The Failure to Defend the Skies on 9/11By Paul Thompson
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The heads of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the Transportation Department, NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in charge of defending America’s airspace), and others testified before this commission hearing. Unfortunately, many of their statements consisted of evasions, lies, and spin. Their statements will be examined more closely below. But before that, it is important to ask, what intelligence warnings could have led to an improved defensive posture by 9/11, and what actions were taken to improve the nation’s defense against terrorism before 9/11?
No Warnings at All?
In his May 2003 testimony, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta stated to the Independent Commission, “I don’t think we ever thought of an aircraft being used as a missile. We had no information of that nature at all.” [Norman Mineta Testimony, 5/23/03] FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said, “I was not aware of any information about (planes) being used as weapons that was credible.” [UPI, 5/22/03 (B)] Mineta and Garvey were merely repeating the same claims many Bush administration officials have made since 9/11. For instance, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated in May 2002, “All this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking.” [Washington Post 9/18/02] Even President Bush stated, “Never did anybody’s thought process about how to protect America did we ever think that the evil-doers would fly not one, but four commercial aircraft into precious US targets—never.” [NATO, 9/16/01]
Attacks Using Planes as Weapons
Careful examination of the published record clearly shows these claims there were no warnings are simply not true. Historically there have been many attacks using planes as weapons, an obvious example being the kamikaze strikes by Japanese pilots on Allied ships in World War II. More recently, in 1994, there were three separate attempts to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. A disgruntled Federal Express worker tried to crash a DC-10 into a company building in Memphis but was overpowered by the crew.A lone pilot crashed a small plane onto the White House grounds, just missing the president’s bedroom.An Air France flight was hijacked by a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda, with the aim of flying it into the Eiffel Tower; however, French Special Forces stormed the plane while it was refueling.[New York Times, 10/3/01]
In January 1995, acclaimed 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others were within weeks of implementing a massive plot named Operation Bojinka when they were foiled by authorities in the Philippines. This plot involved the simultaneous bombing of up to a dozen passenger airliners flying over the Pacific Ocean. But in some variations of this plan, planes were to be hijacked and flown into “key structures” in the United States. According to a US intelligence analysis shortly after the plot was uncovered, “The World Trade Center, the White House, the Pentagon, the Transamerican Tower, and the Sears Tower were among the prominent structures that had been identified in the plans that we had decoded.” [Village Voice, 9/26/01] One pilot, Abdul Hakim Murad (who incidentally learned to fly in US flight schools), confessed that his role was to crash a plane into CIA headquarters. [Washington Post, 9/23/01] Details of Operation Bojinka were widely known within the US government. Yet Khalid Shaikh Mohammed escaped capture and later stated that the 9/11 attacks were essentially a refinement and resurrection of Bojinka. [Australian, 9/9/02] Even the fact that Mohammed would have led a resurrection of Bojinka should have been no surprise, because in 1997 the intelligence agency of Qatar, where Mohammed had been hiding, told the US that Mohammed was once again planning “to hijack some planes.” [UPI, 9/30/02] In June 2001, US intelligence additionally learned that Mohammed was interested in “sending terrorists to the United States” and planning to assist their activities there. [Los Angeles Times, 12/12/02]
In March 1999, US intelligence learned that a US citizen who was involved in al-Qaeda planned to fly an explosives-laden hang glider into the Egyptian Presidential Palace in Cairo. There were problems in testing the glider in Afghanistan, and he was eventually arrested before the plot was carried out. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02] Later that year, an Egyptian pilot intentionally flew a passenger airliner into the ocean, killing everyone on board. [AP, 1/21/00, Atlantic Monthly, 11/01, Aviation Week and Space Technology, 3/25/02] In August 2001, US intelligence learned of a plot to either bomb the US embassy in Nairobi from an airplane or crash an airplane into it. Two people who were reportedly acting on instructions from bin Laden met in October 2000 to discuss this plot. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02]
Foreign Government Warnings of Planes as Weapons
Numerous foreign governments warned the US that it was likely to be attacked by airplanes used as weapons. In 1999, the British warned that al-Qaeda had plans to use “commercial aircraft” in “unconventional ways, possibly as flying bombs.” [Sunday Times, 6/9/02] In early August 2001, Britain gave a categorical warning that the US should expect multiple airline hijackings. This warning was passed on to Bush a short time later. [Sunday Herald, 5/19/02] In June 2001, Germany warned that Middle Eastern terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft and use them as weapons to attack “American and Israeli symbols, which stand out.” [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9/11/01, Washington Post, 9/14/01, Fox News, 5/17/02] In August, Russian President Putin warned the US that suicide pilots were training for attacks on US targets. [Fox News, 5/17/02]
In late July 2001, “Egyptian intelligence [learned] … from one of its operatives in Afghanistan that 20 al-Qaeda members had slipped into the US and four of them had received flight training on Cessnas. To the Egyptians, pilots of small planes didn’t sound terribly alarming, but they passed on the message to the CIA anyway, fully expecting Washington to request information. The request never came.” [CBS, 10/9/02] This closely matches the details of the actual 9/11 plot, with its four pilots who trained on Cessnas. Around the end of August, Egyptian intelligence followed up with a warning that al-Qaeda was in the advanced stages of executing a significant operation against an American target, probably within the US. [AP, 12/7/01, New York Times, 6/4/02] Jordan passed on the message that a major attack, code named the “Big Wedding,” was planned inside the US and that aircraft would be used.[International Herald Tribune, 5/21/02, Christian Science Monitor, 5/23/02] “Big Wedding” was in fact al-Qaeda’s secret code name for the 9/11 attacks. [Chicago Tribune, 9/5/02]
Israel went even further, warning in mid-August 2001 that between 50 to 200 al-Qaeda terrorists had slipped into the US and were planning an imminent, “major assault on the United States.” They said it was likely to be on a “large scale target” (the CIA has denied this warning). [Telegraph, 9/16/01, Los Angeles Times, 9/20/01, Fox News, 5/17/02] On August 23, Israel even gave the CIA a list of 19 terrorists living in the US who were about to stage an attack. It’s not known if these were the exact same 19 hijackers as in the 9/11 attack, but at least four of the names on the list were the same: Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Marwan Alshehhi, and Mohamed Atta. [Die Zeit, 10/1/02, Der Spiegel, 10/1/02, BBC, 10/2/02, Haaretz, 10/3/02] Apparently Israeli agents had been monitoring the hijackers inside the US for months. For instance, beginning in December 2000, agents lived a few blocks from Marwan Alshehhi and Mohamed Atta, and observed them “around the clock.” [Salon, 5/7/02, Der Spiegel, 10/1/02]
Bush officials, when admitting that any warnings were known at all, have suggested that most intelligence information pointed toward overseas attacks only. FAA Director Jane Garvey repeated this in her May 2003 testimony, saying attention “was focused on threats overseas.” [UPI, 5/22/03 (B)] But even this is not true—many of the foreign government warnings mentioned above pointed to attacks in the US, and there was much more evidence that the target was inside the US.
