You mention it should be interesting to see what the 9/11 report says. I read a good blog entry summarising the 9/11 report's take on the whole NORAD/FAA fiasco. It seems to find a good deal of unpreparedness and exposes how much of the 'defense' budget goes into defense, but disputes what many of the conspiracy theorists are arguing:
June 17, 2:00 pm EST. The 9/11 Commission's report promulgated this morning, Staff Statement 17, Improvising a Homeland Defense, is an absolute must-read. It is a minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow reconstruction, based on a great deal of research, of the events of that fateful morning. And it is absolutely gripping.
I'll just outline the important points, but you really should read the whole thing word for word.
Ever since 9/11, there have been some persistent questions. How could the same Air Force that was able to lay waste to all of Serbia without incurring a single casualty be unable to defend against these attacks? In particular, how is it that even the third plane, which hit the Pentagon, was not intercepted? Sending up fighters to escort a plane that is acting suspiciously is fairly common procedure, even for much lesser incidents.
These questions have provided a great deal of fodder for conspiracy theorists. The most benign form in which the 9/11 conspiracy theories have come has been the detailing of anomalies on the morning of September 11, usually concluding with the claim that a "stand-down order" was given to the military (or sometimes, the conspiracy theorists will just say, "I'm not saying I know what happened, but there are some questions we need answers to.")
Now, I've been in a difficult position. On the one hand, the cursory reading of the situation I was able to do (prior to this report) did raise some serious questions. On the other hand, the idea of a stand-down order is absolutely ludicrous. Who would have given it? To whom? How would it be justified? Why would nobody have come forward? And so I've always said that there were things unexplained but that I'd never seen an explanation that made sense. The fact that nobody has come up with a sensible explanation doesn't mean that you rush to embrace an absurd explanation.
Well, all of that should be put to rest now (it won't, of course -- such is the nature of human beings -- but it should). The 9/11 Commission has finally provided us the facts necessary to understanding how the attacks could happen.
First of all, the story involves two organizations -- the FAA and NORAD.
NORAD, which is responsible for air defense for the continental United States, is just a shell of its former self. The whole 3,000,000 square miles is defended by seven sites, each of which has two fighter planes on call. That's right -- 14 fighter planes are the first line of defense of the country against attack from the air. Contrast that with the 655 U.S. fighters involved in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (not including the numerous other planes -- bombers, etc. -- or the planes from other coalition members) and you get a good sense of just how much of "defense spending" goes to defense.
BTW, NORAD used to be much bigger before the fall of the Soviet Union. Back then, many planes were needed to defend against the nonexistent threat of Soviet bombers (in case both sides' ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles miraculously disappeared just as the Soviet Union miraculously decided to attack). Now, against existent threats, apparently, we don't need defenses.
The FAA is the body that deals with commercial flights and has all the relevant data. Every commercial flight emits a unique transponder signal. Only the FAA picks them up. 3 of the 4 hijacked flights had theirs turned off by the hijackers, so the only way to locate them was by "radar returns," i.e. by radar emitted from the ground and reflected from the planes. Both the FAA and NORAD can track these. The FAA has 22 different Air Route Traffic Control Centers covering the country, four of which were involved on 9/11 -- handoffs from one to another mean going to a whole new set of personnel.
I won't repeat the whole blow-by-blow, but here are some highlights:
The first hijacked flight, American 11, was identified as being hijacked by 8:24. Word got to FAA Operations Center, by going up the chain of command, by 8:32. NORAD was notified by 8:38. This was actually fast -- the personnel in the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center didn't follow the established protocol of having everything go up the chain of command in the FAA first, but took the initiative to contact NORAD directly.
NORAD (all NORAD operations involved the Northeast Air Defense Sector -- NEADS) immediately ordered two F-15's at a base 153 miles from New York to battle stations. At 8:46 they were scrambled -- and even there standard procedure was short-circuited to get them up more quickly. NEADS didn't know where to scramble them to, though. They spent several minutes trying to track down radar returns. The first plane hit the first building at 8:46:40.
The fighters were in the air at 8:53, without a clear sense of where to go. In order to keep them out of the heavily traveled air corridor, they were ordered into a holding pattern in military airspace off the coast of Long Island.
The second flight, United 175, changed its transponder code at 8:47. The controller responsible for tracking it was the same person responsible for American 11. She was, naturally, kind of busy at the time. It was 8:55 before she had thought of the possibility that United 175 was hijacked and informed the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center manager. When that person tried to inform regional managers at 8:58, the call was blocked because they were dealing with American 11. FAA Command Center was informed at 9:01. At 9:03, United 175 hit the second tower.
It's very clear that nothing could have been done to prevent either of these attacks. Note that NORAD wasn't even informed of the second plane.
After that, the story gets more bizarre. Among the revelations of the Commission is that the fighters scrambled later from Langley to fly over Washington DC were not scrambled in response to American 77, the plane that hit the Pentagon. They were scrambled to intercept a phantom, American 11, which had ceased to exist 50 minutes earlier. Although American 77 disappeared from the Indianapolis Control Center's radar at 8:56, the FAA never asked for military assistance with the flight, and only informed NORAD by chance at 9:36. Fighters were immediately scrambled from Langley, but due to further errors were sent in the wrong direction. American 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:38.
By the way, one of the staples of the conspiracy theorists is that the fighters scrambled to protect DC came from Langley rather than Andrews Air Force Base, which is much closer. The reason is simple: there's no NORAD site at Andrews.
The story gets even more complicated after that. The Commission concludes, I think correctly, that it's highly unlikely that United 93 would have been stopped had not the passengers managed to take it down over Pennsylvania. Again, the military only learned about the hijacking of that flight after it had crashed.
Two points stand out. First, dealing with these attacks was an enormously difficult problem. The FAA had to take unprecedented actions, like ordering the simultaneous grounding of all flights over the United States -- which was executed without incident. When planes' transponders were turned off, it had to perform a needle-in-a-haystack search to locate them from radar returns. And it had to deal with the standard bureaucratic processes, all of which took away precious minutes.
Second, with some things like the plane that hit the Pentagon, there was a great deal of incompetence involved. The primary reason is the same as the reason that NORAD had 14 planes to call on for the whole country -- notwithstanding the rhetoric involved in talking about the "Defense" Department and the "defense" budget, there's little recognition anywhere that the United States could be attacked and that it might have to be defended. The concluding paragraph of the statement says it all:
'NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11. They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet.'
It remains only to point out that, had the entire "national security" establishment had any seriousness about national security, this would not have been the case. There had been ample warning, starting as early as 1995, of the threat of terrorists hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings. But business as usual for the national security establishment is to talk about defending the United States but to expend all of its energy on planning attacks on other countries.
Edited 1 times. Last edit at 06/21/04 05:55AM by mike.