Inside the failed Air Force scramble to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks
In 'A Pretext for War,' James Bamford argues that Bush policies weakened U.S. ability to defend against attacks such as 9/11. Read an excerpt
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Just why did the U.S. fail to prevent and predict the 9/11 attacks? And why did the CIA claim that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had weapons of mass destruction? In a new book, "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies," investigative journalist James Bamford takes the Bush administration to task for allegedly weakening American defenses and for trying to justify the invasion of Iraq by making connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. He also criticizes the CIA for its role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Bamford was invited on the "Today" show to discuss his book. Here’s an excerpt, in which Bamford describes the doomed attempt to intercept the two planes that plowed into the World Trade Center:
Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Powell's heart started pounding and he quickly raised his hand and started waving it vigorously to get attention. He sat in a quiet pool of emerald light, staring at a matrix of slowly moving white dots, cryptic flashing letter-number combinations, lines going in all directions, and green circles that would form at the center and then expand outward, like a ripple from a stone tossed in a morning pond. Represented by every dot was a small cross-section of humanity, packed in an aluminum tube and traveling in the air near the speed of sound. Jeremy Powell was sitting in front of a glowing radar screen, scanning the skies over America's East Coast for any indication of attack, invasion, or airborne drug dealers.
This green room, like a leprechaun's lair, was the Operations Command Center of "Huntress Control" — the Air National Guard's Northeast Air Defense Sector. Located in the sleepy town of Rome in central New York, it was part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command — NORAD — a relic from the days of bomb shelters, air raid warnings, and fears of invading Russians. Besides being centrally located and free from major urban electromagnetic interference, Rome was an appropriate venue for America's twenty-first-century lookouts. It was the place where the American flag first flew in the face of battle, during the American Revolution at Fort Stanwix, located in what is now the center of the city of Rome. And it was the home, and final resting place, of Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins, her eyes now adjusted to the eerie light that greeted the start of her dozen-hour shift, saw Jeremy Powell's hand waving. As the airborne control and warning officer at the center, she was expecting more activity than usual this morning because of the drill. September 11, 2001, was the fourth day of a weeklong exercise code-named "Vigilant Guardian." It was designed to create a fictional crisis affecting the United States and test the network of radar watch stations around the country. Like a rerun of an old movie, the scenario involved Russian bombers flying over the North Pole in attack formation. The Rome command center was responsible for monitoring more than half a million square miles of airspace, from the Montana-North Dakota border to the coast of Maine down through South Carolina. Included were the skies over New York City and Washington, D.C. Should a crisis develop, the radar specialists could pick up the phone and alert fighter pilots at National Guard units at Burlington, Vermont; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Duluth, Minnesota.
A moment earlier, Powell had taken a call from Boston Center. "Watch supervisor, I have a possible hijack of American 11 heavy," a Boston military liaison with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told him. "Recommend notifying NORAD." Powell passed the information on to Deskins. Part of the exercise, Deskins thought to herself, until the direct phone line to the FAA began flashing. It was 8:40 a.m.
Early September and a good time to be traveling. The weather had broken and it was clear and cool in the Northeast. The thunderstorms of summer were past, as was the hectic Labor Day holiday. And September 11 was a Tuesday, statistically one of the least busy travel days of the week. For the passengers aboard Flight 11, less than half full, it meant empty middle seats in which to stretch out for the long trip to Los Angeles. Normally capable of carrying up to 269 passengers, the twin-engine Boeing 767 — a mechanized marvel made up of 3.1 million parts--was one of the long-haul workhorses for American Airlines. Sloshing around in the wings and other cavities was up to 10,000 gallons of highly explosive fuel.
"We have him in sight," replied the pilot. At fifty, John Ogonowski had been flying for half of his life, first in the Air Force at the end of the Vietnam War, and, beginning in 1979, with American. Earlier that morning, he had left the bucolic tranquility of his 150-acre farm in the northern Massachusetts town of Dracut. A sweeping expanse of fields and fruit trees, dotted with farm machinery and stonewalls, it was where the round-faced Ogonowski, a fourth-generation farmer, found peace. Down from the clouds, he spent his time laboriously plowing, cleaving, and harrowing the soil. "When his hands were dirty and his pants were filthy, he was always pretty happy,'' said his brother, James.