In the autumn of 1998, US intelligence heard of an al-Qaeda plot involving aircraft in the New York and Washington areas. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02, New York Times, 9/18/02] Around this time bin Laden declared a worldwide fatwa, or religious call to arms, against US targets and American citizens anywhere in the world. By December, a US intelligence assessment stated, “Multiple reports indicate bin Laden is keenly interested in striking the US on its own soil.” [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02, Washington Post, 9/19/02] Later in the month a Time magazine cover story, entitled “The Hunt for Osama,” reported that intelligence sources had “evidence that bin Laden may be planning his boldest move yet—a strike on Washington or possibly New York City…” [Time, 12/21/98]
In July 1999, an agent of Pakistan’s intelligence service, in the US to buy illegal weapons for al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, pointed to the World Trade Center and stated, “Those towers are coming down.” An FBI informant recorded him saying this and similar threats against that building on two other occasions. This information reached higher officials, including the office of Senator Bob Graham, who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. [WPBF Channel 25, 8/5/02, Cox News, 8/2/02, Palm Beach Post, 10/17/02]
In September, US intelligence learned of a planned al-Qaeda attack in the US, possibly against landmarks in California and New York City. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02] Two months later, in December 1999, an al-Qaeda bomb attack on the Los Angeles International Airport was narrowly averted. Ahmed Ressam was arrested by an alert Washington state border guard who noticed his nervousness. [New York Times, 12/30/01] Documents found with Ressam led to co-conspirators in New York, Boston and Seattle. Enough people were arrested to prevent a series of attacks planned for December 31, 1999. National Security Council Chief of Counterterrorism Richard Clarke later said that as a result, “I think a lot of the FBI leadership for the first time realized that… there probably were al-Qaeda people in the United States.” [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02]
In April 2000, a man walked into the FBI office in Newark, New Jersey, and claimed he had received hijacking training at an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan. He also stated that he was supposed to meet five or six other individuals in the US and participate in the hijacking of a 747. Pilots in the hijacking team would either fly the plane to Afghanistan or blow it up. The individual passed an FBI polygraph, but the FBI was unable to verify his story or identify his contacts in the US. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02]
In late July 2001, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, foreign minister for the Taliban, tried to warn the US that al-Qaeda was planning a “huge attack” on targets inside America. The attack was imminent, and would kill thousands. His message was told to US officials, but it is unclear how far the warning was passed along. [Independent, 9/7/02, Reuters, 9/7/02] Then, according to a CIA official, “There was something specific in early August that said to us that [bin Laden] was determined in striking on US soil.” [AP, 10/3/01] “Shortly before” 9/11, there was even an intercept of a conversation between Osama bin Laden and an associate talking about an incident to take place in the US on or around 9/11, and its implications. [Sunday Times, 10/7/01]
Experts Realized Planes Could Be Used as Weapons
Despite the Bush administration’s frequent protests to the contrary, many experts had considered this type of attack. In 1993, an expert panel commissioned by the Pentagon suggested that an airplane could be used as a missile to bomb national landmarks. But the panel was not allowed to mention this in its published report. According to one of the authors, Pentagon officials said, “We don’t want it released, because you can’t handle a crisis before it becomes a crisis. And no one is going to believe you.” [ABC News, 2/20/02] However, the next year one of the panel’s experts wrote in Futurist magazine, “Targets such as the World Trade Center not only provide the requisite casualties but, because of their symbolic nature, provide more bang for the buck. In order to maximize their odds for success, terrorist groups will likely consider mounting multiple, simultaneous operations with the aim of overtaxing a government’s ability to respond, as well as demonstrating their professionalism and reach.” [Washington Post, 10/2/01] Later in 1994, Tom Clancy published a book in which terrorists try to destroy the US Capitol Building by crashing a radio controlled airplane into it. In a Time magazine cover story the next year, Senator Sam Nunn repeated Clancy’s idea, and said it was “not far-fetched.” [Time, 4/3/95]
It turns out that in every Olympic Games since 1972, security officials have specifically attempted to prevent any plane crashes into crowded stadiums. [Sydney Morning Herald, 9/20/01] For instance, in the 1996 Games held in Atlanta, Georgia, planes were banned from getting too close, helicopters and jets were deployed to intercept suspicious aircraft nearby, and so on.[Chicago Tribune, 11/18/01] At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, six planes were kept in the sky at all times to intercept any aircraft. Officials considered al-Qaeda the number-one threat, and the idea of “a fully loaded, fueled airliner crashing into the opening ceremony” was one of their greatest fears. [Sydney Morning Herald, 9/20/01]
In September 1999, a report by a group advising the president and US intelligence on emerging threats contained these ideas: “Al-Qaeda’s expected retaliation for the US cruise missile attack… could take several forms of terrorist attack in the nation’s capital.Al-Qaeda could detonate a Chechen-type building-buster bomb at a federal building.Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaeda’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and Semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House.Whatever form an attack may take, bin Laden will most likely retaliate in a spectacular way.” [AP, 4/18/02] The Bush administration later claimed to have never heard of this publicly released report until long after 9/11, even though the New York Times said it was “widely shared within the government.” [CNN, 5/18/02, New York Times, 5/18/02]
In truth, the US government seemed quite concerned the possibility of an attack using a plane as a weapon. For example, on October 24-26, 2000,Pentagon officials carried out a “detailed” emergency drill based upon the crashing of an airliner into the Pentagon. [MDW News Service, 11/3/00, Mirror, 5/24/02] Also, US Medicine magazine reported that in May 2001, “DoD [Department of Defense] medical personnel trained” to respond to “an ersatz guided missile in the form of a hijacked 757 airliner” crashing into the Pentagon. [US Medicine, 10/01] On June 1-2, 2001, NORAD sponsored a multi-agency planning exercise named Amalgam Virgo involving the hypothetical scenario of a cruise missile launched by “a rogue (government) or somebody” from a barge off the East Coast. Bin Laden was pictured on the cover of the proposal for the exercise. [American Forces Press Service, 6/4/02] Before 9/11, it was already planned that the next year’s version of Amalgam Virgo would involve a simultaneous hijacking scenario. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] Additionally, at some point before 9/11, NORAD conducted another drill, in which a hijacked plane slammed into a highly visible US target. Details of this drill are not known, except that it involved a plane hijacked from a foreign airport. [AP, 10/7/01]
The above is only a partial listing of all the information that should have alerted the Bush administration to the nature of the 9/11 attack. For instance, one could also go into detail about the failure to appreciate FBI agent Ken Williams’s July 2001 memo warning of al-Qaeda agents training in US flight schools, or the failure to follow up on the August 15, 2001, arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui which led one flight school official to complain to FBI agents, “Do you realize how serious this is? This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!” [New York Times, 2/8/02] There were numerous additional warnings suggesting targets like the World Trade Center and indicating exactly when the attacks would happen (see this page and this page for more).
