Press Box

The Mineta Myth

How Bob Woodward made the secretary of transportation a false hero.

Among the public officials who gained folk-hero status on Sept. 11, only Rudolph Giuliani outshines Norman Mineta, who is credited with making the snap decision to ground all airborne planes shortly after the Pentagon attack. The transportation secretary was canonized in the opening paragraphs of Bob Woodward and Dan Balz’s six-part Washington Post epic, “10 Days in September”:

Mineta shouted into the phone to Monte Belger at the FAA: “Monte, bring all the planes down.” It was an unprecedented order—there were 4,546 airplanes in the air at the time. Belger, the FAA’s acting deputy administrator, amended Mineta’s directive to take into account the authority vested in airline pilots. “We’re bringing them down per pilot discretion,” Belger told the secretary. “[Expletive] pilot discretion,” Mineta yelled back. “Get those goddamn planes down.”

Mineta’s courageous performance has been widely praised, not least by Mineta himself in a Sept. 20appearance before Congress, and again on 60 Minutes II a month later. Here’s his congressional testimony:

I immediately called the FAA, told them to bring all the airplanes down right now. All that we have learned since that fateful morning leaves me convinced that this unusual command or order was the right thing to do.

For Mineta, the genuflection this tale has engendered has been a welcome distraction from less mythic performances, such as his department’s problems getting the new airport security agency off the ground. Long considered a competent if unremarkable backbencher, Mineta has refashioned himself as a quick-thinking decision-maker with flawless instincts in an emergency.

He may be that, but he isn’t the hero Woodward and Balz make him out to be. According to insiders, that honor belongs to Monte Belger, at the time the No. 2 official at the FAA. A precise, diligent career bureaucrat known among colleagues as “the Forrest Gump of the FAA,” Belger was on a phone bridge with controllers at the David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va., and ordered flights grounded 15 minutes before Mineta was even notified of the attacks. So, when the secretary issued his blunt order—”Monte, bring all the planes down!”—Monte had already done so.

FAA officials and beat reporters have known this for months. “Any clued-in transportation reporter knows what went on that day,” says one. But Mineta apparently does not. After he gave his congressional testimony, FAA officials, including Belger, who is a consummate team player, kept quiet in deference to their boss. Though beat reporters knew the truth as long ago as November, none came forward for fear of being frozen out.

Until last Tuesday, when, at the end of a speech before the Aero Club of Washington, D.C., the Washington Post’s veteran transportation reporter Don Phillips let the cat out of the bag. Phillips told his audience he felt it necessary to make a “historical correction,” although FAA officials had begged him to maintain the fiction. Phillips proposed, charitably, that Mineta’s order was a simple misunderstanding; that the secretary was unaware that “[f]or at least 15 minutes before Mineta’s conversation with the FAA, controllers were bringing the planes down … at the nearest airport.” Phillips continued:

I’m told by very high sources that it happened this way: First, the decision was made on a regional basis by some gutsy local FAA officials, and the FAA command center and headquarters officials agreed that it should be spread to the whole country. First, [the FAA] acted. Then they sought permission. A top FAA official … then called Mineta, finding him in a bunker with the vice president and other officials. He explained the plan, and Mineta agreed. …Then there was a pause in the conversation. You know what many of us do when there is a pause in the conversation. We try to fill the dead time. The FAA official, unfortunately said something like, “Of course we could have let them go on to their destinations, or …” Big mistake. Norm heard that throwaway line as saying the FAA was still considering letting them go on to destination. He then fired off his now-famous order.

All this raises the question of why, if every reporter on the transportation beat knew the truth about Mineta’s command, Woodward and Balz got it wrong. It’s plausible that Mineta really didn’t know the truth about Sept. 11—that due to his deputies’ protectiveness, the secretary has been unwittingly repeating an erroneous version of events.

But that doesn’t excuse Woodward and Balz. Unlike so many other juicy Woodward anecdotes, this one was easily verifiable, particularly since their Post colleague, Phillips, had ferreted out the truth. “I have no reason to doubt that the more complicated version that [Phillips] explains is probably the accurate one,” Balz says.

Woodward isn’t nearly as ready to concede. “This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he told me, adding that he checked his version of the story with Mineta’s staff. “If I’d known of that information—and it was correct—I probably would have included [the anecdote]. But no correction is necessary. What we wrote is not inaccurate.” Not inaccurate, perhaps—but not exactly accurate either.