As the plane passed over the small Massachusetts town of Gardner, about forty-five miles west of Boston, the smell of coffee was starting to drift through the cabin. Flight attendants were just beginning to prepare the hot breakfasts of omelets, sausages, and fruit cups. Seated in business class, in seat 8D, was thirty-three-year-old Mohamed Atta, clean-shaven and in casual clothes. Instead of lowering his food tray, he pulled his small black shoulder bag from under the seat in from of him, withdrew a hardened plastic knife and a box cutter, and stepped into the aisle. At that same moment, as if choreographed, four other men assigned to Row 8 also rose and headed toward the front of the plane.
Sitting in front of a twenty-seven-inch, high-resolution Sony TV console, the controller could see Flight 11's key information — its altitude, direction, and identifying number. John Ogonowski heard again the crackle of a traffic controller in his earphones. "AAL11, your traffic is at, uh, two o'clock, twenty miles southwest-bound, MD-80," the controller said, alerting Ogonowski to a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 nearby.
"AAL11, roger," said the captain, adding, "twenty right, AAL11."
But likely within minutes, the door to the cockpit was locked, the two pilots were killed, and Atta took over the left seat. Suddenly one wing dipped severely while the other rose high, nearly tipping the plane on its side, before the aircraft stabilized. As the plane turned south toward New York, the flight attendants provided oxygen to the injured people and used the public address system to request the assistance of any doctor or nurse on board. In the coach section, passengers remained calm, thinking there was just some medical emergency.
Sixteen seconds later, unaware of the horror then taking place in the blood-splattered cockpit, the Boston controller again radioed Flight 11. "AAL11. Now climb maintain FL350," he said, giving the pilot permission to climb from 29,000 to 35,000 feet. Hearing nothing, he repeated the message ten seconds later, and again eleven seconds later, and once more fifteen seconds later at 8:14:23 — but still no reply. By 8:15, the air traffic controller in Boston was becoming greatly concerned. Despite his numerous calls, there was only a deathly silence from American Flight 11. He switched to the emergency frequency, 121.5. "AAL11, if you hear Boston Center, ident please or acknowledge," repeated the controller, his voice rising.
At 8:24, frightening words poured from his earphones. "We have some planes," said a voice. "Just stay quiet, and you'll be okay. We are returning to the airport." It was a message, likely from Mohamed Atta, intended for his passengers. But it was relayed to the Boston Center possibly as a result of Captain Ogonowski secretly activating the "push to talk" button on the plane's wheel before being killed, or accidentally by Atta as he took his place. The depressed button allowed the controller to hear what was going on at that moment in the cockpit. "We have more planes. We have other planes," the hijackers said. "And, uh, who's trying to call me here?" asked the controller, wondering if it was his missing Boeing 767. "AAL11, are you trying to call?"
Then another troubling message. "Okay. If you try to make any moves, you'll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet." And finally, at a second before 8:34, came one more. "Nobody move, please," said the voice. "We are going back to the airport. Don't try to make any stupid moves."
Six minutes later, at 8:40, the military liaison at Boston's FAA notified NORAD's Northeast Air Defense Sector Operations Center at Rome, New York. "We have a hijacked aircraft and I need you to get some sort of fighters out here to help us out," he told Dawne Deskins. The transponder on Flight 11 was no longer working, he said. Also, the Los Angeles-bound plane had suddenly made an unexpected left turn toward New York City. And then there were the frightening transmissions. Get "some F-16s or something" airborne, he pleaded. Deskins asked for Flight 11's latest position, but when the operator looked for it, it had disappeared. "American 11 heavy, Boston Center. Your transponder appears to be inoperative. Please recycle," said one of the controllers, repeating it several times. "American 11 heavy, how do you read Boston Center? Over."
As the plane was crossing from Massachusetts into New York, Atta turned off the plane's transponder, the device that transmits the plane's identification, speed, altitude, and location to the FAA's radar systems. Without the transponder information, Boston could still track it on its primary radar using faint "skin paint" returns, but for the technicians in Rome, like Jeremy Powell, finding the dot in the maze of moving and blinking images on his screen would be very difficult. At that moment, there were approximately 2,500 planes in the air over the Northeast alone. "We were going by the old-fashioned method of 'what was his last known speed, his last known heading, his altitude?'" said Powell. "And we were trying to kind of map it out on the scope."
