This article is a work in progress; consider it version 1.0. I am publishing it now because its content may inform the work of writers, historians, and other researchers. To that end I am breaking with my usual practice and am allowing comments.
When UA 175 flew into the World Trade Center south tower at 9:03 a.m, on September 11, 2001, is was generally understood that the nation was under attack. What is little understood today is the time it took the national level to get itself organized and how poorly it gained situational awareness, even after the fact.
In the aftermath, participants at all levels were unable to accurately explain what happened; not to the Commission, not to the public, and not to themselves. The net result was a garbled official story that took the 9-11 Commission Staff an extended period of time to sort out and accurately report.
Historians, researchers and writers are independently unable to accurately assess events for two primary reasons. First, no one has access to the totality of information made available to the 9-11 Commission and to the Congressional Joint Inquiry before it. Second, many writers and bloggers base their theses on participant recall or other anecdotal information, exactly the wrong place to start. Such information is only useful when validated and verified by primary and secondary source information.
My purpose is to provide a framework for researchers, one based almost exclusively on primary sources, the voices of the day as taped at multiple Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) sites and at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). I will use the language of Chaos Theory to graphically depict the attack, the situational awareness of the attack as it occurred, and the very limited amount of time that FAA and NEADS had to do anything.
This portrayal should help knowledgeable and interested people understand why mid-level action officers such as Terry Van Steenburgen at FAA and Nelson Garabito of the Secret Service were unable to explain during interview what the threat actually was to the nation’s capital and to Air Force One. They were the among the first action officers to deal with the potential threat as the President made plans to return to the nation’s capital
It will help explain why senior FAA and NORAD officers were unable to establish an agreed upon position as to what happened; why persons who testified before the Commission, such as Jane Garvey, Norman Mineta, and Generals McKinley and Arnold, were unable to accurately inform the Commission as to what happened; and why the Air National Guard, twice, tried to glamorize and glorify a battle it did not fight.
No one in government could adequately inform the Commission, the Congressional Joint Inquiry that preceded it, or the people of the nation and the world as to what happened because they did not know; their staffs did not figure out the attack and the response to the attack. That is most evident in the garbled testimony of, first, Jane Garvey, and then Norman Mineta to the Commission.
I will use the lens of Chaos Theory to explain things. My earlier articles on the relevance of Chaos Theory to the events of 9-11 explain why I have taken this theoretical approach. As I said, my understanding comes almost exclusively from listening, multiple times, to primary sources, the voices of the day, as recorded at FAA air traffic control facilities and at NEADS.
We begin with a description of the attack.
Previously, I published two articles on the attack. One described the attack as a battle in a larger war on terror. The other drew upon the “testimony” of Khalid Sheik Mohammed at the Moussaoui trial to provide a different perspective. In this article I will focus on the language of Chaos Theory, specifically the term bifurcation, to describe the attack.
Simply put, bifurcation means to divide into two parts. In Chaos Theory cascading periodic bifurcation leads to chaos and complex mathematical constructs are called for. That is well beyond the scope of this article. My intention here is to use Chaos Theory as a metaphor and to borrow its language to describe the bifurcations of the attack and, more important, the bifurcating situational unawareness of what was actually happening. The chart at this link depicts the attack as we now know it.
In military terms the attack was straight forward, a two-pronged attack, each prong two-pronged. However, none of that sophistication was known prior to and during the attack. In its initial stages the attack was treated as a linear event, the hijacking of a single aircraft.
FAA’s Boston Center (ZBW) followed existing linear processes to manage the event, with one exception. ZBW short-circuited the hijack notification process and contacted NEADS directly. That was the only request for assistance made to NORAD/NEADS that morning.
Beginning shortly after 8:40 the northern prong bifurcated when UA 173 was hijacked and the main attack, itself, bifurcated a few minutes later when AA 77 was hijacked. That double bifurcation was not recognized or understood at any level within FAA or the government.
The FAA’s New York Center (ZNY) and Indianapolis Center (ZID), separately and unknowingly, one to the other, picked up the emerging diversity of the attack, but there was no correlation of disparate events. Specifically, the hub of FAA air traffic control management, the Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Center) did not have the situational awareness to correlate events, primarily because they did not know what ZID knew, that AA 77 was lost off radar.
