U.S. military response during the September 11 attacks

U.S. military response during the September 11 attacks

The U.S. military response during the September 11, 2001 attacks was ineffective in preventing both World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Pentagon from being hit by hijacked airplanes. On the morning of September 11, four commercial airliners were hijacked. American Airlines Flight 11, departing from Boston, was flown in the North Tower of World Trade Center at 8:46am. United Airlines Flight 175, also departing from Boston, was flown into the South Tower at 9:03. American Airlines Flight 77, departing from Washington, was flown into the Pentagon at 9:37. United Airlines Flight 93, departing from Newark, crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10:03.

Standard emergency hijacking procedures dictate that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), upon becoming aware that a plane has been hijacked, must immediately notify North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) who have fighters and pilots on alert ready to "scramble" and fly to the plane's location to assess the situation. On the morning of September 11, the FAA failed to notify NORAD of the hijackings of any of Flights 175, 77 or 93. Their notification of the hijacking of Flight 11 prompted the scrambling of two fighter jets from Otis Air National Guard Base, but they were not in the air until after Flight 11 had hit the North Tower. A false FAA notification of a hijacked plane heading towards Washington ("phantom Flight 11") prompted the scrambling of three more fighters from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base.

The FAA and military response

The 9/11 Commission Report, in its first chapter "We Have Some Planes", explained the responses, communications and actions of the FAA and NORAD upon learning of the hijackings. The account differs substantially from the sequence of events previously described by FAA and NORAD officials, that had been widely accepted as true for almost three years.

Flight 11

At 8:14, the pilot of Flight 11 failed to respond to an FAA Boston Center instruction to ascend. At 8:21, the transponder signal was switched off and the plane (now visible only on primary radar) veered radically off course. At 8:25, the controller heard what he believed was the voice of hijacker. The Boston Center called the FAA Command Center at Herndon at 8:28 to report the hijacking. At 8:32, Herndon called FAA Headquarters in Washington. At 8:38, Boston Center contacted the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York, which bypassed standard protocols. [9/11 Commission Report] They then scrambled jets from the 102nd Fighter Wing.

Difficulties in pinpointing the exact location of Flight 11 led to a delay of five minutes before the scramble order was given at 8:43. When Flight 11 hit the North Tower at 8:46, the two F-15 fighters of the 102nd Fighter Wing that had been ordered to scramble were still on the runway at Otis Air National Guard Base; they did not take to the air until 8:52. Lacking a target, the 102nd's fighters "were vectored toward military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast. To avoid New York area air traffic and uncertain about what to do, the fighters were brought down to military airspace to 'hold as needed'. From 9:09 to 9:13 the 102nd's fighters stayed in this holding pattern."cite web |url=http://www.ntsb.gov/info/Flight_%20Path_%20Study_AA11.pdf |title=Flight Path Study - American Airlines Flight 11 |publisher=National Transportation Safety Board |date=2002-02-19 |accessdate=2008-05-25] cite web |url=http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report_Ch1.htm |title='We Have Some Planes' |date=July 2004 |publisher=National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States |accessdate=2008-05-25] cite web |title=9/11 recordings chronicle confusion, delay |url=http://edition.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/06/17/911.transcript/ |date=2004-06-17 |publisher=CNN |accessdate=2008-05-24] [9/11 Commission Report] At 9:13, the pilots of the F-15 fighters told FAA Boston Center that they were heading for Manhattan to establish a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the area. The fighters arrived over Manhattan at 9:25.

Flight 175

Flight 175 veered off course at 8:42, turning towards New York, and its transponder code was changed at 8:47. The flight controller at FAA Boston Center did not notice these warning signs until 8:51, when he tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot. At 8:55 he told a manager at FAA New York Center that he thought Flight 175 had been hijacked; this manager then tried to contact regional managers but "was told that they were discussing hijacked aircraft... and refused to be disturbed." At 9:01, a New York Center manager called FAA Command Center at Herndon. NEADS were not notified until 9:03, when the New York Center manager called them directly, at about the time that Flight 175 hit the South Tower. [9/11 Commission Report]

Flight 77

The transponder of Flight 77 was switched off, and the plane veered off course, at 8:54, and its primary radar track was lost. The flight controller at the FAA Indianapolis Center assumed that some kind of electrical or mechanical failure had occurred and that the plane had crashed. Later, after hearing about the hijacked planes hitting the World Trade Center, Indianapolis Center suspected that Flight 77 may also have been hijacked, and shared this information with FAA Command Center at Herndon, who contacted FAA Headquarters in Washington at 9:25am. NEADS learned that the flight was lost at 9:34 during a NEADS-initiated conversation with the FAA Headquarters. [9/11 Commission Report]

Flight 93

At 9:28, the FAA Cleveland Center controller heard "sounds of possible screaming" coming from Flight 93 and noticed that the plane had descended 700 feet. At 9:32, he heard a voice saying "We have a bomb on board" and told his supervisor who notified FAA Headquarters. At 9:36, FAA Cleveland called FAA Command Center at Herndon to ask whether the military had been notified - FAA Command Center told Cleveland that "FAA personnel well above them in the chain of command had to make the decision to seek military assistance and were working on the issue". At 9:49, the decision about whether to call the military had still not been made, and nobody did call them until 10:07, four minutes after Flight 93 hit the ground. [9/11 Commission Report]

