WASHINGTON — Air Force Gen. Richard Myers told a Senate committee Thursday that U.S. fighter jets were scrambled shortly after a hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon Tuesday and approached another commandeered plane over Pennsylvania moments before it crashed into a field.
But Myers, President Bush’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the fighter jets "did not shoot down any aircraft" on a chaotic morning when four passenger aircraft were hijacked and used as guided missiles.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee sought answers about the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon during a confirmation hearing for Myers, who was nominated in August to become the nation’s highest-ranking military officer. The term of the current Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Henry "Hugh" Shelton, expires at the end of this month.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., specifically wanted to know when the Pentagon was notified of the attacks, what response the military took and when it did so.
"If we knew that there was a general terrorist threat, which we did, and we suddenly have two trade towers in New York being obviously hit by terrorist activity on commercial airliners taken off course from Boston to Los Angeles, then what happened to the response of the defense establishment?" Nelson said. "We would like an answer."
Myers said that when the twin towers in New York were hit, the U.S. military had "much fewer" aircraft on alert than during the height of the Cold War. Also, the Air Force has few bases around the perimeter of the country, he said.
"It’s not just a question of launching an aircraft, it’s launching to do what?" Myers said.
The White House has said that Air Force fighter escorts met Air Force One over the Florida Panhandle. President Bush had been visiting a school in Florida when the attacks occurred and was flown first to an Air Force Base in Louisiana, then to Nebraska for safety.
Myers reassured senators that the U.S. military is ready to respond and has the capabilities to be successful. But he said Congress needs to appropriate additional money to enhance intelligence, command and control, and force protection.