The tape and transcript of the Air Threat Conference (ATC) are among the most important documents concerning events on the morning of 9-11. Without them historians and other researchers cannot accurately report on the national level response. The purpose of this article is to fill the gap; to detail what we do know and to place the ATC in perspective.
We have at least three sources of information in addition to the Commission Report; the memorandum of the Staff’s tour of the NMCC, the personal notes of an NMCC officer, Major Chambers, and the notes of interviews with NMCC personnel, specifically Commander Gardner. Interview MFRs will be forthcoming from NARA; but we have enough information to get started and we start with the orientation and tour of the NMCC.
Orientation and Tour of the NMCC (MFR)
The NMCC manages crises through a series of conferences according to established checklists. Typically, the first action is to convene a Significant Events Conference (SIEC); a ‘catch-all’ conference to address any significant event. If the event escalates the conference may transition into a threat conference. The NMCC briefly convened an SIEC but was immediately faced with a threat and a decision. The NMCC had two courses of action available; one to continue the SIEC as an Air Event Conference; the other to terminate the event conference and convene an Air Threat Conference. The NMCC chose the latter, a serious decision with strategic level implications, as we shall see.
Major Chambers (personal memoir within a week after 9-11)
It is Major Chambers who wrote about the immediate aftermath of the second Tower impact that, “The world had just changed, forever.” He described the first NMCC action, the SIEC, as a mechanism to “ensure all the military command centers have the same information at the same time on events that aren’t a military threat.” He further wrote that, “The SIEC was taking much longer than expected to bring up. The FAA wasn’t in the conference, they couldn’t go secure, and so we couldn’t get first-hand information from them.”
Chambers also provided perspective on the ATC. “The ATC is reserved for when aircraft are considered hostile. For [NORAD], tasked with defending the U.S. and Canada against enemy aircraft, the term “hostile” carries a lot of weight.” Because of the significant high level of the participants the NMCC elected to simply drop the SIEC and start over. Some agencies did not hang up as they should have so, “as with the SIEC, it took longer than expected to convene the ATC.” According to Chambers, the ATC was convened within “a couple of minutes after the Pentagon attack.
Chambers also alluded to Continuity of Government (COG) and Continuity of Operations (COOP). “While one group was focusing on the President’s status another was putting some other plans into effect. The Speaker of the House and a few others on the chain of succession were whisked away to another secure location…” It is not clear if this draconian step would have been taken if an Air Event Conference had been convened instead of an ATC. Nevertheless, COOP/COG plans were implemented.
Chambers spoke to the issuance of the shoot down order and his memoir does not support the testimony of Norman Mineta. Chambers wrote, “I heard one of the most chilling orders I could imagine. VPOTUS passed on the order via the ATC that any aircraft confirmed to be under hijacker control was to be shot down. Instinctively I knew this was the right thing to do. Every passenger on the first three aircraft (emphasis added) were dead, along with thousands of others.”
Chambers also commented on the fighters at Andrews. He wrote, “The Air National Guard fighters at Andrews AFB, just east of D.C. weren’t part of the active air defense system, so they weren’t available.” Readers who are familiar with the ‘roles and missions’ of the military and why the specification of such duties is necessary will understand immediately why the NMCC did not consider the Andrews fighters an asset.
Commander Gardner interview notes
After the second WTC strike he and the ADDO (Leidig) knew they needed a national conference. They arrived at the need for an SIEC and were frustrated that it was not brought up more quickly. According to notes of Gardner’s interview the ADDO directed an SEIC at 9:20, the same time that FAA activated its primary net.
Gardner was concerned about convening a threat conference. According to him a threat conference would have conveyed SIOP overtones that weren’t needed. SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the nuclear scenario. SIOP is serious business and perhaps the ATC did, in part, drive the national level to implement COOP/COG with no clear understanding of what the threat was.
Gardner further explained his concern by stating that threat conferences were for external attacks, however, there was no good domestic conference to convene.
Looking ahead to an SVTS article, Gardner commented that “we lost principals throughout the day to SVTS.” There were no runners [courier] or connectivity to the SVTS. All the NMCC knew was what the principals brought back. In his words, the ATC and SVTS were “competing venues for command and control and for decision making.” He was further frustrated that they lost principals to COG.
Commissioners and Staff had access to both the ATC tape and the transcript, and a copy of the transcript was made available during interviews of key NMCC personnel. Considering all information received, including the source material cited above, the Commission established and reported the following details.
The FAA primary net was activated at 9:20 and Major Chambers answered the phone at the NMCC. However, that net never became operational. The NMCC convened a Significant Event Conference at 9:29 and immediately learned of the a reborn AA 11 as a threat. The event conference was terminated at 9:34 in favor of a threat conference call which convened at 9:37 as an Air Threat Conference, at the same time that AA 77 slammed into the Pentagon.
Ultimately, the ATC prevailed as the dominant means of communication among government agencies but the battle had passed them by.
The NMCC did not have an adequate mechanism in place to address the threat that day. Given that a threat conference was needed they turned to the air threat conference. By doing so they apparently complicated matters at the national level driving the NCA to SIOP-like decisions it perhaps did not want to make, included a COOP/COG decision.
Readers should consider this article a work in progress. It serves to get some things on the record and to establish the Air Threat Conference as another in a series of linear processes the government used on 9-11 to try and deal with the situation.
NOIWON, additional considerations
As the NMCC was preparing for an SIEC, CIA convened a NOIWON conference. According to the orientation MRF; “The NMCC abandoned its attempt to convene a SIEC so its Watch officers could participate in the NOIWON Conference. After the NOIWON call the NMCC briefly considered convening an Air Event Conference, but decided to go directly to an Air Threat Conference.”
Ironically FAA was on the NOIWON call but at the Intelligence Watch on the 3d floor at FAA Headquarters. We need to note at this point that FAA participants in the NOIWON, themselves, did not have first-hand information either, so the NOIWON could not have been a source of FAA air traffic control information at that point. The fact that the NOIWON was a potential connectivity workaround, however, did not register at either FAA or the NMCC.
Gardner recalled the NOIWON as both a source of information and a detractor, it kept the ADDO involved. According to the MFR from the NMCC orientation the White House Situation Room insisted on having a flag officer on an open line to them. As we described in another article BG Seipe, a trained DDO who happened to be present was that flag officer and he had continuous line-of-sight to the DDO on duty. Gardner did not remember with “any fidelity” what he learned from the NOIWON and did not recall if FAA participated.