It’s no wonder the Bush administration has refused to allow most of the findings of the 2002 9/11 Congressional Inquiry to be made public, and has repeatedly attempted to prevent any serious investigation into 9/11. [Newsweek, 4/30/03, Newsweek, 2/4/02] Stunningly, the administration now wants material that has already been made public to be reclassified. The Congressional Inquiry was not allowed to reveal which warnings reached which officials. Its final 800-page report—still being withheld—is said to “name names” regarding who was told what. For instance, it apparently says that one CIA briefing from July 2001 was presented to Bush. That briefing predicted that al-Qaeda would launch a terrorist strike “in the coming weeks.” It added, “Attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against US facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.” [Newsweek, 4/30/03]
If that briefing wasn’t enough to cause concern for the president, the very title of the CIA’s daily briefing to Bush on August 6, 2001, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US,” should have. This also was kept from the public until someone leaked it to the press in May 2002. The entire memo focused on the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the US. Some accounts claim it was 11 pages long, instead of the usual two or three pages. [Newsweek, 5/27/02, New York Times, 5/15/02, Die Zeit, 10/1/02] Its contents have never been released. However, a Congressional report later described what is likely this memo. Supposedly, it mentions “that members of al-Qaeda, including some US citizens, had resided in or traveled to the US for years and that the group apparently maintained a support structure here. The report cited uncorroborated information obtained in 1998 that Osama bin Laden wanted to hijack airplanes to gain the release of US-held extremists; FBI judgments about patterns of activity consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks and the number of bin Laden-related investigations underway; as well as information acquired in May 2001 that indicated a group of bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the US with explosives.” [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/18/02]
So given all these warnings, and undoubtedly many more that have not been made public, wouldn’t one naturally think the US government would have taken basic steps to guard against hijackings? Even forgetting planes as flying bombs, what about defenses against traditional hijackings? Transportation Secretary Mineta was asked at the May 2003 hearing, “Did this higher level of [terrorist] chatter… result in any action across the government? I take it your answer is no.” He replied, “That’s correct.” [AP, 5/23/03 (C)]
In fact, rather than strengthening defenses, there actually were suggestions to weaken the country’s defenses even further. Supposedly, in 1997, the number of fighters on 24-hour active alert defending the continental US was reduced from about 100 fighters to only 14. And in the months before 9/11, the Pentagon was planning to reduce that number still further! “While defense officials say a decision had not yet been made [by 9/11], a reduction in air defenses had been gaining currency in recent months among task forces assigned by [Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld…” [Los Angeles Times, 9/15/01 (B)] Additionally, several months before, the FAA had tried to dispense with “primary” radars altogether and only use radars that detect transponder signals. Had that happened, when the hijackers turned off the planes’ transponder signals, no radar would have been able to find them. Luckily, NORAD rejected the proposal. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02]
Furthermore, despite all of the threats made against prominent landmarks, especially those in Washington and New York City, no steps appear to have been taken to better defend logical attack targets or these cities generally. For instance, there had long been a surface-to-air missile battery on top of the White House. [Telegraph, 9/16/01] Such batteries were not set up in New York City or anywhere else, in the way that the Italian government did to protect Genoa in July 2001. Nor were fighters kept in the skies as they were over recent Olympic Games, despite the high probability that bin Laden was determined to strike inside the US [to paraphrase the title of Bush’s August 6 briefing] within a matter of weeks. In fact, the nearest military base with fighters on alert was 188 miles from New York City, and 129 miles from Washington. The fighters at Andrews Air Force Base, only 10 miles from the center of Washington, were not put on a higher alert status, as far as we know.
Bush’s national security leadership held about 100 meetings between the January 2001 inauguration and 9/11, but terrorism was discussed in only two of these meetings (on June 3 and September 4). [Washington Post, 5/17/02] By comparison, Clinton’s Counterterrorism Security Group of similar stature met two or three times a week between 1998 and 2000. [New York Times, 12/30/01] And on August 22, 2001, FBI agent John O’Neill, the government’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists” [New Yorker, 1/14/02], quit after a critical article about him was published in the New York Times. O’Neill believed interim FBI Director Tom Pickard orchestrated the article as part of an effort to remove him, because the incoming FBI Director Robert Mueller wanted O’Neill replaced with a Bush ally. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/02, New Yorker, 1/14/02] O’Neill was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
The FAA sent 15 general terrorist warnings to US airlines between January and August 2001. But airlines had been receiving at least one such warning a month for a long time. [CNN, 3/02, CNN, 5/17/02] As one newspaper later put it, “There were so many that airline officials grew numb to them.” [St. Petersburg Times, 9/23/02] The Bush administration officials acknowledged that these warnings were so vague that they did not require tighter airline security. [AP, 5/18/02] In late June 2001,Richard Clarke, the White House National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, did give a direct warning to the FAA to increase security measures in light of an impending terrorist attack.But the FAA refused to take such measures, and nothing was done about its refusal.[New Yorker, 1/14/02]
Protection for a Lucky Few
Perhaps even more remarkable was the behavior of Attorney General John Ashcroft. In May 2001, he told a Senate committee that counter-terrorism was his “highest priority.” But on September 10, 2001, Ashcroft rejected a $58 million increase in funding for counter-terrorism programs, and sent an internal memorandum stating his seven priorities—none of them relating to counter-terrorism. [New York Times, 6/1/02, Guardian, 5/21/02] Yet, back on July 26, 2001, CBS News reported that Ashcroft had stopped flying commercial aircraft due to a threat, but “neither the FBI nor the Justice Department…would identify what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it.” [CBS, 7/26/01] In May 2002, Ashcroft walked out of his own office rather than answer questions about why he had stopped flying on commercial planes. [AP, 5/16/02] The San Francisco Chronicle concluded, “The FBI obviously knew something was in the wind.… The FBI did advise Ashcroft to stay off commercial aircraft. The rest of us just had to take our chances.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/02]
It almost seems as if Bush administration officials didn’t really care if a terrorist attack happened or not, as long as they and other important people were not killed in it.
The Response to the 9/11 Hijackings
With this background understanding of the numerous warnings given and a complete lack of protective measures taken, we can now turn to the subject of the May 2003 Independent Commission hearings. How effective were the air defenses on 9/11? Not surprisingly, with only 14 fighters on 24-hour active alert, the military was already at an unnecessary disadvantage. But even factoring in such a lack of planes, the defensive response to the hijackings was so remarkably poor that it has caused some to wonder if the hijackers were deliberately allowed to succeed.
Before looking at how the military response to 9/11 fared, we should consider the defensive posture on the East Coast at the time. Officially, there were only two air force bases in the Northeast region that were formally part of NORAD’s defensive system. One was Otis Air National Guard Base on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod peninsula and about 188 miles east of New York City. The other was Langley Air Force Base near Norfolk, Virginia, and about 129 miles south of Washington. [BBC, 8/29/02] During the Cold War, the US had literally thousands of fighters on alert. But as the Cold War wound down, this number was reduced until it reached only 14 fighters in the continental US by 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 9/15/01 (B)] A cursory web search shows that until recently, many units were on five-minute alert status, which meant that from the moment they were scrambled (ordered into the air), they were guaranteed to be airborne within five minutes. NORAD has claimed that on 9/11 fighters in bases within its system, including Otis and Langley, were guaranteed to get airborne within 15 minutes, not five. [Calgary Herald, 10/13/01, NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] (Why this reduction in capability happened even as the terrorist threat dramatically increased is another unanswered question.)
But there are dozens of other air force bases on the East Coast. How quickly other bases could get fighters into the air varied from base to base. Before 9/11, the web sites of many of these bases used terms like “combat ready,”“five minute alert,”“highest state of readiness,” and so on, indicating they should have been able to quickly respond as well. For instance, the web site for Andrews Air Force Base next to Washington boasted that it hosted two “combat ready” squadrons, “capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency.” The District of Columbia Air National Guard was stationed at Andrews, and its web site claimed its mission was “to provide combat units in the highest possible state of readiness.” Both web sites changed on September 12, 2001, and the phrases suggesting such quick response capability were removed. [DC Military website, DCANG Home Page (before and after the change)] Bases at Westfield, Massachusetts; Syracuse, New York; and Hartford, Connecticut, also promised high readiness status, and these bases would have been in good positions to defend the skies on 9/11.
