Air Defense on 9/11


U.S. domestic air defense forces under the umbrella of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (“NORAD”) failed to intercept the errant flights of September 11, 2001, as called for in routine operating procedures for situational reconnaissance and response.

1. Even before it became clear that the September 11 flights had been hijacked, or that the intent was to use these aircraft in kamikaze attacks, their diversions from flight plan should have activated routine responses for dealing with errant planes. Civilian and military regulations and longstanding working procedures for commercial passenger planes and other aircraft under Instrument Flight Rules (“IFR”) call upon air traffic controllers under the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to alert NORAD upon determining that a flight has veered significantly from the route assigned to it by controllers; has ceased responding to ground control; or is an “unknown.” NORAD’s role in that case is to issue “scramble orders” for interception of the errant flight by jet fighters from U.S. Air Force Bases (“AFBs”). Interception of an errant flight allows for visual reconnaissance of the situation and a graduated menu of possible further actions (these might include attempts at radio contact, looking into the cockpit of the errant aircraft, visual signals such as tipping wings, attempts to force a landing, etc.).

2. These standard procedures were activated on 67 occasions in the period from September 2000 to June 2001 (see, FAA news release, 8/9/02; AP, 8/13/02); and in 129 cases in the year 2000 (seeCalgary Herald, 10/13/01). These figures were released by FAA and NORAD officials to the press in 2002, but go completely unmentioned in The 9/11 Commission Report. The report does not indicate whether the Kean Commission requested comprehensive performance data on these prior interception orders from the military, or whether the military provided any such information. An analysis to determine the typical circumstances and response times for interception orders prior to 9/11 would require, in each case for which orders were issued, data on the times it took for air traffic control to determine that a flight was errant; for the FAA to alert NORAD; for NORAD to issue a scramble order and for the scrambled jet(s) to take to the air; and, subsequently, for the interception itself; as well as the location of the errant flight, and information on whether it was still broadcasting transponder data. (Transponder broadcasts from planes under IFR locate the craft and specify its altitude. When these are interrupted, craft can still be located by “skin paint” on primary radar, albeit without altitude data.) Also necessary would be data on cases of errant planes or unknowns in which no scramble orders were issued. Of special interest would be the prior performance within NORAD’s Northeastern Air Defense Sector (“NEADS”), which is headquartered at Rome, New York. Such a cumulative analysis–with special attention to cases when passenger planes deviated from course in the air-traffic control zones within which the 9/11 attacks occurred–would provide indispensable context for serious research into the subject of air defense response on September 11. This data is currently unavailable to the public, and there is no indication such an analysis was undertaken by the Kean Commission.

3. Response by FAA and NORAD on 9/11/01 should have become more rapid as the intent of the plot became clear and forces accordingly went on alert. Instead, according to official timelines, response times became slower as the attacks proceeded. According to all official accounts, none of the four 9/11 flight diversions were intercepted. Would it have made a difference to the outcome of the day’s events? Even presuming the determined suicide pilots identified and described by U.S. authorities were at the helm, there is no telling how they may have reacted to the sudden appearance of fighter jets. One thing is certain: the function of visual reconnaissance of potential attack aircraft went unfulfilled. [According to the latest in a long series of dubious video messages from Osama Bin Ladin (10/31/04)–assuming that it is authentic–the alleged 9/11 plotters were themselves worried about the possibility of rapid interception, and therefore planned to execute all of the attacks within twenty minutes. Interestingly, “Osama” attributes the success of three out of four attacks, despite an execution time several times longer than originally planned, to the inaction of President Bush during the attacks (seeAppendix A2). But this does not explain the failure of standard air defense responses that require no order from the President.]

4. Two days after September 11, speaking under oath at his confirmation hearings as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers (acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on September 11) told the Senate that no military aircraft were scrambled to intercept the diverted passenger flights until after the Pentagon was hit (at 9:38 a.m., according to official timelines). (Myers testimony to Senate, 9/13/01, see also, Appendix A2, point 3b.) This was reiterated the next day by NORAD spokesman Maj. Mike Snyder (Boston Globe, 9/15/01).

