Any attempt to assess the performance of the FAA and NORAD in responding to the hijackings on 9/11 must distinguish between the operational actions of that day and the government’s descriptions of those actions in the days, months, and years that have followed. Ironically, the sequence of FAA notifications and NORAD responses presented to the Commission – in which the military had 47 minutes’ notice on United 93 and 14 minutes’ notice on American 77 – raised questions about the adequacy of the military’s response that were unnecessary given the actual notice to the military on those flights (zero advance notice on either flight).
We do not believe that understanding the truth about the events of that morning reflects discredit on the operational personnel from NEADS or FAA facilities. The NEADS commanders and floor officers actively reached out in seeking information, and made the best judgments they could based on the information they possessed. Individual FAA controllers, facility managers, and Command Center managers thought outside the box in recommending a nationwide alert, in ground-stopping local traffic, and, ultimately, in deciding to land all aircraft and executing that unprecedented order flawlessly.
But we have reached these conclusions about the operational facts of the day in spite of the government’s version of those events, not because of it. In assessing the agencies’ performance on 9/11, Commission staff has had to contend with four fundamentally inaccurate representations of fact by the government: (1) that notice was received of United 93 at 9:16; (2) that notice was received of American 77 at 9:24; (3) that the Langley fighters were scrambled to meet the threats posed by United 93 and/or American 77; and (4) that the military was following United 93 and in position to shoot the flight down if it approached Washington, DC. Although our focus has been on establishing the operational facts, and not on establishing the source of the inaccurate testimony, our research has revealed that the inaccurate statements have a tortuous history.
Inaccurate Statement 1: The FAA notified the military at 9:16 that United 93 was hijacked.
This inaccurate statement can be traced to the week after 9/11. NORAD’s first publicly available timeline of the events of 9/11 was released on September 18, 2001, one week after the attacks. Prior to the September 18th release, NORAD Public Affairs prepared a draft release, dated September 16th. The draft release listed the time 9:16 as the notification time for United 93.
Between the September 16th draft and the September 18th final release, that time was changed. In the final release, the 9:16 notification time for United 93 is deleted, and is replaced with “N/A.” The release explains that the notification time is “N/A” because the FAA informed NORAD of the hijacking of United 93 while on an open line discussing American 77.[i] The NORAD Public Affairs Director stated to Commission staff that he deleted the 9:16 notification time because he “lost confidence” in its accuracy, although he could not remember why he lost confidence in the time.[ii]
An email obtained the Commission in response to the Commission’s NORAD subpoena sheds some light on why NORAD may have lost confidence in the 9:16 notification time. The e-mail, sent on September 16, 2001 at 11:06 p.m. to NEADS from Brigadier General Doug Moore at CONR, commends the person at NEADS “who dug up the requested information from your logs and tapes,” and indicates that it has been passed to “the proper FAA office” which will be “using this data to brief the White House tomorrow” [i.e., September 17]. The e-mail then asks for follow-up information about, among other data points, “United 93, 1408Z [i.e., 10:08], which center calls with information that United 93 … is heading for Cleveland? … 1415Z [i.e., 10:15], who reported to NEADS that aircraft had crashed?”[iii]
This e mail – and the response to it by NEADS – is significant because it reveals that someone at NEADS had searched the relevant logs and tapes during the first week after 9/11 and identified the time at which the FAA notified NEADS about United 93. It is a fair inference that, having identified the notification time, NORAD “lost confidence” in 9:16 and omitted it from the September 18 release.
The question, then, is why the discredited 9:16 notification time reappeared in NORAD’s testimony before the Commission. This question becomes more perplexing when one considers the testimony of Cherie Gott, a data analyst at NORAD headquarters, in a Commission interview. Ms. Gott related that a timeline she created based on the September 18th press release (which reflected no notification time for United 93) was forwarded to NORAD officials at CONR on May 13, 2003 – a week prior to the Commission’s hearing – in order to prepare CONR officials for their testimony.
Why was 9:16 reintroduced? The Commission has obtained an e-mail sent from Col. Marr to retired Col. Scott (who worked at CONR) after the Commission’s hearing, which sheds light on the subject. During the May hearing, Commissioner Lehman asked several questions about the flight path of the Langley fighters, who traveled directly east, over the ocean, and then north toward Baltimore, before heading west to Washington. Why, the Commissioner wanted to know, didn’t the fighters head more directly to Washington, if they had been scrambled to respond to American 77, the plane that struck the Pentagon? Col. Marr addressed this question in his e-mail response to retired Col. Scott:
“The answer on AA77 is not easy, nor is it pretty. At the time AA77 was occurring we were focused on UAL93 which was the only confirmed hijack that the FAA had identified to us. My records show UAL93 reported as hijacked at 0916L, once we found it and identified it’s [sic] westerly heading, we scrambled Langley at 0924L just in case it turned around toward DC, which it did later. At 0924L we also received a call from the FAA about AA77 with a follow-up call at 0925L. It is easiest to explain the simultaneous scramble order with the AA77 notification as the scramble being against AA77 – it takes a lot of time to explain to the public that you’re scrambling fighters against a plane heading away from the possible target.”