The Morning of September 11, 2001
As the sun rose on September 11, 2001, NORAD was already taking part in the Vigilant Guardian war game, which had begun a few days before. [Newhouse News, 1/25/02, Ottawa Citizen, 9/11/02, Code One Magazine, 1/02] As a result, NORAD was in peak form. It was fully staffed and alert, and senior officers were manning stations throughout the US when the first hijacking was reported. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02] Because of the war game, NORAD “had extra fighter planes on alert.” [ABC News, 9/14/02] Colonel Robert Marr, in charge of NORAD’s Northeastern US sector, said, “We had the fighters with a little more gas on board. A few more weapons on board.” [ABC News, 9/11/02]
American Airlines Flight 11
Normally, pilots press the ELT (emergency locator transmitter) button as soon as they suspect a hijacking is in progress. This button is within easy reach. However, the pilot of Flight 11, Captain John Ogonowski, did not press this button, and nor did the pilots on Flights 77 and 93. There has been speculation that this may have been because hijackers were already in the cockpits when the hijackings began, posing as a guest pilot sitting in the cockpit’s extra seat. [Fox News, 9/24/01, Boston Globe, 11/23/01] This would explain, for instance, why Flight 11’s radio contact and transponder signal were both lost at about 8:14, while two stewardesses calling from the flight indicated the hijackers in the passenger section didn’t get out of their seats until about 8:21. [Boston Globe, 11/23/01, ABC News, 7/18/02] But Captain Ogonowski was clever. He began turning the talk-back button off and on, which enabled flight controllers to hear what was being said, and also showed them that something was wrong. One controller said, “The button was being pushed intermittently most of the way to New York,” and continued until about 8:38, so he must have started not long after 8:14. [Christian Science Monitor, 9/13/01, MSNBC, 9/15/01]
Flight controllers suspected something was wrong, but perhaps were confused because the ELT button had not been activated. But at 8:20, Flight 11 stopped transmitting its IFF (identify friend or foe) beacon signal [CNN, 9/17/01], and the plane also was clearly off course by that time (see adjacent flight path map). As a result, at “about 8:20” Boston flight control decided that Flight 11 had probably been hijacked. [Newsday, 9/23/01, New York Times, 9/15/01 (C)] However, it did not notify NORAD or anyone else of a possible problem.
This is when the failure of America’s air defense system began. FAA regulations in force at the time state, “Consider that an aircraft emergency exists… when:… There is unexpected loss of radar contact and radio communications with any… aircraft.” [FAA regulations] They also state, “If… you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.” [FAA regulations] Furthermore, MSNBC explained that a significant course deviation is “considered a real emergency, like a police car screeching down a highway at 100 miles an hour” and leads to fighters being quickly dispatched to see what the problem might be. [MSNBC, 9/12/01] But, as ABC News later put it, around 8:20, “There doesn’t seem to have been alarm bells going off, traffic controllers getting on with law enforcement or the military. There’s a gap there that will have to be investigated.” [ABC News, 9/14/01]
If there still was any doubt Flight 11 had been hijacked, that doubt was removed at 8:24. Because Captain Ogonowski was periodically holding down the talk-back button, beginning at 8:24 and 38 seconds, Boston flight controllers heard the hijackers in the cockpit broadcasting a message to the passengers: “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be OK. We are returning to the airport.” A flight controller responded, “Who’s trying to call me?” The hijacker continued, “Everything will be OK. If you try to make any moves you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.” [Guardian, 10/17/01, New York Times, 10/16/01 (C)] A Boston flight controller later said that immediately after hearing this voice, he “knew right then that he was working a hijack.” [Village Voice, 9/13/01] At 8:25 exactly, seconds after hearing this message, Boston flight control notified other flight control centers of the hijacking. But, supposedly, once again it did not notify NORAD. Incredibly, NORAD asserts that it wasn’t told of the hijacking until 8:40—a full 15 minutes later! [NORAD, 9/18/01]
Lies and Contradictions
Thus, had the FAA not delayed its notification of NORAD, the approximately 620 people killed in the World Trade Center’s South Tower might have been saved. [New York Magazine, 9/02] Had the FAA reported its suspicions at 8:20 or even around 8:14 (when a hijacking was already suspected), the fighters would have had another 15 to 21 minutes to reach New York City and decide what to do. But is it true that the FAA did in fact wait so long before notifying NORAD? As a matter of fact, a later ABC News report says that the FAA notified NORAD employee Lt. Colonel Dawne Deskins at 8:31 a.m., not 8:40. [ABC News, 9/11/02] A different version of that ABC report states, “Shortly after 8:30 a.m., behind the scenes, word of a possible hijacking reached various stations of NORAD.” [ABC News, 9/14/02] Even such a late notification around 8:30 would have given the fighters from Otis a fighting chance to reach Flight 175 before it crashed, especially since NORAD says the fighters only took six minutes to get ready and take off, instead of the maximum 15. [NORAD, 9/18/01]
NORAD claims that after being told of the hijacking at 8:40, it waited six minutes to give the scramble order to the Otis pilots. It then took another six minutes before the pilots took off. So, at 8:52, two fighters took off toward New York City. According to Lt. Col. Timothy Duffy, one of the pilots, before he took off a fellow officer had told him, “This looks like the real thing.” Duffy later said, “It just seemed wrong. I just wanted to get there. I was in full-blower all the way.” A NORAD commander has said the planes were stocked with extra fuel as well. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02] Full-blower meant the fighters were going as fast as they could go. An F-15 can travel over 1875 mph. [Air Force News, 7/30/97] Duffy later said, “As we’re climbing out, we go supersonic on the way, which is kind of nonstandard for us.” Their target destination was the airspace over Kennedy airport in New York City. [ABC News, 9/11/02]
So even if the late notification of 8:40 is true, these fighters still should have been able to reach New York City before Flight 175 as long as they traveled 1100 mph or faster—far below their maximum speed of 1875 mph. In fact, Major General Larry Arnold says they did head straight for New York City at about 1100 to 1200 mph. [MSNBC, 9/23/01 (C), Slate, 1/16/02] Yet, according to NORAD, the journey took 19 minutes, meaning the fighters traveled below 600 mph, and below supersonic speeds. [NORAD, 9/18/01] Major Gen. Paul Weaver, director of the Air National Guard, thus made the absurd statement, “The pilots flew ‘like a scalded ape,’ topping 500 mph but were unable to catch up to the airliner.” [Dallas Morning News, 9/16/01] At that speed, Flight 11 would have been traveling faster than the fighters!
What is NORAD hiding with these conflicting notification times, and absurd “scalded ape” statements? Remarkably, it is possible that the story of fighters scrambling from Otis could be a complete fabrication. Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers was the acting head of the US military on 9/11 because the Chairman was out of contact on an international flight. [Washington Post, 1/27/02] Two days after 9/11, under oath and in front of a Congressional committee, Myers was asked when the order to scramble planes was first given. He responded, “That order, to the best of my knowledge, was after the Pentagon was struck [at 9:37].” [Myers Senate Confirmation Hearing, 9/13/01] If true, the claim that fighters were ordered scrambled at 8:46 is incorrect by almost one hour! This idea was not simply Myers’s confused recollection. The next day, NORAD spokesman Marine Corps Major Mike Snyder also claimed that no fighters were scrambled until after the Pentagon was hit. Only then did the military realize the scope of the attack and order fighters into the air. [Boston Globe, 9/15/01 (D)] NORAD’s current story of two fighters being scrambled at 8:46 was first reported on CBS Evening News on September 14, hours after Snyder agreed with Myers’s assertions. [CBS, 9/14/01] But even after that, in early October 2001, NORAD commander General Ralph Eberhart stated, “We did not anticipate this threat would take off from inside the United States and it would be a matter of double-digit minutes” to respond. [AP, 10/7/01] So in other words, even though NORAD fighters were supposed to be able to take to the sky within 15 minutes of being ordered to do so, NORAD claimed it was unable to respond unless it was warned more than an hour (or does he mean 99 minutes?) in advance!