Phantom Flight 11

At 9:21, NEADS received a call from Colin Scoggins, the military liaison at the FAA Boston Center, reporting that Flight 11 had not, in fact, hit the North Tower at 8:46 as they were told, but that it was still in the air and heading towards Washington. NEADS responded to this report by giving a scramble order to three fighters from the 1st Fighter Wing on alert at Langley Air Force Base, and by 9:24, they were in the air. After at first heading east out into the Atlantic, the fighters then flew north-west towards Washington, arriving around 10:00. [9/11 Commission Report]

The NORAD timeline

On the day of the attacks, General Richard Myers and Ralph Eberhardt, NORAD commanding officers, reported that no fighters were scrambled until after 9:37. Reports of fighters circling over Manhattan at 9:25 revealed this claim to be untrue.

On September 18, 2001, NORAD published a timeline of the events of the September 11, including when they were contacted by the FAA. However, in 2004, the 9/11 Commission, after listening to tapes of communications, found that this timeline was incorrect. [9/11 Commission Report]

In their later book, "Without Precedent", 9/11 Commission chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton say that 9/11 conspiracy theories had grown up primarily because of problems in the previous story about the planes. [Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, "Without Precedent", p86] The NORAD timeline served as the official account of the military response for three years, and the false account was not commented on by anyone involved at either the FAA or in the military. Indeed, the same version of events was given in the book "Air War over America", and given in testimony to the 9/11 Commission by NORAD's General Larry Arnold and Colonel Alan Scott in 2003. [Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, "Without Precedent"]

The "Washington Post" reported in its August 3, 2006 edition that:

"For more than two years after the attacks, officials with NORAD and the FAA provided inaccurate information about the response to the hijackings in testimony and media appearances... Some staff members and commissioners of the Sept. 11 panel concluded that the Pentagon's initial account of how it reacted to the 2001 terrorist attacks may have been part of a deliberate effort to mislead the commission and the public... Suspicion of wrongdoing ran so deep that the 10-member commission, in a secret meeting at the end of its tenure in summer 2004, debated referring the matter to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. In the end, the panel agreed to a compromise, turning over the allegations to the inspectors general for the Defense and Transportation departments, who can make criminal referrals if they believe they are warranted". [ [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/01/AR2006080101300.html 9/11 Panel Suspected Deception by Pentagon] August 2, 2006]

Kean and Hamilton admit that given the story told by the FAA and the military, they could understand how the "stand-down" theory had come about:

"If the military had had the amount of time they said they had... and had scrambled their jets, it was hard to figure out how they had failed to shoot down at least one of the planes... In this way, the FAA's and NORAD's inaccurate reporting after 9/11 created the opportunity for people to construct a series of conspiracy theories that persist to this day." [Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, "Without Precedent", p259]

The reason for calling certain statement by FAA and NORAD officials false was that they disagreed with tapes received by the Commission from the FAA and NORAD. As Kean stated, "The tapes recordings... from the day were extremely important - they provided a real-time record of what was happening that enabled our staff to relive the day, instead of relying solely on people's memory or their hurried notes of what took place." [Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, "Without Precedent", p260]

While the NORAD timeline asserted that the FAA had notified NORAD much earlier than it actually did, the 9/11 Commission Report story of the military response places the blame firmly with the FAA for not contacting NORAD quickly enough. NORAD claimed that they were notified of the hijacking of Flight 175 at 8:43, while the 9/11 Commission says that the tapes show NORAD was not notified of the hijacking of this flight until after it hit the South Tower at 9:03. NORAD claimed that the fighters scrambled from Langley at 9:24 were in response to a 9:21 FAA report of the hijacking of Flight 77; NORAD never mentioned phantom Flight 11. NORAD's General Larry Arnold and Colonel Alan Scott testified that they were notified about the hijacking of Flight 93, and had fighters in position to shoot it down if necessary, and had received the order from Dick Cheney to do so, if necessary. [David Ray Griffin, "Debunking 9/11 Debunking"]

War games

There were a number of war games and military exercises taking place during the attacks, including "Northern Vigilance", a NORAD operation which involved deploying fighter aircraft to locations in Alaska and northern Canada to respond to a war game being conducted by Russia; "Global Guardian", an annual command-level exercise organized by United States Strategic Command in cooperation with Space Command and NORAD; and "Vigilant Guardian", a semiannual NORAD Command Post Exercise (CPX) (meaning it is conducted in offices and with computers, but without actual planes in the air) involving all NORAD command levels in which one scenario being run on September 11 was a simulated hijacking. Additionally, a National Reconnaissance Office drill was being conducted on September 11 in which the event a small aircraft crashing into one of the towers of the agency's headquarters, was to be simulated, and the Office of Emergency Management were preparing for "Operation Tripod", a bioterrorism exercise due to take place on September 12.

Conspiracy Theories

The response of the air defense system on the morning of September 11, 2001 is a commonly-discussed aspect of 9/11 "inside job" conspiracy theories. The claim is that the evidence shows that there was a military "stand-down" order in effect, or at least a "slow-down". It is also claimed that the war games that were taking place on that day were deliberately planned that way to coincide with the attacks, perhaps to create confusion.


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