"We'll direct the intercept," said the Boston liaison officer. "Just get something up there." Deskins rushed up a short flight of stairs to the weapons desk in the "Battle Cab," a glassed-in balcony that overhung the Ops Room like a corporate suite at a football stadium. Her commanding officer, Air Force Colonel Robert Marr, was in the room working on the drill. "I have FAA on the phone, the shout line, Boston Center. They said they have a hijacked aircraft," she told him. "He says it's going to New York." Suddenly, she wondered why a large jet would be commandeered to go such a short distance.
As American Flight 11 continued tearing toward New York City, two courageous flight attendants, huddling out of sight, managed to telephone fellow colleagues with key details of what was taking place. "Listen, and listen to me very carefully. I'm on Flight 11. The airplane has been hijacked," said Amy Sweeney, a thirteen-year veteran of the airline. She was talking to American Airlines ground manager Michael Woodward at Boston's Logan Airport. Nearby, another flight attendant, Betty Ong, who had been with the airline a year longer than Sweeney, was also able to call an airline official on the ground. She reached Vanessa Minter, an agent at the airline's reservation center in Raleigh, North Carolina.
For twenty-five minutes, both flight attendants were able to communicate over crew telephones in the coach section of the plane. They relayed key details of the hijacking in real time, including the bloody way in which the men took over the cockpit. From the seat numbers Sweeney was able to pass on, airline officials were able to pull up such vital details as the hijackers' names, addresses, phone numbers, and credit-card information--including that of Mohamed Atta. She said they were all males and appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. While calm, Sweeney and Ong were also very concerned. "Pray for us," Ong said repeatedly. "Pray for us."
Up in the Battle Cab, Colonel Marr called the man in charge of NORAD for the continental United States, Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Thin, with short brown hair, Arnold was a command pilot with more than 4,000 hours flying nine different aircraft, including the F-16 and F-15. As he was walking out of a teleconference, someone came up and told him Rome was on the phone. "Boss, I need to scramble Otis," Marr said, referring to Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod. Normally, the Secretary of Defense is the one who must give the approval to intercept a hijacked plane, but Arnold decided to make the decision on the spot. "Go ahead and scramble them, and we'll get the authorities later," he said.
As with most of the East Coast that Tuesday morning, the sky over Cape Cod was cloud-free and royal blue. Tucked away in the seaside resort community of Falmouth, Massachusetts, Otis Air National Guard Base was home of the 102nd Fighter Wing. Out on the tarmac, two F-15s sat "cocked and loaded" with weapons and extra gas on board. The two pilots on alert that morning, Maj. Daniel Nash and Lt. Col. Timothy Duffy, were in the control room scanning the charts and schedules that lined the walls, when the traffic control tower at Otis told them of a possible hijacking of an American Airlines flight out of Boston.
Although no scramble alarm had yet been received, the two quickly put on their flight suits and began walking to the waiting fighters. Duffy was a part-time Guardsman who just happened to be on duty that day. The thirty-five-year-old Nash, a beefy pilot with neatly trimmed brown hair, had joined the 102nd about a year and a half earlier. He had been on a number of alerts, but they usually turned out to be false alarms, such as an unknown aircraft approaching the coast that turned out to be a military plane. But he had a different feeling about this one.
In Manhattan, forty-eight-year-old Steve McIntyre left his Upper West Side home a good half hour earlier than usual and was just arriving at the World Trade Center. The Director of Regulatory Affairs for the American Bureau of Shipping, his office was on the ninety-first floor of Tower One. For nearly a quarter of a century, since graduating from the University of Michigan's Naval Architecture School, he had worked for the company, which sets standards for maritime safety.
By 8:46 a.m. on September 11, between five and seven thousand other people were at work in each of the two towers. Few tourists had arrived, and the observation deck wasn't scheduled to open until 9:30.
From McIntyre's north-facing office, the entire city was laid out below him. Silver towers and glass walls radiated in the sun, and flat, tar-covered rooftops with stubby chimneys stretched to the arched horizon. The glare was so great that he had to close the blinds before sitting down at his computer to begin plowing through his e-mail. Suddenly, he heard what he thought was the roar of jet engines followed by a shadow crossing the blinds.
