If You Want To Humble An Empire

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LYLE OWERKO / POLARIS

(16 of 20)

Some Republicans on the Hill wanted to know why Counsellor Karen Hughes was the highest government official anyone saw on television all day, other than Bush's brief, unsettling appearance in Louisiana. They wanted to see Bush stride across the South Lawn and show that this is not a country that can be sent into hiding by cowards. "He better have the speech of his life ready tonight," sighed one Republican strategist. Bush did return a few hours later, did stride across the South Lawn and did deliver a reasonably effective national address from the Oval Office. But it wasn't until the following day that he stepped up the intensity of his rhetoric and declared the attacks "acts of war."

Tucked inside the shock and fury was dismay at the performance of others whose job — perhaps impossible — was to prevent this from happening. There were quiet calls for the heads of CIA chief Tenet and FAA boss Jane Garvey for allowing so appalling a breach of security on their watch. And there was an equal determination to find those who were behind it.

Only God knows what kind of heroic acts took place at 25,000 feet as passengers and crews contended with four teams of highly trained enemy terrorists. But it is clear that the hunt for the culprits began way up in the sky, by the doomed passengers and crews themselves, minutes before the attacks took place. In their final goodbyes, on brief and haunting calls from their cell phones, the victims on board at least two of the four planes whispered the number and even some of the seat assignments of the terrorists. A flight attendant on board American Flight 11 called her airline's flight operations center in Dallas on a special airlink line and reported that passengers were being stabbed.

That gave investigators a heads-up that something had gone terribly wrong, but there were plenty of other clues. Even before the smoke had cleared, it was obvious that the culprits knew their way around a Boeing cockpit — and all the security weaknesses in the U.S. civil aviation system. The enemy had chosen the quietest day of the week for the operation, when there would be fewer passengers to subdue; they had boarded westbound transcontinental flights — planes fully loaded with fuel. They were armed with knives and box cutters, had gained access to the cockpits and herded everyone to the back of the plane. Once at the controls, they had turned off at least one of the aircraft's self-identifying beacons, known as transponders, a move that renders the planes somewhat less visible to air traffic controllers. And each aircraft had gone through dramatic but carefully executed course corrections, including a stunning last maneuver by Flight 77. The pilot of that plane came in low from south of the Pentagon, and pulled a 270[degree] turn before slamming into the west wall of the building.

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