5. NORAD contradicted Myers’s testimony four days later, when it released a partial timeline of air defense response on September 11 (NORAD, 9/18/01). [date corrected from 9/17] NORAD said two fighter planes were scrambled from Otis AFB on Cape Cod at 8:46 a.m., with orders to intercept the New York attack aircraft, Flight 11 and Flight 175. Another pair of fighters were dispatched from Langley AFB in southern Virginia at 9:30 a.m., with orders to intercept Flight 77, according to NORAD. The timeline also specified the times at which NORAD claims to have received alerts from the FAA that the attack flights had been diverted. The worst response attributed to the FAA was for the third errant plane, Flight 77. NORAD said it only received an alert about Flight 77 from the FAA at 9:24 a.m., nearly 30 minutes after the FAA became aware that the Flight 77 transponder had stopped broadcasting (at 8:56 a.m.; last known signal from Flight 77 was at 8:50 a.m.). [The evidence of NORAD’s online release itself, which had a mistaken date from 1997 in the browser “title bar,” indicates a hurried or confused rendering of the information.]

6. More than a year later, in a brief statement of May 21, 2003, the FAA disputed the NORAD account. The statement said FAA officials gave notification of diverted flights, including Flight 77, at points earlier than those specified in the NORAD chronology: “Within minutes after the first aircraft hit the World Trade Center, the FAA immediately established several phone bridges that included FAA field facilities, the FAA Command Center, FAA headquarters, DOD, the Secret Service, and other government agencies… NORAD logs indicate that the FAA made formal notification about American Flight 77 at 9:24 a.m., but information about the flight was conveyed continuously during the phone bridges before the formal notification.” [The FAA has not published a detailed chronology of the 9/11 events.]

7. Two days after that, at the Kean Commission hearings of May 23, 2003, the details of the NORAD timeline of 9/17/01 were upheld once again by the retired officers Gen. Larry Arnold and Col. Alan Scott (both active as NORAD officers on 9/11/01). Arnold and Scott for the first time added confirmation of the assertion that FAA had alerted NORAD about the hijacking of the fourth flight at 9:16 a.m. This was about 50 minutes before Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville.

8. The time of 9:16 a.m. for the Flight 93 hijacking alert from FAA to NORAD is consistent with news reports after September 11 (e.g. CNN, 9/17/01). Several of these reports describe White House discussions, involving Vice-President Richard Cheney, on what to do about the hijacked Flight 93 as it approached Washington (e.g. Washington Post, 1/27/02).

9. More than a year later, the 9/11 Commission hearings introduced an entirely new timeline in “Staff Statement No. 17” (Kean Commission, 6/17/04), which radically contradicts the accounts issued until then by both NORAD and FAA. The Commission’s staff version shifts the times for nearly all air defense responses to different, generally much later points. For example, “Staff Statement No. 17” claims that the Flight 93 hijacking notification from FAA was received by NORAD at 10:07 a.m., after the Shanksville crash. “Staff Statement No. 17” was incorporated almost unchanged into Chapter 1 of The 9/11 Commission Report.

10. Flight 93 crashed at 10:03 a.m., according to “Staff Statement No. 17,” or else at 10:06:05 ±5sec, when a tremor consistent with a plane crash was detected as having originated in the area of the crash, according to an authoritative study of seismic observations on September 11 (Kim and Baum, Maryland Geological Survey, Columbia University). [online here.] Uncertainty as to the Flight 93 crash time highlights the unprecedented absence of an NTSB investigation, and the confusion of the multiple official timelines.

11. “Staff Statement No. 17” is also the first government document to mention a “phantom aircraft.” At an unspecified time after the first WTC crash at 8:46 a.m., the FAA sent out a false report that Flight 11 was still airborne and flying south over New Jersey, according to the Kean Commission staff. They say that the NORAD interceptors taking off from Langley AFB at 9:30 a.m. were not scrambled to intercept Flight 77, as NORAD and the FAA had claimed. Instead, these fighters were actually sent in pursuit of “Phantom 11,” the Commission staff said. “Phantom 11” apparently did not correspond to any actual plane in the air. “We have been unable to identify the source of this mistaken FAA information,” The 9/11 Commission Report concludes (p. 26). The report does not clarify how it came to be that this mistake was still being propagated 44 minutes after the Flight 11 crash (i.e., when the jets were scrambled from Langley AFB). The report does not ask how the misconception could have arisen at all, if no blip was visible on the FAA radar to be falsely identified as Flight 11 in the first place.

12. From the above, we draw a number of inescapable conclusions: Because the NORAD and FAA timelines were still in conflict as of May, 2003, officials of either NORAD or FAA (or both) were still upholding false accounts to the public more than 1½ years after September 11. Because the 9/11 Commission staff statement of June 2004 radically conflicts with both, either it is false, or both the NORAD and the FAA accounts were false. In whatever permutation, some combination of government officials must have been disseminating serious falsehoods over an extended period of months and years.