Another employee of the American Bureau of Shipping, George Sleigh, a British-born naval architect, was talking on the phone when he, too, heard the roar of jet engines. He glanced out his window and a thought instantly crossed his mind: The wheels are up, the underbelly is white, and man, that guy is low.
Nearby in the office, Claire McIntyre, no relation to Steve McIntyre, was checking her e-mail when she heard the same sound — the blast of a jet engine. Impossible, she thought. Then, to her horror, she looked up to see the wing and tail of a colossal plane coming right at her at nearly the speed of sound. Oh my God, all my people, she thought. Screaming, she bolted from her office and raced into the hall to alert the rest of the staff. "Everyone, get out now," McIntyre yelled at the top of her voice. At the same moment, Steve McIntyre also realized it was a plane but had no idea of its size. Oh, shit, he thought to himself. Someone's lost control of a private Learjet.
Nearly one hundred floors below, French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet were shooting scenes for their documentary about a typical day in the life of a rookie New York fireman. As they were zooming in on men closing a sewer grate, they heard the sound of a low-flying plane. Curious, they pointed the camera almost straight up as American Flight 11 streaked across the lens headed directly for the building.
At Boston's Logan Airport, ground manager Michael Woodward was still holding the telephone to his ear, listening to flight attendant Amy Sweeney describe the approaching buildings before she took a very slow, deep breath. "Oh, my God!" she said quietly, calmly. And then there was just very, very loud static.
For a fraction of a second, the event seemed almost graceful. At 8:46:26, the building simply swallowed up the plane. But in the blink of an eye, when the jet's tanks containing 10,000 gallons of fuel suddenly compressed like crushed Coke cans, a massive fireball exploded with a force equal to 480,000 pounds of TNT. So powerful was the explosion that it registered a .09 on the Richter scale, used to measure earthquakes.
Flight 11 entered between floors 93 and 98, just two floors above the heads of Steve McIntyre, Claire McIntyre, and George Sleigh, shaking and oscillating the entire building as if an earthquake had struck. In the American Bureau of Shipping, an interior wall and ceiling crumbled. One employee, encased in debris, had to be extricated from his cubicle. People began grabbing fire extinguishers while another person had the presence of mind to soak a fat roll of paper towels. Sleigh crawled out from the rubble while Steve McIntyre left to check the fire exits.
The three had no idea how lucky they were. The concrete slab above their heads would become the dividing line between survival and tragedy — a ceiling of life for those below it, a floor of death for those on top of it. None of the 1,344 people then struggling on the floors above them would make it out alive.
Slowly, it was beginning to dawn on New York Control just what had taken place. "Anybody know what that smoke is in lower Manhattan?" asked another pilot flying over the area. "A lot of smoke in lower Manhattan coming out of the top of the World Trade Center — a major fire."
At the Rome Ops Center, somebody ran into the room and said they had just heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, Boston Center was called with the news that the plane was American Flight 11. Dawne Deskins picked up the telephone and called Maj. Don Arias, the public affairs officer for NORAD. "We think the aircraft that just hit the World Trade Center was American Airlines Flight 11," she said. In response, Arias gasped. "Oh, God. My brother works in the World Trade Center," he said.
Arias, a former New York City firefighter, called his brother immediately. What his brother related was bedlam in hell. "He says, 'You're not gonna believe what I'm looking at here.' I said, 'What?' He says, 'People are at the windows.' He says, 'There's a guy falling out of the building next door.' He says, 'There are people jumping.' And I said, 'You know, I — I think, I just got a call from the Northeast Air Defense Sector. There's a hijacked plane. I think that's the plane.'"
At about the same moment that Flight 11 slammed into Tower One, a Klaxon at Otis Air National Guard Base let out a series of deafening blasts and red lights began flashing in the corner of the alert barns, sending a flock of seagulls flapping into the air. "This is an official military scramble," said the public address system. "Alert pilots report to your battle stations." Already halfway to their jets, Nash and Duffy began racing as crew chiefs quickly pulled protective covers from the two vintage F-15 Eagles, built in 1977. Chocks were yanked from beneath the wheels and the heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles were armed. At 8:52 a.m., a red light turned green and the F-15s screamed down the tarmac.