Col. Marr, in other words, attempts to explain the circuitous route of the Langley fighters in getting to Washington, DC by indicating that they were not in fact scrambled to respond to a report at 9:24 that American 77 was hijacked; they were scrambled in response to the earlier “report” that United 93 was hijacked. Thus, the reintroduction of the discredited 9:16 notification time enabled NORAD to explain to the Commission the odd route of the Langley fighters in reaching Washington.
There were two fundamental problems with the explanation. First, as at least some in the military have known since the week of 9/11, it is inaccurate. United 93 had not been hijacked at 9:16; the hijacking did not occur until 9:28 – after the Langley fighters were ordered scrambled – and NEADS was not notified until after the plane had crashed. NORAD informed Commission staff at the close of interviews at Colorado Springs (and again publicly at the Commission’s hearing in June 2004) that it now accepts that notification did not occur until after the plane had crashed. Second, as we will now discuss, NEADS was not notified that American 77 was hijacked at 9:24.
Inaccurate Statement 2: The FAA notified the military of the hijacking of American 77 at 9:24.
Although American 77 disappeared from radar and radio at 8:56, the first notification to NEADS that American 77 was missing (there is no mention of its having been hijacked at this point) came at 9:34, ten minutes after the scramble had already been ordered at Langley Air Force Base.
One to two minutes later, NEADS received notice that an unidentified plane was six miles southwest of the White House. American 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37:45.
Thus, NEADS did not receive notice that American 77 was hijacked at 9:24. In fact, NEADS never received notice that American 77 was hijacked at all, let alone at 9:24; it received reports (at 9:34) that American 77 was missing, and (at 9:35 or 9:36) that an unidentified plane was near the White House.
What notification did occur at 9:24? The Mission Crew Commander’s staff at NEADS maintains a handwritten contemporaneous log of information received and actions taken (known as the “MCC/T Log”). The 9/11 entry in the log at 9:24 records: “American Airlines #N334AA hijacked.” This tail number refers not to American 77 but to American 11, the first hijacked aircraft that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The subpoenaed tapes confirm that this time corresponds to NEADS’s receipt of tail number information on American 11 and to reports that American 11 was still airborne and headed towards Washington DC.
Inaccurate Statement 3: The Langley fighters were scrambled in response to the FAA’s notification to the military, at 9:24, that American 77 was hijacked.
Contrary to testimony before the Commission, the Langley fighters were ordered scrambled not because of United 93, which had not been hijacked, nor because of American 77, which had not yet been reported to NEADS, but because of the mistaken report that American 11 – the first hijacked plane – had not hit the World Trade Center, but was heading south towards Washington, DC. The fighters were ordered scrambled initially toward New York, and then vectored toward Baltimore, in an effort to intercept that mistakenly reported aircraft. The best evidence for both this false report and the resulting scramble is the subpoenaed NEADS tape, which records that at approximately 9:21, the Mission Crew Commander spoke the following to the Battle Cab (where the Battle Commander, Colonel Marr, was located):
“Okay. American Airlines is still airborne, 11, the first guy. He’s headed towards Washington, okay? I think we need to scramble Langley right now, and I’m going to – I’m going to take the fighters from Otis and try to chase this guy down if I can find him. Yeah. You sure? Okay. He’s heading towards Langley, or I should say Washington. American 11, the original guy. He’s still airborne…”
Seconds later, the Mission Crew Commander ordered the scramble of the Langley fighters.
This report of American 11 heading south – the cause of the Langley scramble – is reflected not just in taped conversations at NEADS, but in taped conversations at FAA centers, on chat logs compiled at NEADS, CONR, NORAD, and the National Military Command Center, and in other records. It is the opening report on the national level, multi-agency “Significant Event Conference” call. The mistaken report was also readily acknowledged in interviews of NORAD’s operational personnel who participated in the 9/11 response.
But in October 2001, for instance, NORAD Commanding General Ralph Eberhart testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the sequence of events on 9/11. General Eberhart did not mention the mistaken report about American 11 as a cause for the Langley scramble. Instead, he provided a timeline chart and verbal testimony that listed 9:24 as the notification time for American 77 and implied that this notification prompted the scramble of the Langley fighters.