United Airlines Flight 175
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that NORAD’s claim that fighters were scrambled at 8:46 is true. What else do we need to know about Flight 175, in order to judge the air defense response? On May 22, 2003, a NORAD spokesman claimed that the FAA notified NORAD that Flight 175 was “possibly hijacked” at 9:05, two minutes after it had crashed into the World Trade Center, and that its transponder was never turned off. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] Both of these assertions contradict all previous post-9/11 reports, including NORAD’s earlier timeline. [NORAD, 9/18/01]
At 8:16 a.m., Flight 175 took off late, 16 minutes after both its scheduled departure and the departure of Flight 11. [CNN, 9/17/01, AP, 8/19/02] The hijacking also started much later than on Flight 11. Flight 175’s last routine communication occurred four seconds before 8:42. Exactly one minute later, a Boston flight controller said of the flight, “He’s off about 9 o’clock and about 20 miles looks like he’s heading southbound but there’s no transponder no nothing and no one’s talking to him.” [New York Times, 10/16/01 (B)] So, all at once flight control discovered the radio had been cut off, the transponder had been turned off, and the plane was seriously off course. The FAA immediately notified NORAD before the minute was out. NORAD’s own timeline, released one week after 9/11, states that NORAD was notified about this plane at 8:43. [NORAD, 9/18/01] Actually, notifying NORAD was unnecessary, because by this time NORAD technicians had their headsets linked to Boston flight control to hear about Flight 11, and so NORAD learned about Flight 175 at the same time Boston did. [Newhouse News, 1/25/02] If there was any doubt the plane was hijacked, that was removed five seconds after 8:44. A nearby airliner said to flight control about Flight 175, “I just picked up an ELT [emergency locator transmitter] on 121.5 it was brief but it went off.” [New York Times, 10/16/01 (B)] Clearly, NORAD’s latest claim that it was not notified until 9:05 is wildly incorrect. As for its recent claim that the transponder was never turned off, the above flight controller’s comment, “there’s no transponder no nothing,” shows how incorrect that is. But apparently, the transponder didn’t stay off for long. It was turned off for about 30 seconds, and then changed to a signal that was not designated for any plane on that day. [Newsday, 9/10/02] Ironically, this “allowed controllers to track the intruder easily…” [Washington Post, 9/17/01]
Both Flights 11 and 175 were never lost to Boston flight control’s radar. When Flight 11 turned its transponder off at 8:14, that only prevented Boston from determining the plane’s exact altitude, because they could still track the plane using primary radar. [Christian Science Monitor, 9/13/01, Newhouse News, 1/25/02] Boston flight controller Mark Hodgkins later said, “I watched the target of American 11 the whole way down.” [ABC, 9/6/02] At some point before the plane turned toward New York City at 8:28, the FAA had tagged Flight 11’s radar dot for easy visibility, and at American Airlines headquarters, “All eyes watched as the plane headed south.” [Wall Street Journal, 10/15/01] But apparently NORAD had different radar, and Boston had to periodically update it on Flight 11’s position by telephone until NORAD finally found it a few minutes before it crashed into the World Trade Center. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02, ABC News, 9/11/02, Newhouse News, 1/25/02]
So in the 18 minutes between the crash of Flight 11, many eyes watched their radars show Flight 175 inexorably making its way toward New York City, heading nearly 180 degrees away from its previous flight path. Also, “several minutes” after the first attack at 8:46, Boston flight control reported to NORAD that it was Flight 11 that had crashed into the World Trade Center. [New York Times, 9/13/01 (F), Newhouse News, 1/25/02] NORAD now claims it wasn’t notified about this until 9:05. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03]
Even worse, the pilots flying toward New York City were poorly informed. One pilot, Major Daniel Nash, says he can’t recall actually being told of the Flight 11 crash. [Cape Cod Times, 8/21/02] Both pilots say they weren’t told about Flight 175 until after it had crashed. [ABC News, 9/11/02, ABC, 9/14/02] At no point in the day were these pilots given permission to shoot down any airliners. Nash points out that even if he had reached New York City before Flight 175, he couldn’t have shot it down because only the president could make that decision, and he was preoccupied with a classroom of children in Florida. [Cape Cod Times, 8/21/02]
American Airlines Flight 77
So clearly NORAD and the rest of the government has little to be proud of regarding Flights 11 and 175. With better communication, a good portion of the people inside the World Trade Center could have been warned in time to leave, and perhaps Flight 175 could have been prevented from hitting the South Tower altogether. But the response to Flight 77 was even worse.
Flight 77 took off from Dulles International Airport near Washington at 8:20, ten minutes after the scheduled departure time. [8:20, CNN, 9/17/01, Guardian, 10/17/01] Its last routine radio communication was made 51 seconds after 8:50, and then it failed to respond to a routine instruction. [New York Times, 10/16/01 (D)] According to a USA Today map, it likely had already turned about 90 degrees from its scheduled flight path by this time (see the flight path map above). According to the New York Times, “a few minutes” after 8:48, flight controllers learned that Flight 77 had been hijacked. [New York Times, 9/15/01 (C)] But, as with Flight 11, they clearly violated regulations and failed to immediately notify NORAD.
A few minutes later, Flight 77 began turning around over northeastern Kentucky, and eventually headed back toward Washington. [Washington Post, 9/12/01, Newsday, 9/23/01] At 8:56, Flight 77’s transponder signal was turned off. [Guardian, 10/17/01, Boston Globe, 11/23/01] The New York Times later pointed out that “by 8:56 a.m., it was evident that Flight 77 was lost.” Starting at 8:56, flight controllers repeatedly called for Flight 77 over the radio and received no reply. [New York Times, 10/16/01] Even though Flight 77 had already turned around before the transponder was turned off, flight controllers failed to notice that and continued to look for its signal further west, instead of east where it was headed. West Virginia flight controllers finally noticed it entering their airspace around 9:05. [Newsday, 9/23/01] But again, supposedly now both West Virginia and Washington flight control apparently failed to notify NORAD. In fact, if NORAD can be believed, the FAA didn’t notify NORAD until 9:24 or 9:25, and even then only suggested that it “may” have been hijacked! [NORAD, 9/18/01, AP, 8/19/02, Guardian, 10/17/01] That’s half an hour after the New York Times says the FAA decided Flight 77 had been hijacked!
If this is true, NORAD is once again wildly incorrect with its estimates. Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:38. So, if NORAD did in fact learn of Flight 77’s hijacking around 8:51 when the FAA concluded it had been hijacked, it would have had about 47 minutes to get a plane over Washington. Even traveling at 1100 mph—the speed NORAD commander Larry Arnold says fighters traveled in making the longer journey to New York City earlier in the day—the F-16 fighters from Langley Air Force Base 129 miles away could have reached Washington in only seven minutes.