13. If there is to be accountability in government, then officials responsible for issuing and upholding false accounts to the public–whether they did so mistakenly or with conscious intent–must be held to task. This is all the more urgent given the importance of these issues to public safety. The point is not so much to mete out retribution to those who fail in their duties (assuming they were not guilty of conscious wrongdoing), but above all to assure that identical failures are not tolerated in the future; and to assure that the public is receiving correct information. Yet we know of no published attempt by the 9/11 Commission or any other authority to determine where false accounts originated, or with whom. [As of this writing, the Justice Department is reported to be suppressing a chapter of The 9/11 Commission Report that assigns individual responsibility for these failures. (New York Times10/30/04)]

14. The only public follow-up to the manifest contradictions in the various timelines was brought up by Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota. At Congressional hearings on The 9/11 Commission Report in August, 2004, he declared that NORAD officials “lied to the American people, they lied to Congress and they lied to your 9/11 commission to create a false impression of competence, communication and protection of the American people.” He told the Commission co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton that if their report is correct, President Bush “should fire whoever at FAA, at NORAD… betrayed their public trust by not telling us the truth.” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 7/31/04)

15. We must also consider the possibility that at least some of the false statements are not due to incompetence or honest mistakes made after September 11, but instead result from intentional attempts to hide wrongdoing or gross negligence on the day of 9/11 itself. Given that possibility, the need for accountability, investigation and redress is all the more urgent.

16. The following anomalies give rise to suspicion of such wrongdoing, and therefore demand investigation:

a. The diversion of Flight 77 began over the Ohio-Kentucky border, about 300 miles from Washington. Its transponder was turned off at 8:56 a.m. at the latest, about 10 minutes after the first WTC crash, causing it to disappear from secondary radar. But authorities say Flight 77 also disappeared from primary radar for a span of eight minutes (according to the Kean Commission’s report), perhaps even 30 minutes (Washington Post, 11/3/01). The FAA has also suggested it tracked Flight 77 along its entire route back to Washington (as in Point 6, above).

b. About 35 minutes after the Flight 77 diversion, the FAA reported that a “fast-moving primary aircraft” was entering Washington airspace. This craft is said to have performed difficult maneuvers, worthy of a fighter pilot. It overflew the restricted zone above the Pentagon, which reportedly is protected by anti-aircraft missiles, which were not activated on the day. It then executed a 330-degree turn back towards the Pentagon, spiraling down from 8,000 feet before finally flying level along the ground at 500 mph for several hundred feet before striking the building in a largely empty section that had just undergone renovations and structural reinforcement against terrorist attack.

c. The alleged hijacker and pilot of Flight 77, Hani Hanjour, never completed his flight school courses and was judged below standard by his instructors in Mesa, Arizona, according to The 9/11 Commission Report.

d. The only available images of the Pentagon attack, five blurry still frames from a security camera at some distance, were obtained by CNN from an unknown source in March 2002. However, the U.S. government possesses further evidence that may clarify circumstances of the attack. The rooftop camera of a Sheraton Hotel near the Pentagon captured the event. Hotel employees watched the tape repeatedly before federal agents arrived to confiscate it a few minutes later (Bill Gertz, Washington Times). Video was also confiscated within minutes from a gas station with a clear sight-line to the side of the Pentagon that was hit (according to the owner, Jose Velasquez). The Virginia Transportation Department surveillance cameras on nearby I-395 and the Pentagon’s own parking lot cameras may have also recorded the crash. At a press availability following the Kean Commission hearings of December 8, 2003 (C-SPAN broadcast), the co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton said this evidence would be released to help dispel the widespread speculation about the attack. No such evidence has been released since that time. Given that the attacks occurred more than three years ago, is there any basis in national security doctrine for the continued suppression of these records?

e. Andrews Air Force Base, home to Air Force One and the DC Air National Guard (“DCANG”), is 10 miles from the Pentagon. According to the DCANG website (, prior to September 11 Andrews AFB hosted two combat-ready fighter squadrons. Before Sept 11, the DCANG website furthermore claimed it provided “combat units in the highest possible state of readiness.” (Our italics; the language was changed after a site update on 9/13/01, but the version of the site prior to September 11 can still be accessed in Web archives such as the “Wayback Machine” at

f. Although the national emergency of September 11 should have been clear at the time of the first WTC crash (8:46 a.m.), since it was known to authorities that Flight 11 had been hijacked, it was self-evident by the time of the second WTC crash at the latest (9:03 a.m.) Nevertheless, no jets were launched from Andrews AFB to protect Washington airspace–until immediately after the Pentagon attack (9:38 a.m.). What were these jets doing that morning, until then?

