Blindsided by terrorists and beset by poor communications, officials were so slow to react on Sept 11, 2001, that the last of four hijacked planes had crashed by the time Vice President Dick Cheney ordered hostile aircraft shot down, a bipartisan commission reported Thursday.
"The frontline civilian and military agencies struggled to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet," the panel said.
In an unflinching report, the panel depicted the Federal Aviation Administration as slow to alert the military to the hijackings -- even failing to pass along word that one of the planes had been seized.
In testimony before the panel, Gen. Ralph Eberhart said military pilots would have been able to "shoot down the airplanes" if word of the hijackings had been immediate. The commission, though, made no such claim.
Some military pilots "were never briefed about the reason they were scrambled," the panel said. The Secret Service, worried about a plane approaching the capital, went "outside the chain of command" to ask for warplanes to be sent aloft.
President Bush, in Florida when the terrorists struck, was not immune to communications woes. The commander in chief later told interviewers he had been frustrated that day at delays in establishing secure phone links with officials in a capital city feared under attack.
"There was a real problem with communications that morning," the commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, told reporters. "There were a lot of people who should have been in the loop who were not in the loop."
The commission sketched its picture as it neared the end of an exhaustive investigation into terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000. Terrorists seized four planes on a single day, flying two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon.
The fourth, headed for Washington, D.C., crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers struggled with their hijackers.
"The nation owes a debt to the passengers. ... Their actions saved the lives of countless others and may have saved either the U.S. Capitol or the White House from destruction," the commission's report said.
It noted that officials at NORAD -- the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- maintain they could have intercepted and shot down the plane, United Flight 93. "We are not sure," the commission said.
Eberhart, the NORAD commander, made an even bolder claim as he testified before the panel. He said all four planes could have been shot from the sky if the FAA had informed the military as soon as it knew of each hijacking.
"If that is the case, yes, we could shoot down the airplanes," he said.
It was a claim the panel steered clear of making, and none of the commissioners responded when he made it.
As is its custom, the commission had its staff report read aloud, a recitation spiced by snippets of taped audio conversations that most Americans were hearing for the first time.
"We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport," says one voice, believed to belong to Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of 19 hijackers.
Those few chilling words, heard at the FAA's Boston Center, were the first the government knew of any of the hijackings.
The panel met Thursday as President Bush disputed its day-old finding that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network responsible for the attacks.
"There was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida," the president said after a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
The dispute is a significant one, since Bush and top administration officials cited ties between al-Qaida and the Iraqi dictator in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.