NORAD officials present a different account. They claim that at 9:09 a.m. NORAD ordered the F-16s at Langley Air Force Base to battle stations alert. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02] However, a pilot, code-named “Honey,” who was actually in one of the first planes to take off from Langley, later said the battle stations alert wasn’t sounded until 9:24. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, p. 64-65] 9:24 is also when NORAD was supposedly officially notified. NORAD claimed that three minutes later, three F-16s at Langley were scrambled to intercept Flight 77. Three minutes after that, at 9:30, these three fighters took off. [NORAD, 9/18/01] But once again, the recollection of “Honey” doesn’t jibe with NORAD’s timing. While he doesn’t give exact times, he describes a series of events lasting much longer than six minutes, including waiting from “five to ten minutes” between two of these events. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, pp. 64-65]
But again, even if we assume NORAD’s times are correct, the agency’s explanations don’t make sense. Even if the fighters left at 9:30, they should have been able to reach Washington one minute before Flight 77 crashed, if they traveled the same 1100 mph that the fighters traveling to New York City did. The maximum speed of an F-16 is a bit slower than that of the F-15s used near New York, but still a respectable 1500 mph. [AP, 6/16/00] One of the F-16 pilots, Major Dean Eckmann, said he was told before scrambling that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. [AP, 8/19/02 (C)] So, no doubt the pilots would have wanted to get to Washington quickly. But in their May 2003 testimony, NORAD officials said that afterburners were not used on these planes, even though the planes earlier in the day flew using their afterburners. They said these planes flew about 660 mph to Washington. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] But if NORAD’s earlier timeline is to be believed, these fighters were still 105 miles away when Flight 77 crashed. [Newsday, 9/23/01, NORAD, 9/18/01] If so, that means they must have flown north 24 miles in 8 minutes—an average of only about 180 mph, not 660 mph!
Clearly that cannot be correct, and once again the testimonies of the pilots differ greatly from NORAD’s explanations. The pilot “Honey” claimed the F-16s were in fact flying toward New York City, not Washington. They were 30 or 40 miles to the east of Washington, not south of it, when they saw a black column of smoke coming from the city. They then headed to Washington instead. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, p. 76] By contrast, two of the pilots have claimed their destination was always Washington [ABC News, 9/11/02, AP, 8/13/02 (C)], while NORAD officer Major James Fox claims he dispatched the fighters without any target. [Newhouse News, 1/25/02] So the issue certainly is confused.
Interestingly, at the May 2003 hearing, NORAD officials claimed that the fighters from Langley were sent to fly over the Atlantic Ocean instead of heading directly toward Washington. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] This would jibe with “Honey” ‘s account of the fighters being too far east. NORAD officials admitted that had the fighters traveled faster and headed directly toward Washington, they could have theoretically arrived there before Flight 77. But NORAD claims the fighters had to fly over the ocean because NORAD didn’t have jurisdiction over land. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] Said NORAD Commander Major General Larry Arnold: “Anything that takes off in the United States is considered a law enforcement issue—- or was considered a law enforcement issue, prior to Sept. 11.” [AP, 5/23/03 (C)] Arnold added, “And, of course, [the fighters were] out over water because our mission, unlike law enforcement’s mission is to protect things coming towards the United States.” [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] This makes no sense, especially given that earlier in the day fighters flew over land to reach New York City, and that NORAD officials decided to override official regulations from the first word of the first hijacking. Were they hoping the hijacked planes would oblige them and join their fighters out over the ocean? If we add “Honey” ‘s account suggesting that the Langley fighters actually took off later than admitted and headed toward New York City, and if we believe NORAD’s original explanation that no fighters at all scrambled until after the Pentagon was hit, then we can at least see an explanation as to why the Langley fighters would have been headed toward New York City. But the level of incompetence this implies is breathtaking.
Other Planes, Other Options
Another account says, “By 10:01 a.m., the command center began calling several bases across the country for help.” [Toledo Blade, 12/9/01] This fits better with what actually happened. A base in Toledo was one of those called at that time, and it appears to have been the first base outside of Otis, Langley, or Andrews to send up any fighters, which they did at 10:16 (the situation at Andrews will be discussed below). Syracuse may have been next, finally putting fighters in the air at 10:44. [Toledo Blade, 12/9/01] If so many bases were in communication with NORAD right after 9:03, then why were no fighters put into the air until so long afterward?
Could it be that instead of ordering all those fighters into the air, other bases were actually ordered NOT to scramble their fighters? According to Time magazine, at 9:26 a.m., FAA Administrator Jane Garvey “almost certainly after getting an okay from the White House, initiated a national ground stop, which forbids takeoffs and requires planes in the air to get down as soon as reasonable. The order, which has never been implemented since flying was invented in 1903, applied to virtually every single kind of machine that can takeoff — civilian, military, or law enforcement.” Note the inclusion of military planes. Military and law enforcement flights were allowed to resume taking off at 10:31 a.m. A limited number of military flights were allowed to fly during this ban, but the FAA won’t reveal details. [Time, 9/14/01] USA Today later claimed that it was Ben Sliney who made this decision, and without consulting his superiors. This would be even more remarkable, because it was Sliney’s first day on the job as the FAA’s National Operations Manager, “the chess master of the air traffic system.” [USA Today, 8/13/02]
Why Not Andrews Air Force Base?
As previously mentioned, it appeared that Andrews Air Force Base had “combat ready” fighters “in the highest possible state of readiness.” This is not surprising, given that Andrews is the airport typically used by Air Force One and foreign dignitaries when flying to Washington. Furthermore, at the time of the first World Trade Center crash, three F-16s assigned to Andrews were flying a training mission in North Carolina, 207 miles away from Washington. These fighters were only twenty miles further from Washington than the planes in Massachusetts ordered to New York were from that city. Yet it took about an hour more before they were recalled. They landed at Andrews at some point after Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon at 9:38. One of the fighters, piloted by Major Billy Hutchison, still had enough fuel to immediately take off again but the other two needed to refuel. Hutchison supposedly took off with no weapons. “Hutchison was probably airborne shortly after the alert F-16s from Langley arrive over Washington, although 121st FS pilots admit their timeline-recall ‘is fuzzy.’” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/02] If NORAD’s timeline for those other fighters is correct, this means Hutchison didn’t leave Andrews until after 9:49. Again, one must wonder why these planes weren’t recalled from their training much earlier. And why, even so much later, wasn’t Hutchison with his adequate fuel ordered directly to Washington’s skies, which was still unprotected?
The answer appears to be that NORAD only wanted to use fighters from the two bases on the Northeast Coast that they directly controlled, even if there were other bases or fighters in the air that were closer. But there was no reason for this. We know details of a 1999 fighter scramble, because famous golfer Payne Stewart was aboard a runaway Learjet. With the pilot unconscious, NORAD used fighters from a number of bases outside NORAD’s official seven bases to follow the plane as it crossed over several states before finally crashing. [ABC News, 10/25/99] But on 9/11, NORAD seemed determined not to use fighters from other bases such as Andrews, even though Andrews was only ten miles from Washington. Andrews personnel learned about the national emergency through news coverage, and then a pilot called a friend in the Secret Service for more information. A few minutes after the second crash, it was the Secret Service, not NORAD, who called Andrews and asked them to get fighters ready. Again, a few minutes after the Pentagon crash at 9:38, it was the Secret Service who called Andrews, and said the fighters needed to “Get in the air now!” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/02]
Yet, despite Andrews’ claim to have “combat ready” fighters “in the highest possible state of readiness” when the “Get in the air now!” command came, the fighters still were not fully ready to take off. They had ammunition for “hot” guns. But AIM-9 missiles were located in a bunker on the other side of the base, and even though base commanders began the process of loading them shortly after 9:00, they still weren’t finished until about 40 minutes later. The next two fighters to take off from Andrews after Major Billy Hutchison were only armed only with “hot” guns and 511 rounds of “TP”—nonexplosive training rounds. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/02] Even though the Secret Service and NORAD had long been sharing a conference call by this time, NORAD officials claim they remained unaware that the Secret Service ordered any planes into the air from Andrews. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03]
The Sharing of Information
But the communication problems at Andrews were hardly unique. In his May 2003 testimony, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta claimed that about 9:25 or 9:26, a few minutes after his arrival at the bunker beneath the White House, he overheard an aide tell Vice President Cheney that a hijacked plane headed toward Washington was 50 miles away, then 30 miles away (judging by the speed of the plane it would have been 50 miles from Washington around 9:27). [Norman Mineta Testimony, 5/23/03, Washington Post, 1/27/02, ABC News, 9/11/02] When the plane was announced to be 10 miles away, the aide asked the vice president, “Do the orders still stand?” Cheney replied, “Of course the orders still stand. Have you heard anything to the contrary?” Mineta inferred that the order was an order to shoot down the plane. [Norman Mineta Testimony, 5/23/03]
Unbelievably, in his May 2003 testimony, NORAD Commander Larry Arnold doubts Flight 77 would have been shot down, because even at that point, it was only “through hindsight that we are certain that this was a coordinated attack on the United States.” [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] Perhaps at 9:38 a.m. Arnold was the only person in the US aware of the news who was still doubting the US was under attack!
