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Sunday, September 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FAA gave 12-minute warning

WASHINGTON — Top U.S. defense officials were unaware that a hijacked passenger plane was hurtling toward the Pentagon on Tuesday despite a Federal Aviation Administration alert to the nation's military air-defense command, the Washington Post said in today's editions.

The newspaper, citing defense officials and a Pentagon chronology of the attack, said the FAA alerted the U.S. military air-defense command that the airliner was heading toward the Pentagon 12 minutes before it struck.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top aides were unaware of imminent danger until the fuel-laden plane hit the building, 35 minutes after two commercial planes plowed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

Pentagon authorities responsible for guarding the building also received no alert and so did not order an evacuation, the paper said.

The Post said two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled in response to the FAA information but took off from Virginia's Langley Air Force Base, about 130 miles from the Pentagon, rather than Andrews Air Force Base, just 15 miles away.

The airliner slammed into the side of the Pentagon just two minutes after the jets took off, The Post said, quoting Air Force generals as saying the service was unprepared for a threat of that nature.

Pilot exercises under a Cold War-era air-defense system had always dealt with intercepts outside U.S. borders, over the sea, with time to divert the aircraft and consult with the White House before undertaking drastic action, the newspaper said.

A decision to shoot down a commercial aircraft generally would require presidential approval, the newspaper said, citing Air Force officials.

Jets also scrambled in a desperate but vain attempt to intercept the second hijacked airliner that hit the World Trade Center, a senior Pentagon official says.

At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston's Logan Airport hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Seven minutes later, said Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, director of the Air National Guard, two F-15 fighters from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, Mass., scrambled to chase the second plane that hit the trade center, United Airlines Flight 175, which had taken off from Boston at 8:14 a.m. and had deviated from its course.

At that point, it was uncertain that Flight 175 had been hijacked, Weaver said, but the FAA had told the air-defense sector that "there was an airplane that had a problem."

By the time the F-15s were airborne, United 175 was nine minutes away from plowing into the south tower of the trade center, and the fighter planes were more than 100 miles away.

"We had a nine-minute window, and we had in excess of 100 miles to intercept 175," Weaver said. "There was just literally no way."

The pilots flew "like a scalded ape," topping 500 mph, but were unable to catch up to the airliner, Weaver said.

After Flight 175 hit the trade center, the F-15s began circling New York City in case of further hijacked planes.

Weaver, too, acknowledged that if the F-15s and F-16s had caught up with the hijacked passenger planes, their mission might have been futile.

"What does he do when he gets there? You're not going to get an American pilot shooting down an American airliner," he said.

"We don't have permission to do that."

Only the president could issue such an order, he said.

No Air National Guard or other military planes were scrambled to chase the fourth hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 93, which took off at 8:10 a.m. from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Weaver said.

Information from Reuters and the Dallas Morning News was included in this report.

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