9-11: SVTS; a cold war system, warmed over

This is one of a continuing series of articles about the linear management processes used by the government on 9-11.  I use the term ‘linear’ deliberately.  My overall construct for analysis is chaos theory.  Chaos is non-linear and my point about linear processes is that they were ill-suited to the task at hand.  SVTS, Secure Video Teleconference System, pronounced by many as ‘civ its’ is one such linear process.

Key Points

There are two key things to know about SVTS.  First, it was–and likely still is–a closed system.  It was immune to new information in real time.

Second, it was the management process of choice for Richard Clarke; he had others as we shall discuss.  Clarke wrote in Against All Enemies; “…I want the highest-level person in Washington from each agency on-screen now, especially FAA…”  ‘On-screen meant SVTS.

In fairness to Clarke, I can’t say that I or anyone else would have reacted differently at the time.  It was an available secure means of communication.

SVTS Background

I personally watched the establishment of the SVTS system.  One node was built in my office spaces in the 1987 time frame.  I watched the building of that closed system daily as each succeeding layer of security was added, layer, by layer, by layer…you get the idea.

I then operated that node for several years and was familiar with its inner workings.  I’m sure the workings have changed over the years, but my observation while on both the Joint Inquiry and 9-11 Commission staffs was that it was little changed by 2001.

Once inside a node participants had no access to their staff or to real-time information.  They were stuck with whatever staff they had brought with them and with the information they had brought to the table.  Moreover, the layers of security were such that if a door opened at any node the conference came to a screeching halt while the identity of the entering person was established.

The operating principle was one of cold war paranoia.  It was important that everyone at every node know exactly who was privy to the subject at hand.  It was also important that there be no separate electronic inputs and that the SVTS conference, itself, not be electronically exportable.

So, when Clarke then wrote in response to a Condi Rice question; “We’re putting together a secure teleconference to manage the crisis…I’d like to get the highest-ranking official from each department,” he effectively decapitated each agency at a critical time.

Commission staff notes from our interview with Commander Gardner at the NMCC are a good summary of the situation.  According to our notes; “re SVTS, we lost principals thruout day to SVTS, no runners to SVTS other than what Principals brought back.”  In comparison with the Air Threat Conference our notes have Gardner saying, “re ATCC & SVTS, They were competing venues for C&C [command and control] & decisonmaking (sic).”

Activation vs Convening a Conference

Once staffs were alerted to bring up a secure conference the activation process took time.  SVTS was not a 24-hour operation so the key in the ignition had to be turned, so to speak.  Staff woud then work to make sure everything was functioning and that all nodes were up on the line.  That was not instantaneous,  Concurrently the principals had to be summoned from wherever they were and logged in and accounted for.  My recall is that the whole process of bringing a conference on-line took a while, on the order of 15-30 minutes.

I have read Clarke’s description of the conference and my sense is that it conflates information.

The conference was activated at 9:25 and convened at 9:40.  Here is what the Commission Report says: “At the White House, the video teleconference was conducted from the Situation Room by Richard Clarke, a special assistant to the president long involved in counterterrorism. Logs indicate that it began at 9:25 and included the CIA; the FBI; the departments of State, Justice, and Defense; the FAA; and the White House shelter. The FAA and CIA joined at 9:40.”

That  means it took 25 minutes to bring the conference on line.  Clarke wrote, “Okay, Let’s start with the facts.  FAA, FAA, go.”  That keynote statement was made no earlier than 9:40, according to information available to the Commission Staff.

What else was available?

First, we have established that a NOIWON conference was convened at 9:20 which linked together the NMCC, the White House Situation Room and the FAA.  The problem was that the phones were manned primarily by analysts, no principals and, in the case of FAA, those analysts were on the third floor, seven floors below the FAA’s operation center.  I am also familiar with NOIWON and my estimate is that it was not suited for the operational need at hand.

Second, Clarke, himself, acknowledges that an Air Threat Conference had convened.  “On my way …[the] Situation Room deputy director, grabbed me. ‘We’re on the line with NORAD, on an air threat conference call.”  As we know, FAA was never effectively on that conference until well after 10:00.  It, too, was unsuited for the purpose at hand.

Third, the FAA activated its primary net at 9:20 and secondary source information shows that the NMCC link worked.  However, as the Commission Staff learned that link was still born; it was never used.

Retrospective Comments

With the clarity of hindsight we can conclude that the FAA’s primary net was a better vehicle for Clarke to use.  He apparently didn’t know about it and Jane Garvey apparently did not suggest it.

So, at 9:45 clock-time on 9-11, we can  link to other articles and categories and summarize what is happening.  Herndon Center has just ordered an airborne inventory and is accumulating information about possible wayward flights, to include UA 93 and AA 77.  Garvey reports to Clarke on AA 11 and UA 175, only.  She reports there are eleven other potential problems but she does not have the specificity that is rapidly being accumulated by Herndon because of the order for an air inventory.

Mineta, according to Clarke is not yet in the loop. “Jane, where’s Norm?”  Langley fighters are rapidly approaching the DC area and will be directly overhead by 10:00.  The President is en route Air Force One and will take off at 9:55 for the nation’s capital.

None of the real time information concerning the airborne inventory or the Langley fighters, or UA 93 and AA 77 is finding its way into the SVTS conference.  The only way to communicate with SVTS participants is, according to Commander Gardner, via runners, which they didn’t have.  So they waited for the principals to return with news.

On 9-11 a cold war-conceived closed system was immune to current information via electronics, semaphore, or smoke signals.  SVTS was a convenient venue to manage a crisis, it was not the right venue