In any case, if Cheney did order Flight 77 shot down, none of the pilots from either Langley or Andrews appear to have been aware of any such orders! In fact, at this time there were no fighters near Washington to carry out those orders. But, one article points out, “If the airliner had approached much nearer to the White House it might have been shot down by the Secret Service, who are believed to have a battery of ground-to-air Stinger missiles ready to defend the president’s home.” [Telegraph, 9/16/01] Given that Flight 77 made a near 360 degree turn over Washington and that the Pentagon is only two miles from the White House [CBS News, 9/21/01], why wasn’t it shot down by those missiles, if Cheney had already given the order to bring down the plane?
Since the FAA said Flight 77 was headed toward Washington at 9:24, and Cheney and Mineta knew of Flight 77’s progress from at least 50 miles away, it’s strange that other reports suggest that the Washington flight controllers weren’t aware of the plane until much later. One Washington flight controller has claimed she was the first to notice Flight 77 when it was about 12 to 14 miles away, and Cheney learned of it only after that. [ABC, 10/24/01, ABC, 10/24/01 (B)] The head Washington flight controller claimed the Secret Service first alerted his tower of a hijacked plane coming his way, when it was only five miles away. [USA Today, 8/12/02] According to another account, flight controllers detected it just before 9:30, and told the Secret Service. [USA Today, 8/13/02] Another account stated radar detected Flight 77 30 miles away at 9:30 and yet another account claimed 9:33. [CBS News, 9/21/01, New York Times, 10/16/01] If Washington flight control’s radar didn’t detect Flight 77 from 9:24 and before, then whose radar did?
We know NORAD was officially notified that Flight 77 was headed toward Washington at 9:24, and FAA Administrator Jane Garvey claimed a conference call had discussed Flight 77 well before that. But it wasn’t until well after the Pentagon was hit at 9:38 that the order was given to evacuate likely Washington targets such as the White House, the Capitol Building, State Department, or the Pentagon. [CNN, 9/16/01] Had Flight 77 hit the Capitol Building instead of the Pentagon, most Senators and Congresspeople would still have been inside. [AP, 8/19/02] (Would be twentieth hijacker Ramzi bin al-Shbih later revealed that the Capitol Building was the target for Flight 93.) [Guardian, 9/9/02] Supposedly even Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his top aides in their Pentagon offices remained unaware of any danger until the Pentagon was actually hit, even though the conference call was being run out of the National Military Command Center inside the Pentagon itself! [Newsday, 9/23/01, Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02, CNN, 9/4/02, ABC News, 9/11/02] Why did Cheney and others track Flight 77 getting closer and closer to Washington, and fail to give any evacuation orders? How many of the 125 people killed inside the Pentagon could have been saved?
Flight 93 had to wait in a line of planes before it could take off, delaying its departure about 40 minutes until 8:42 a.m. [Newsweek, 9/22/01, USA Today, 8/12/02] As a result, it was the last of the four planes to be hijacked. The FAA told NORAD at 9:16 that Flight 93 was hijacked [CNN, 9/17/01, NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03], but it’s not clear why they believed this because the transponder wasn’t turned off until about 9:30 or 9:40 and the flight didn’t go off course until much later. [9:30, MSNBC, 9/3/02, 9:40, CNN, 9/17/01] (Edited transcripts of cockpit voice recordings have been released for every plane but Flight 93. [New York Times, 10/16/01, New York Times, 10/16/01 (B), New York Times, 10/16/01 (C), New York Times, 10/16/01 (D)])
Much of the timing surrounding Flight 93 has not been released, or is in dispute. For instance, NORAD maintains the plane crashed at 10:03 [NORAD, 9/18/01, NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03], even though a seismic study commissioned by the US Army determined the plane crashed five seconds after 10:06. [US Army Authorized Seismic Study, Philadelphia Daily News, 9/16/02] Even more mysterious is when, or even if, fighters flew toward Flight 93. NORAD’s first timeline failed to give this information, except to say that a fighter was 100 miles or 11 minutes away when Flight 93 crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. [NORAD, 9/18/01] That means the fighter was traveling about 550 mph. As with the fighters going after Flight 77, that seems strangely slow, considering the first fighters dispatched to New York City an hour earlier flew twice as fast.
That statistic also means that the fighters had only gone about 80 miles from Washington when Flight 93 crashed. If we assume the slow 550 mph speed was correct and constant, that means the fighters left Washington about eight minutes before the crash, or 9:58.
Think about the implications of that. Even before Flight 93 was hijacked at 9:16, the nations’ defenses were in an uproar, with base commanders all over the country calling in, asking to help. Yet, incredibly, about 42 minutes passed before even anyone sent any fighters toward the hijacked Flight 93!
A Shoot Down Order?
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s impression that Cheney had given an order to shoot down Flight 77 around 9:26 has already been mentioned. It has also been claimed that at some point after Flight 77 crashed, someone from the White House spoke directly with the pilots over Washington, and declared the Washington area “a free-fire zone.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/02] In another account, the Secret Service told the pilots, “I want you to protect the White House at all costs.” [New York Times, 10/16/01] However, a common story is that it wasn’t until just after Bush took off from Sarasota, Florida aboard Air Force One at about 9:56 that he and Cheney had a short discussion and authorized the military to shoot down any plane under control of hijackers. [Washington Post, 1/27/02, CBS, 9/11/02] Unfortunately, none of the pilots over Washington claim to have heard any such order. “Honey,” the lead pilot, claimed to have heard a garbled message about Flight 93 that the other pilots didn’t hear. He said, “The message seemed to convey that the White House was an important asset to protect.” The language was, “Something like, ‘Be aware of where [Flight 93] is, and it could be a target.’” [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, p. 76] Both “Honey” and another pilot code-named “Lou” stated they were never given orders to shoot down any plane that day. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, p. 222]
All six of the first pilots to arrive over Washington have been quoted in the press, and none of them indicated they flew after Flight 93. One article does say of Billy Hutchison’s fighter from Andrews: “Primarily, he was to go ID [identify] that unknown [aircraft] that everybody was so excited about.” But the article goes on to describe how he began patrolling over Washington in low flying loops instead. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/02] Furthermore, Hutchison’s was the only fighter of the six that was completely unarmed, but NORAD’s most recent claim is that two unarmed fighters from Washington were sent after Flight 93. [NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03, UPI, 5/23/03]
In contrast to Weaver’s claim, the day after 9/11, a New Hampshire flight controller claimed “that an F-16 fighter closely pursued Flight 93… the F-16 made 360-degree turns to remain close to the commercial jet, the employee said. ‘He must’ve seen the whole thing,’ the employee said of the F-16 pilot’s view of Flight 93’s crash.” [AP, 9/13/01, Nashua Telegraph, 9/13/01] There are even details of how Cheney was given notice when a fighter was 80 miles of Flight 93, then when it was within 60 miles, then he was given another notice (but the distance was unspecified). He confirmed his order to shoot down Flight 93 after every update. [Washington Post, 1/27/02]
Both stories of unarmed fighters being sent toward Flight 93, from either east or west, don’t stand up to logic. Three fully-armed fighters reached Washington before the one unarmed or the two-partially armed ones did. So why not send one of those first three fighters after Flight 93? Is it believable that an hour and a half after NORAD had been notified of the first hijacking, the best NORAD could have done with Flight 93 when fighters would have finally caught up with it around 10:16 would have been to have a fighter attempt to bring it down by crashing into it?