g. The crew of a C-130 transporter that took off from Andrews AFB at around 9:30 a.m. witnessed the Pentagon crash, according to the military. The same crew on the same flight later were also the first to sight and inform the military of the crash site at Shanksville. Eyewitness accounts of the Flight 93 crash reported in the press include some suggesting evidence the flight was shot down; others claiming to have sighted other planes in the area; and a debris field extending over six to eight miles, raising the possibility of a mid-air break-up. A 911 call was reported from a passenger believed to be Edward Felt, saying he was hiding in a bathroom on Flight 93 with the door ajar and that he heard an explosion and saw white smoke filling the plane, after which the call ended. This is now officially denied by the local 911 authorities, but the recipient of the call is not allowed to talk to the press (All items collected and linked to original news stories in Thompson, “Complete 9/11 Timeline: United Airlines Flight 93,” at None of the assertions raising the possibility of a shootdown are resolved or even mentioned in The 9/11 Commission Report. Once again, the lack of an NTSB report represents a painful omission.

h. Military jets ordinarily available in the Northeastern Aerospace Defense Sector (NEADS) were apparently diverted to other sectors for a set of ongoing NORAD wargames (in coordination with Canada) under the headings of Northern Vigilance, Vigilant Guardian, Vigilant Warrior, Northern Guardian and possibly other, as-yet unreleased operation names (Toronto Star, 12/9/01; Aviation Week, 6/3/02; Newhouse News, 1/25/02; Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies, 2004). An additional, apparently separate drill was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on the morning of 9/11/01, under the direction of CIA officer John Fulton. It was intended to simulate the crash of an “errant plane” into the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office (“NRO”) near Washington (AP, 8/21/01). The government has never released a statement about whether any office was coordinating the multiple wargames and exercises held on September 11, which appear to have also involved operations within NEADS. A full investigation of the events would give priority to determining who was in charge.

i. NORAD personnel in Rome, New York who received first reports of hijackings within NEADS, including Col. Robert K. Marr and Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins, are reported to have asked if this was “real or exercise” (Newhouse News, 1/25/02; Aviation Week, 6/3/02). This implies that the scenarios for the wargames within NEADS on September 11 were strikingly similar to the actual attacks that unfolded that morning (as was the NRO exercise). A full investigation would explore the question of whether these wargames contributed to the confusion that prevented timely air defense response, and whether this may in fact have been intended by parties involved in the planning of the wargames in the first place, or whether information about the wargames was delivered via moles to the agents responsible for the hijackings (see, Ruppert, Crossing the Rubicon, 2004).

i. The use of “injects” (phantom blips projected onto radar screens electronically) is a technique employed to test the defending side in air defense wargames (Toronto Star, 12/9/01). Furthermore, the NORAD wargame denomination Warrior indicates a “live-fly” exercise, i.e. one that uses actual aircraft flown by the military to simulate the enemy (Ruppert, Crossing the Rubicon, 2004, citing NORAD spokesperson Don Arias). The designation “Vigilant Warrior” for one of the 9/11 wargames is cited in a direct quote attributed to Gen. Richard Myers by former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke on page 5 of his 2004 book, Against All Enemies. [The publication of this book was delayed for months due to a careful vetting process by the CIA and White House. It is therefore unlikely that a mistaken designation implying a live-fly exercise would have been cleared for publication.]

j. FAA administrator Jane Garvey was cited in news reports and by Richard Clarke in his book as saying that the FAA was tracking as many as 11 possible hijackings, not only four. This raises the question of whether false-blip injects or actual unidentified military aircraft in a live-fly exercise may have appeared on civilian radar, thereby making it difficult for air traffic controllers to distinguish real hijackings from wargame-generated phantoms, and for air defense forces to vector scrambled planes to the right locations.

k. The 9/11 Commission Report does not detail whether the military made use of its own highly advanced radar systems to locate flights at any point during the attacks.

l. Destruction of evidence relating to Flight 11 and Flight 175: Less than two hours after the attacks, at least six air traffic controllers at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center in Ronkonkoma made an audio recording describing their immediate recollection of events. But the tape was later destroyed by an FAA supervisor, before anyone made a transcript or even listened to it–despite other, urgent orders to retain all evidence (New York Times, 5/6/04).

m. Gen. Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD on September 11, is the only source cited in the 9/11 Commission Report specifically on the potential for confusion caused by the wargames held on that morning. He is quoted in a footnote (Ch. 1, fn 116) as saying that “it took about 30 seconds” to make the adjustment from the wargames to the real world situation. The report does not, however, specify the time when this adjustment was made. The report adds the opinion that the wargames if anything increased defense readiness on the day. This is a suspect conclusion, given the actual events.

(Forward to CHAIN OF COMMAND.)