The General elaborated, in responses submitted after his testimony for the record: “The FAA notified the NEADS that American Airlines Flight 77 was headed towards Washington, DC. NEADS then passed this information to NORAD’s Air Warning Center …. At 0925, the NMCC convened a Significant Event Conference and during that conference, at 0933, NORAD reported one more aircraft en route to Washington, DC.”
NORAD’s own Headquarters Intel Chat Log belies this testimony, recording at 9:24:39 “original aa flt hijack is now headed to Washington scrambled lfi,[i.e., Langley]” and then at 9:25:13 “2 acrft that hit wt bldg not repeat not the original hjk aa acrft.” Furthermore, the Air Warning Center log at NORAD, to which General Eberhart refers, records, at 9:27, that “The original hijack a/c is still a/b and head for Washington, DC Otis F15 are trying to intercept the flight.” It then records, at 9:36, that CONR has advised of the scramble at Langley: “LFI A/B Quit 25/26/27 3 A/B at time 1333 [i.e., 9:33].” The NORAD Headquarters chat log states, at 9:28: “R[eal] W[orld] Hijacking (original notification) assessed by Intel as headed to Washington DC/2XF-15s in tail chase.” [NCT 0005098]
General Eberhart’s submission for the record, moreover, that NORAD reported “one more aircraft en route to Washington, DC” on the Significant Event Conference at 9:33 may have been literally true. Consistent, however, with NORAD’s own records and the transcript of the Conference, the aircraft that NORAD reported to the Conference was not American 77, as the submission for the record implied, but American 11.
General Eberhart’s responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s “Questions for the Record” were not extemporaneous answers.
Inaccurate Statement 4: Military officials were tracking United 93 and intended to intercept the aircraft if it continued towards Washington, DC.
At the Commission’s hearing in May 2003, Vice Chairman Hamilton expressed concern that the detailed timeline presented by NORAD omitted a significant time sequence: when the shoot-down authorization was passed from the President through the chain of command to the pilots. General Arnold backed away from the claim that the order was received prior to the crash of United 93, indicating his belief that it had been received a few minutes later. Because the NORAD witnesses had testified that they had been tracking United 93 for some forty-five minutes when it crashed, however, General Arnold was able to state with assurance that the flight would have been intercepted prior to reaching Washington, DC.
The issue of whether the military had been tracking United 93, and was therefore in position to intercept the flight if it approached Washington, DC, arose within days of the 9/11 attacks. On September 15, 2001, General Paul Weaver, overall commander of the Air National Guard which provided the fighters used to scramble Otis and Langley, told reporters that no fighters were scrambled or vectored to chase United 93: “There was no notification for us to launch airplanes. We weren’t even close.”
That same day, however, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz stated in a television interview that Defense Department officials had been “following” United 93 and were prepared to shoot it down if it approached Washington, DC
Officials have been steadfast since in stating that the military had been tracking United 93 and were in position to intercept and, if necessary, shoot down the flight. Notably, Col. Marr states in the U.S. Air Force’s official history of 9/11, Air War Over America: “As United Airlines Flight 93 was going out [west toward Chicago], we received the clearance to kill if need be.”[iv] Similarly, on an ABC News Special marking the one-year anniversary of 9/11, Col. Marr made inaccurate statements about the interception of United 93.
NORAD now acknowledges that at all levels – NEADS, CONR, and NORAD headquarters – they were completely unaware of United 93 as it was “going out” toward the west. Indeed, NEADS never learned of the flight until five minutes after it had crashed. NEADS never followed or was able to find the flight on radar, and was in fact still searching for the flight at 10:15, when the MCC/T Log and the subpoenaed tapes record FAA notification that the flight had crashed.
Furthermore, NORAD did not receive any form of shoot-down authority until 10:31. Even then, that instruction was not communicated to the pilots. Eventually, there were Air National Guard pilots over Washington with rules of engagement allowing them to engage. But they had received their direction outside of the usual military chain of command and did not get into the skies over Washington until after 10:40. In short, the representation that military had been following United 93 as it progressed, and was by virtue of this awareness in position to intercept the plane, was inaccurate.
[i] Staff has established that the earliest discussion of creating an open-line occurred at approximately 9:50, and that the open line may not have been established until well after 10:00. NORAD now accepts that the notification of United 93 as a hijack did not occur over this open line.
[ii] See Table 2 attached for a comparison of the two releases with the facts as Team 8 has discovered them..
[iii] Three e-mail memorandums, “NEADS, EAM Booth; Subject: AMPLIFYING DATA FOR 11 SEP” dated Sept. 16, 2001, Sept. 16, 2003 and Sept. 17, 2001; Also, the NEADS Mission Crew Commander Technician Log, Sept. 11, 2001, records the time as 10:07 for the entry described by Brigadier General Moore.
[iv] Air War Over America, by Leslie Filson, p. 68.