9-11: NRO Exercise; a case of over-analysis

In the Bobcat article I made the following observation: “Snapshots of the Commission’s work are prone to misinterpretation…the imposition of post facto understanding and awareness on facto and pre-facto conditions. Discrete pieces of staff work are just that, pieces of a vastly larger puzzle; sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t.” In this article we will consider another piece of the puzzle that did not fit, the radar track of the early morning DC-area traffic helicopter and its relationship to the NRO exercise. There was no relationship.

The NRO Exercise, a first order of business

High on my list of early things to do was to get to the bottom of the NRO exercise scheduled for the morning of 9-11. Without access to the scenario assessing the NRO exercise was problematic. The 84th RADES radar files were the first delivery of actual data; they included a RADES workup of an aircraft which not only flew near the NRO, it flew near the Pentagon, CIA Headquarters, NSA, NIMA, Ft Belvoir and Quantico. It also appeared to have taken off from Andrews AFB. It got my attention for a time. Following is a screen print of the flight.Traffic HelicpoterIt took off from near Andrews at 6:46 and landed at the same site at 7:27; it flew between 0900 and 1200 feet.  The green returns are reinforced (radar and beacon), the red returns are beacon only.  The reason so much of the flight was picked up as beacon only was its altitude.

The Traffic Helicopter

Intuitively obvious in hindsight, it was not immediately apparent that the track of interest to the 84th RADES was the early morning traffic helicopter. So I spent time reviewing the radar files and comparing the track to 1:250,000 maps. I focused on agencies and facilities and overlooked the fact that the aircraft was also following, in general, the I95/395 and I66 corridors and the 95/495 beltway. I discussed the track with DoD and FAA personnel at several locations. No one had any particular insight or knew of anything operational that morning that was relevant. In a discussion with Andrews Tower personnel it occurred to them that the morning traffic helicopter lifted off early every morning from a private pad in the area. And that was the end of that.

Snapshots in the work  files

One snapshot is a comment in the Andrews MFR, linked above.   A second snapshot is a coversheet filed with the NRO exercise scenario, itself. That cover sheet was applicable to RADES  radar track screen prints and to 1:250,000 maps hung throughout our office to plot planes and areas of interest. It had no relation to the NRO exercise scenario itself.

Even though I had handwritten “NRO” on it at an early stage in our work it was not a piece of the puzzle that fit anywhere.  I over-analyzed a non-event.

9-11: NRO; not a factor, not an issue

Addendum, August 17, 2009. A document concerning the exercise received from NRO by the Commission Staff is now available.  Exercise inputs are included.  The stated purpose of the exercise is “NRO Emergency Response to a Small Aircraft Crash.”  The handwriting on the title sheet is mine.

There are two misconceptions about the NRO. One is that the NRO was actually able to track the hijacked planes on 9-11 by satellite and, by extension, should have been able to share that information immediately with others. Another is that the scheduled NRO exercise was somehow tied to other training and exercises that day. I am the single Commission staffer who worked the NRO exercise issue and I was on the Other Agency Team on the Congressional Joint Inquiry; the NRO was one of the other agencies. I know of no information which supports either misconception.

NRO, a Member of the Intelligence Community

In the words of an NRO contact several years ago; the NRO is nothing more than a long-haul trucking company which happens to build satellites and delivers and maintains them for its customers. According to its current website:

The NRO designs, builds and operates the nation’s reconnaissance satellites. NRO products, provided to an expanding list of customers like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DoD), can warn of potential trouble spots around the world, help plan military operations, and monitor the environment.

As part of the 16-member Intelligence Community, the NRO plays a primary role in achieving information superiority for the
U. S. Government and Armed Forces.

A DoD agency, the NRO is staffed by DoD and CIA personnel. It is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program.

Its DoD customers include the analytical agencies—DIA, NSA, and NGA (formerly NIMA). None of them or the CIA had the mission or the staff to track national air traffic; the responsibility of the FAA. The only relevant reporting from space on 9-11 was the SIR (Significant Infrared Activity Report) of the impact of each of the four aircraft. The Commission requested and received that data from DEFSMAC (Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center) .   The SIR times for each crash were consistent with other data sources.

The NRO exercise

The NRO is just one of many large civilian and government offices which lives and works under one of the Dulles flight paths. The agency long knew that it had to schedule an emergency drill to address the possibility of a flight accident. It so happened that they scheduled such a drill on 9-11 unrelated in any way to subsequent events of the day. There was no correlation to any other training or exercises that day. It was the proactive planning of a single agency. The Commission asked for and received the scenario and exercise package. I don’t recall anything unusual about the contents; certainly nothing to pursue further. I will ask NARA if those files will be coming available. One way or another, interested people can file a FOIA request with the NRO if they wish to pursue the topic further.