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9/11 Commission

Clueless Commanders

The official story requires us to believe that a handful of men armed only with 'box-cutters' were able to defeat the trillion-dollar air defense system of the United States. Moreover, the attackers, rather than hitting their targets simultaneously, spread out the assaults over more than an hour, providing many opportunities to mount a defense.

The explanations for the incredible failure to defend the long-recognized terrorist targets of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are many and varied. However, the 9/11 Commission Report provides the final word.

Let's examine a few passages from Chapter 1 of the Commission Report, which has the following structure:


  • 1.1 Inside the Four Flights 1
  • 1.2 Improvising a Homeland Defense 14
  • 1.3 National Crisis Management 35

We'll look at a few passages from part 1.2 Improvising a Homeland Defense, which describes how the poor, trillion-dollar US military couldn't figure out how to deal with four jetliners over the course of two hours.

On 9/11, the terrorists turned off the transponders on three of the four hijacked aircraft. With its transponder off, it is possible, though more difficult, to track an aircraft by its primary radar returns. But unlike transponder data, primary radar returns do not show the aircraft's identity and altitude. Controllers at centers rely so heavily on transponder signals that they usually do not display primary radar returns on their radar scopes. But they can change the configuration of their scopes so they can see primary radar returns. They did this on 9/11 when the transponder signals for three of the aircraft disappeared. 94

The transponder signals are used to label the radar blips of aircraft. They want us to believe that no blip at all shows up for planes lacking transponder signals, and that the only way they can see transponder-less aircraft is to turn off all labeling. It seems much more likely that transponder-less aircraft appear as unlabeled blips -- making them easy to distinguish from the labeled ones -- or that they are labeled with flashing icons.

However, the simultaneous loss of radio and transponder signal would be a rare and alarming occurrence, and would normally indicate a catastrophic system failure or an aircraft crash.

Actually aircraft without radio and transpoder must be quite frequent as with drug-smuggling planes. Why else are there scores of scrambles per year?

NORAD perceived the dominant threat to be from cruise missiles. Other threats were identified during the late 1990s, including terrorists' use of aircraft as weapons. Exercises were conducted to counter this threat, but they were not based on actual intelligence. In most instances, the main concern was the use of such aircraft to deliver weapons of mass destruction.

So, since the 9/11 jetliners didn't have WMDs on board, NORAD didn't know how to respond.

Exercise planners also assumed that the aircraft would originate from outside the United States, allowing time to identify the target and scramble interceptors. The threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airliners within the United States-and using them as guided missiles-was not recognized by NORAD before 9/11. 98

Apparently the war games in play 9/11/01 were exceptions to this assumption.

In sum, the protocols in place on 9/11 for the FAA and NORAD to respond to a hijacking presumed that
  • the hijacked aircraft would be readily identifiable and would not attempt to disappear;
  • there would be time to address the problem through the appropriate FAA and NORAD chains of command; and
  • hijacking would take the traditional form: that is, it would not be a suicide hijacking designed to convert the aircraft into a guided missile.

So the military assumed that an attacker would be sure to remain visible, would take his time so as to be vulnerable to destruction, and would attack in a traditional way.

At 8:14, when [Flight 11] failed to heed his instruction to climb to 35,000 feet, the controller repeatedly tried to raise the flight. He reached out to the pilot on the emergency frequency. Though there was no response, he kept trying to contact the aircraft. 106

At 8:21, American 11 turned off its transponder, immediately degrading the information available about the aircraft. The controller told his supervisor that he thought something was seriously wrong with the plane, although neither suspected a hijacking. The supervisor instructed the controller to follow standard procedures for handling a "no radio" aircraft. 107

The controller checked to see if American Airlines could establish communication with American 11. He became even more concerned as its route changed, moving into another sector's airspace. Controllers immediately began to move aircraft out of its path, and asked other aircraft in the vicinity to look for American 11. 108

At 8:24:38, the following transmission came from American 11:
American 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport.
The controller only heard something unintelligible; he did not hear the specific words "we have some planes." The next transmission came seconds later:
American 11: Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet. 109
The controller told us that he then knew it was a hijacking. He alerted his supervisor, who assigned another controller to assist him. He redoubled his efforts to ascertain the flight's altitude. Because the controller didn't understand the initial transmission, the manager of Boston Center instructed his quality assurance specialist to "pull the tape" of the radio transmission, listen to it closely, and report back. 110

Between 8:25 and 8:32, in accordance with the FAA protocol, Boston Center managers started notifying their chain of command that American 11 had been hijacked. At 8:28, Boston Center called the Command Center in Herndon to advise that it believed American 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York Center's airspace.

By this time, American 11 had taken a dramatic turn to the south. At 8:32, the Command Center passed word of a possible hijacking to the Operations Center at FAA headquarters. The duty officer replied that security personnel at headquarters had just begun discussing the apparent hijack on a conference call with the New England regional office. FAA headquarters began to follow the hijack protocol but did not contact the NMCC to request a fighter escort. 111

According to this story, it took over 18 minutes from the time Flight 11 became unresponsive, and 11 minutes since it turned off its transponder and starting veering, before anyone at FAA "passed word" to the FAA Operations Center. The story gets even more fantastic when the Commission starts to describe the attempts of FAA to notify the military.

Boston Center took the initiative, at 8:34, to contact the military through the FAA's Cape Cod facility. The center also tried to contact a former alert site in Atlantic City, unaware it had been phased out. At 8:37:52, Boston Center reached NEADS. This was the first notification received by the military-at any level-that American 11 had been hijacked: 115
FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit], we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?

FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test. 116

Once NEADS gets the word, it takes them almost 10 minutes to scramble F-15s, even though Otis is on alert -- pilots waiting in their bunkers next to their jets for orders to scramble.

F-15 fighters were scrambled at 8:46 from Otis Air Force Base. But NEADS did not know where to send the alert fighter aircraft, and the officer directing the fighters pressed for more information: "I don't know where I'm scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination." Because the hijackers had turned off the plane's transponder, NEADS personnel spent the next minutes searching their radar scopes for the primary radar return. American 11 struck the North Tower at 8:46. Shortly after 8:50, while NEADS personnel were still trying to locate the flight, word reached them that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. 119

Radar data show the Otis fighters were airborne at 8:53. Lacking a target, they 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 Otis fighters stayed in this holding pattern. 120

Note another missing 7 minutes in the previous two paragraphs. They tell us the jets were scrambled (which means airborne) at 8:46 but then they say they were shown airborne at 8:53. Flight 11 has by now crashed into the North Tower after doing a beeline from Albany to Manhattan, and Flight 175 is now closing in on the city, but the military doesn't know where to send its fighters? Let's hope that Soviet cruise missiles have transponders that clearly identify themselves, and don't fly any faster than jetliners.

In summary, NEADS received notice of the hijacking nine minutes before it struck the North Tower. That nine minutes' notice before impact was the most the military would receive of any of the four hijackings. 121

This is one of the big adjustments the Commission made to the previous timelines -- it made sure the military was notified too late in the cases of Flights 11 and 77, and not at all in the cases of Flights 175 and 93. Thus, as the attack unfolded, the response times became longer rather than shorter. Perhaps it was a case of hijack fatigue.

The rest of the chapter is more of the same -- an incredible sequence of cascading coincidences of incompetence. And for this, the commanders in charge were promoted and the Pentagon got fat budget increases that drove the profits of weapons contractors to new heights.

page last modified: 2010-12-18
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Multiple steps in chains of command are one of alleged features of the military that the Commission uses to explain the incredible delays in responding to the hijacked jetliners.