technology." He told RFE/RL it is likely officials at the White House, if not the president himself, would have been informed of the initial hijacking only minutes after it was discovered.

Of course, at the time, it was not clear to anyone on the ground that the plane was headed on a collision course with New York's tallest skyscraper. But once the first plane struck, an 18-minute interval followed, during which it must have been apparent, at least to air-traffic controllers, that a second aircraft hijacked from Boston was also headed for New York City. Yates says:

"Conceivably, you could have scrambled fighters, taken them up and perhaps intercepted. Do you intercept one of your own civilian airliners? Do you blow it out of the skies? That is a very difficult political question that would have gone straight to the top, in the White House, and President Bush would have had to make that decision, if indeed it was ever going to be taken."

But it is not known whether President Bush, who was visiting a school in Sarasota, Florida at the time, was informed and asked to make a decision during that 18-minute interval. In any case, as Yates indicates, a decision by a leader to shoot down one of his country's own civilian planes -- while it was flying over populated areas, loaded with passengers and fuel -- would have been unprecedented.

What is clear is that regardless of the identities of the terrorists, lax airport security and a dearth of intelligence helped them carry out their cataclysmic plan. Yates says it has been known for years that security at U.S. airports, especially for domestic flights, is deficient.

"Where I do see major issues are with regards to security at U.S. airports. It has been remarkably lax for some considerable length of time. There are a number of significant reports out there highlighting those deficiencies. It seems that those deficiencies were exploited by these terrorists to devastating effect."

Those deficiencies include poorly qualified and woefully underpaid security staff -- some making less than staff at fast-food restaurants -- who were apparently no match for determined terrorists. If the hijackers were, indeed, armed with only knives, guidelines on what can be taken as carry-on luggage and what is prohibited will have to be revised.

Experts say changing check-in procedures and instituting certain types of low-tech security measures, as the Israelis did following a spate of hijackings in the 1970s, can make all the difference.

U.S. senators and representatives will want answers from the CIA and FBI on why those agencies apparently failed to detect any impending security threat. Planning the world's biggest terrorist attack in history required time, financial resources and, above all, manpower. Are the CIA and FBI underfunded or simply disorganized? To put it in the words of Curt Weldon, a senior Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee: "This was a massive operation, and it's a failure that was caused by a lack of resources. Our government failed the American people."

As the search gets underway for the perpetrators, America's allies have expressed their solidarity and offered their assistance. EU foreign ministers were due to meet later today in Brussels to discuss the situation, as will the NATO permanent council of ambassadors. Israel and Germany, among others, have declared a day of mourning.

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