Ten minutes earlier, at 8:42 a.m., concern had deepened when a flight controller at Boston Center suddenly became concerned about another plane, United Airlines Flight 175. Like American Flight 11, it was a Boeing 767 destined for Los Angeles. "Looks like he's heading southbound, but there's no transponder, no nothing, and no one's talking to him," he told his supervisor. A minute later, Deskins at the Rome command center received the new alert on the "shout line" from Boston Center.
Sitting in the pilot's seat was Victor Saracini, a fifty-one-year-old Navy veteran from Pennsylvania who often took his guitar along with him on flights. Saracini had also heard the troubling messages from Flight 11 and notified New York Air Route Traffic Control Center in Ronkonkoma, New York. "We heard a suspicious transmission on our departure from Boston," said Saracini. "Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said everyone stay in your seats." What Saracini did not know was that he had his own set of hijackers on board.
By the time Duffy and Nash were airborne, they were already too late for Flight 11. Nevertheless, the fighter pilots still had a chance of catching up to United Flight 175. But distance and time were critical factors. Cape Cod was nearly two hundred miles from downtown Manhattan. Duffy pushed his throttle to Mach 1.2, nearly 900 miles per hour. Going at such a supersonic speed was normally something for which they needed permission. Nash called Duffy on the radio. "Duff, you're super," he said. "Yeah, I know," said Duffy. "You know, don't worry about it." Duffy then called for a location of the target. "Your contact's over Kennedy," came the response. "Okay, I know where that is," said Duffy and they turned toward New York's Long Island. At that moment, they were 153 miles from the World Trade Center.
Another Air National Guard base with F-16s was located at Atlantic City, New Jersey — and Flight 175 would pass within just four minutes of the base before turning north to New York City. At the time, two Air Force F-16 jet fighters were simply practicing bombing runs above a scruffy patch of Pine Barrens near Atlantic City, just eight minutes away from Manhattan. But they were not armed for air-to-air combat, and to land, rearm, and get airborne again would take too long.
The two aircraft were based at the Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City International Airport in Pomona, New Jersey. Throughout the Cold War, two scramble-ready jets had always been on alert in Atlantic City. But because of budget cutbacks beginning in 1998, the wing's mission had been changed. Instead of the jets being ready to take off on a moment's notice, they were both assigned to unarmed bomb practice. On September 11, 2001, the entire United States mainland was protected by just fourteen planes spread out over seven bases.
By 8:48, there was no question that a major crisis was unfolding, possibly that the United States was under attack by terrorists. It was known that at least two commercial airliners had been hijacked. Worse, nearly half an hour earlier, at 8:24, a Boston controller had heard one of the hijackers threatening the pilots and saying, "We have more planes. We have other planes." It was then that NORAD and the command's top general in charge of the continental United States had been notified. He authorized a "battle stations" alert and scrambled heavily armed F-15 jet fighters into the air. Should the fighters catch up with the passenger planes, the only defense would be to shoot them down, though only the President of the United States could give such an order. Then a large plane crashed into Tower One of the World Trade Center.
At that moment, George W. Bush was sitting in the back of his limousine in Sarasota, Florida. His motorcade was about six blocks from the Emma E. Booker Elementary School, where the President was to meet a class of second-graders, when presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, traveling in a separate car, received a phone call. "Oh, my God, I don't believe it," he said to the caller. "A plane just hit the World Trade Center," he announced to others in the car.
When Bush arrived at the elementary school, Fleischer, along with aides Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, were standing on the sidewalk waiting to brief the President on the crash. "The President was surprised," said Fleischer. "He thought it had to be an accident." Yet despite having a secure STU-III phone next to him in the presidential limousine and an entire national security staff at the White House, it appears that the President of the United States knew less than tens of millions of other people in every part of the country who were watching the attack as it unfolded. Once in the school, the President ducked into an empty classroom and spoke on the phone with his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and asked her to keep him informed. Yet even then, at almost 9:00, neither Rice nor Bush was aware that the United States had gone to "battle stations" alert and had scrambled fighter jets into the air to intercept and possibly take hostile action against multiple hijacked airliners, something that was then known by hundreds of others within NORAD, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Pentagon.
Excerpted from "A Pretext for War" by James Bamford. Copyright© 2004 by James Bamford. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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