NORAD has tried hard to keep any armed fighter away from Flight 93 in all their various accounts. Since the order to shoot down Flight 93 had been given, if an armed fighter did reach Flight 93, then one might naturally conclude that order was carried out. There already has been much speculation that Flight 93 was shot down (see for instance Philadelphia Daily News, 12/28/01 or Independent, 8/13/02). Beginning at 9:45, passengers using phones on Flight 93 began telling their loved ones on the ground that they were forming a plan to take over the plane. By this time, the FBI and other agencies were being directly patched into some of these same calls. [Among the Heroes, by Jere Longman, 8/02, p. 111, Toronto Sun, 9/16/01, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/28/01] Thus there would have been a 21 minute-advanced warning that a passenger takeover could happen. It appears that a passenger takeover began at about 9:57 [MSNBC, 7/30/02, Telegraph, 8/6/02, Newsweek, 11/25/01, Observer, 12/2/01, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/28/01], so if a fighter shot down Flight 93, they may have shot it down after the passengers took control of it.
NORAD is in a fix. If an armed fighter did reach Flight 93, then NORAD may have needlessly shot down a plane already taken over by the passengers. If a fighter didn’t reach Flight 93, then that plane flew unopposed 50 minutes after NORAD was told it had been hijacked. No wonder NORAD tries to split the difference, with vague stories of unarmed fighters that lack any timing details. In the May 2003 hearings, NORAD Commander Craig McKinley went even further, and made a brand new claim that NORAD was unaware of any shoot down order until five minutes after Flight 93 had crashed. [UPI, 5/23/03]
The slow response to all four hijacked planes was not the end of NORAD’s incompetence that day. There is also the matter of Air Force One’s fighter escort. At 9:03 a.m., one of Bush’s security personnel at the Sarasota, Florida, elementary school Bush was visiting saw the second World Trade Center crash on television and immediately said, “We’re out of here. Can you get everyone ready?” [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/10/02] Certainly by the time Bush got in his motorcade and began driving toward Sarasota’s airport at 9:35, his security must have contacted the military to provide fighter escort when Bush took off. If not, just as other bases around the country began offering help shortly after 9:03, some bases in Florida must have as well. Two bases in Florida were part of NORAD’s seven base system, and were thus guaranteed to send up armed fighters within 15 minutes. One, Homestead Air Station, is 185 miles from Sarasota, and the other, Tyndall Air Station, is 235 miles away.
Yet, it appears no fighters reached Air Force One until some time between 11:00 and 11:30! (Times are vague because NORAD hasn’t released details, and the media hasn’t investigated in detail.) [Code One Magazine, 1/02, Sarasota Magazine, 9/19/01, Washington Post, 1/27/02] Incredibly, reports state that the first fighters to reach Air Force One came from Ellington, near Houston, Texas, apparently long after Air Force One had left Florida. [CBS, 9/11/02, American Defender, 2001] NORAD left Air Force One undefended for over an hour at exactly the time when their help was most needed.
NORAD seems to have no respect for the truth. In late 2001, Major General Larry Arnold wrote how NORAD’s 9/11 response was “immediate” and “impressive.” Moving into outright fiction, Arnold claimed, “we were able to identify, track and escort suspected hijacked aircraft after the initial attacks,”“our reaction time outpaced the process in some instances,”“our well-practiced rapid response capability may very well have prevented additional surprise attacks on the American homeland saving countless lives,” and so on. [American Defender, 2001] With Arnold sitting next to him, Major General Craig McKinley admitted in the May 2003 hearings, “We had not positioned prior to September 11, 2001, for the scenario that took place that day.” [New Jersey Star-Ledger, 5/24/03] “McKinley admitted that NORAD was utterly unprepared for the attack.” [UPI, 5/23/03] He called NORAD’s 9/11 stance “a Cold War vestige.” [New Jersey Star-Ledger, 5/24/03] NORAD now claims to be so incompetent that they had to rely on the FAA for all radar information, and even had to go through the FAA to communicate with their own pilots. [Knight Ridder, 5/24/03]
NORAD’s explanations about 9/11 have never made sense, and their new eagerness to be seen as an incompetent “Cold War vestige” is equally suspect. NORAD officials brazenly lied throughout their testimony. In the new NORAD timeline they presented, they even claimed that CNN first began showing images of the World Trade Center on fire at 8:57 when it is easily verifiable that CNN began doing this at 8:48. [CNN, 9/11/01, NORAD Testimony, 5/23/03] Like their many other lies, one can see how this lie serves to cover up the extent of their failure. Unfortunately, the Independent Commission did not require that testimony be given under oath, so these officials cannot be charged with perjury.
One Toronto Star columnist wrote in May 2003, “The great majority of people, sickened and overwhelmed by the horror of the attacks, unquestioningly accepts the White House version [of what happened on 9/11]. Many thousands, however, are patiently stitching together the documented evidence and noting the huge holes in the fabric of that official story.” [Toronto Star, 5/18/03] A Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist recently called the “restrained—even failed—standard US military air defense protocols while the attacks were occurring” a “real mystery” that deserves a serious investigation. [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 5/20/03] But most of the mainstream media doesn’t appear at all interested in these mysteries.
Given the many warnings that came before 9/11, it is not only NORAD that deserves blame for the utter failure to defend the skies on 9/11. Thousands of lives could have been saved if standard procedures were properly followed. Perhaps only those in the World Trade Center’s North Tower need have died, if the FAA and NORAD did their job properly. No wonder the government passed a law making it difficult for relatives of the 9/11 terrorists to sue anyone but the terrorists. [Los Angeles Times, 1/17/02] There has been no accountability for all these failures and needless deaths. There still has not been one demonstrable firing or punishment for any government employee because of 9/11. Many unanswered questions remain, and are likely to remain unanswered until people put pressure on the media and government to finally stop covering up what happened on 9/11.
Also see the essay, An Interesting Day: Bush on 9/11, for more analysis on related topics. For more details on what happened on 9/11, see a detailed timeline about that day. Comments can be directed to: paulthompson22b @yahoo.com (remove the space). Thanks to Melissa Kavonic, Allan Wood, Allan Duncan, and Derek Mitchell for their assistance. See also 9/11 Citizens Watch, a group that is trying to keep pressure on the Independent Commission.