Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"The Military History of 9/11": The NORAD Tapes

Tuesday's Nightline ran a breathtaking program on the September issue of Vanity Fair, with its exclusive story entitled "The September 11 NORAD Tapes." NORAD refers to North American Aerospace Defense Command, the military air defense organization responsible for protecting the North American homeland from attack throughout much of the Cold War.

NORAD was woefully unprepared for the fateful events of September 2001. As reported by Vanity Fair reporter Michael Bronner, the main military air traffic control personnel at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), located at Griffis Air Force Base, Rome, New York, were overwhelmed with surprise and confusion upon receipt of the first information of a hijacked plane out of Boston's Logan International Airport:

The story of what happened in that room, and when, has never been fully told, but is arguably more important in terms of understanding America's military capabilities that day than anything happening simultaneously on Air Force One or in the Pentagon, the White House, or NORAD's impregnable headquarters, deep within Cheyenne Mountain, in Colorado. It's a story that was intentionally obscured, some members of the 9/11 commission believe, by military higher-ups and members of the Bush administration who spoke to the press, and later the commission itself, in order to downplay the extent of the confusion and miscommunication flying through the ranks of the government.

The truth, however, is all on tape.

Through the heat of the attack the wheels of what were, perhaps, some of the more modern pieces of equipment in the room—four Dictaphone multi-channel reel-to-reel tape recorders mounted on a rack in a corner of the operations floor—spun impassively, recording every radio channel, with time stamps.

The recordings are fascinating and chilling. A mix of staccato bursts of military code; urgent, overlapping voices; the tense crackle of radio traffic from fighter pilots in the air; commanders' orders piercing through a mounting din; and candid moments of emotion as the breadth of the attacks becomes clearer.

For the NEADS crew, 9/11 was not a story of four hijacked airplanes, but one of a heated chase after more than a dozen potential hijackings—some real, some phantom—that emerged from the turbulence of misinformation that spiked in the first 100 minutes of the attack and continued well into the afternoon and evening. At one point, in the span of a single mad minute, one hears Nasypany struggling to parse reports of four separate hijackings at once. What emerges from the barrage of what Nasypany dubs "bad poop" flying at his troops from all directions is a picture of remarkable composure. Snap decisions more often than not turn out to be the right ones as commanders kick-start the dormant military machine. It is the fog and friction of war live—the authentic military history of 9/11.

"The real story is actually better than the one we told," a NORAD general admitted to 9/11-commission staffers when confronted with evidence from the tapes that contradicted his original testimony. And so it seems.

Subpoenaed by the commission during its investigation, the recordings have never been played publicly beyond a handful of sound bites presented during the commission's hearings. Last September, as part of my research for the film United 93, on which I was an associate producer, I requested copies from the Pentagon. I was played snippets, but told my chances of hearing the full recordings were nonexistent. So it was a surprise, to say the least, when a military public-affairs officer e-mailed me, a full seven months later, saying she'd been cleared, finally, to provide them.

"The signing of the Declaration of Independence took less coordination," she wrote.

I would ultimately get three CDs with huge digital "wav file" recordings of the various channels in each section of the operations floor, 30-some hours of material in full, covering six and a half hours of real time. The first disc, which arrived by mail, was decorated with blue sky and fluffy white clouds and was labeled, in the playful Apple Chancery font, "Northeast Air Defense Sector—DAT Audio Files—11 Sep 2001."
Bronner's article offers some interesting insights and revelations:

***The U.S. military's air traffic defense system was woefully obsolete by the time of the terrorist attacks, and in fact military air control personnel then routinely relied on civilian air traffic control systems for flight information, as civilian systems were vastly superior to those of the armed forces.

*** The utter helplessness of the military personnel at NEADS at the loss of the Flight 11's "beacon code" (the onboard transmission signal sent to facilitate tracking of the aircraft), which had been intentionally deactivated by the plane's terrorist hijackers.

*** The shock of the two American F-15 fighter pilots -- completely unaware that an attack had occured -- whose jets were scrambled from the ground to find, intercept, and escort to the ground Flight 11, at the smoke billowing off the towers of the World Trade Center. (One of the pilots remarked later: "Obviously, anybody watching CNN had a better idea of what was going on. We were not told anything. It was to the point where we were flying supersonic towards New York and the controller came on and said, 'A second airplane has hit the World Trade Center.' … My first thought was 'What happened to American 11?'")

*** And the premature considerations by Major Kevin Nasypany, NEADS's mission-crew commander, regarding the use of force to bring down the passenger planes (military action that could be authorized only by President Bush).
Much of this story is familiar to those who have read "We Have Some Planes," the gripping first chapter of "The 9/11 Commission Report." The immediacy of the taped transcripts, however, brings the story incredibly close to home, and imparts an incredulity at the disastrous unpreparedness of America's defense systems. (To be fair, though, virtually no one, whether inside or outside of government or the military, envisioned an air attack on the U.S. using hijacked passenger jetliners.)

When asked about defense readiness for an attack on the Nightline episode, Thomas Kean, a former Governor of New Jersey, and the Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, said the U.S. had in essence no military defense of the homeland on September 11 -- that the only successful defense of American institutions that day was civilian, composed of the heroes aboard Flight 93, who communicated with loved ones by cellular telephone, to mount an attempted takeover of the jet, which utlimately crashed in an open field in Pennsylvania, likely sparing the White House or the Congress from a fiery disaster.

I'll take some of these thoughts with me next week, when I attend the opening of "World Trade Center," the new Oliver Stone motion picture on the attacks and rescue operations at Ground Zero (and the topic of Newsweek's lead story this week).


a.k.a. Blandly Urbane said...

This is one of those instances of clear, truthful reality. We're coming up on five years, sometimes it seems like yesterday.

Donald Douglas said...

Urbane One:

Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, it's been five years, but we must never forget! I'll post a little on Stone's "World Trade Center" next week.

Take it easy.

"Jet" said...

I too am going to see this movie. I just got my Newsweek in the mail today. So I will kick back and read it tonight.

If you have a passion towards 9/11 there is a site dedicated soley to 9/11. The author of this site is looking for bloggers to write a story for each person lost on that fateful day. If you are interested, I will e-mail (jettingthroughlife [at] gmail [dot] com) you the link as I do not want to spam your comment box.

Southern (in)Sanity said...

It's amazing how more and more details come out so long after the tragedy.

I hope that some folks have been dealt with at American Airlines and the FAA.

I don't know if military fighter jets could have prevented the crash into the Pentagon, but they had no chance with the inept actions of AA and the FAA.

Gunny John said...

Great post! It would be interesting to see an accurate progress report of just how much has been done to correct these deficiencies.

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