WASHINGTON, June 17: The White House bypassed Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in confusion during the Sept 2001 attack and directly ordered fighter jets to shoot down hijacked airliners used in the strikes , the commission studying the event said on Thursday.

No airliners were shot down, but the independent commission charged in a scathing report that US aviation and military officials responded clumsily to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Not only was Mr Rumsfeld bypassed in the normal chain of command for such a shoot-down order, but the command from Vice President Dick Cheney that the airliners be "taken out" did not reach the fighter planes until after the last ill-fated airliner had crashed in Pennsylvania, the special commission said.

Here is an excerpt from the conversation between Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr Rumsfeld:

Cheney: "There's been at least three instances here where we've had reports of aircraft approaching Washington - a couple were confirmed hijack. And, pursuant to the president's instructions, I gave authorization for them to be taken out. Hello?"

Rumsfeld: "Yes, I understand. Who did you give that direction to?"

Cheney: "It was passed from here through the operations centre at the White House, from the (shelter)."

Rumsfeld: "OK. Let me ask the question here. Has that directive been transmitted to the aircraft?"

Cheney: "Yes, it has."

Rumsfeld: "So we've got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at the present time?"

Cheney: "That is correct. And it's my understanding they've already taken a couple of the aircraft (hijacked airliners) out."

Rumsfeld: "We can't confirm that. We're told that one aircraft is down, but we do not have a pilot report that they did it."

Mr Rumsfeld, who had earlier been outside the Pentagon helping in rescue efforts after one hijacked airliner smashed into the Pentagon, was referring to another airliner that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the hijackers apparently lost control of the plane.

"He (Rumsfeld) told us he was just gaining situational awareness when he spoke with the vice president, and that his primary concern was ensuring that the pilots had a clear understanding of their rules of engagement," the report said. But it added that the White House shoot-down order was passed too late to Air Force fighter jets scrambled by the North American Aerospace Defence Command. -Reuters

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