At 9:03, when UA 175 flew into the World Trade Center South Tower, the nation knew it was under attack; confirmed within FAA when ZBW reported the results of the AA 11 tape review–we have some planes.
The attack was unfolding, the battle commanders, Ben Sliney at Herndon Center and Colonel Bob Marr at NEADS, were not talking to each other, and the national level had not yet organized to be of any help. Sliney and Marr, separately, were on their own.
The attack plan, UA 93 considered
I and others have wondered what the circumstances would have been had UA 93 not been delayed in takeoff
Retrospectively, had UA 93 taken off with the same delay time as the other three hijacked aircraft, then the introduction of chaos into the system would have been a compound double bifurcation. The main attack and both prongs would have bifurcated before UA 175 impacted.
That means that one additional FAA air traffic control center, Cleveland (ZOB), would also have had essential information. We do not know and will likely never know if the nation would have responded more effectively to the southern prong of the attack had UA 93 been hijacked according to plan.
Given what the primary source information tells us, my assessment is that a more effective response would have only been possible had Sliney and Marr been talking to each other and that they were sharing accurate information before 9:09.
9:09 EDT, 1309 Zulu, an opportunity missed
At 9:09 the Joint Surveillance System (JSS) radars supporting NEADS reacquired AA 77. The chart at the following link depicts that time in comparision to the awareness FAA and NEADS had of the four hijacked aircraft.
At the same time NEADS radars reacquired AA 77 the NEADS Mission Crew Commander asked that the Langley fighters be scrambled. He knew nothing about AA 77 or the fact that it could have been tracked. Colonel Marr opted to place the Langley fighters on battle stations only. Concurrently ZID escalated the information that AA 77 was lost off radar and presumed down to its higher administrative headquarters, Great Lakes Region (AGL). The flow of information stopped there and Herndon Center was not informed by either ZID or AGL.
It is clear from the NEADS surveillance technicans’ audio tapes, and their ability to establish a track on AA 77 just before it flew into the Pentagon, that NEADS would have been able to establish a track on AA 77 within a few minutes after 9:09 had they been cued. Moreover, they would also have been able to establish a track on UA 93 after it was hijacked and before it dropped off the JSS radars in the area of Pittsburgh.
The dotted line terminating the extended track of UA 93 at 10:28 depicts the time that UA 93 was, notionally, visible on TSD, Traffic Situation Display. I mention it here because that is the “plane” to which Norman Mineta refers in his statements and testimony. We will continue that discussion later.
Situational awareness, bifurcation after bifurcation
The chart at this link depicts what was understood in real time by those trying to grapple with a chaotic situation. It was chaotic and that chaos can be clearly depicted using a bifurcation chart. Here it is the information about the attack that is bifurcating.
The paths shown in red are what actually happened concerning each of the four hijacked aircraft. Every other bifurcation was either an artifact in the air traffic control system or a misread of the actual situation by someone at some level.
The artifacts are the notional paths of all four aircraft in the traffic situation display system. AA 11 and UA 175 original flight plans were unchanged. The AA 77 flight plan was changed by ZID but only to assist controllers to the west, not the east. The UA 93 flight plan was changed by Cleveland Center with a new destination of DCA, Washington Reagan National. AA 11A was a new plane entered into the system to enable air traffic controllers to follow the actual path of AA 11.
The most problematic hijacked plane was AA 77. It was presumed lost and down; American Airlines thought it might be one of the two aircraft that hit the World Trade Center. No one knew its whereabouts until it became the fast moving threat to the nation’s capital from the West.
There is no evidence in primary source information that anyone at any level of government or in the airline industry knew about the threat of AA 77 until a few minutes after 9:30 when the alarm was sounded by Dulles TRACON.
The reporting that it was lost and down apparently became conflated with the report that AA 11 was still airborne and approaching the capital from the North. That false report did alert both FAA and NEADS and resulted in the launch of the Langley fighters.
Two planes threaten the capital
Near concurrent reports that the Pentagon was hit and that a plane was moving toward and then away from the White House became two separate entities. There is no equating of the two incidents at either FAA Headquarters or Herndon Center, according to the tapes from Herndon. The report of the plane threatening the White House became a threat separate from the plane that hit the Pentagon.
The second threat was the track of UA 93 observable notionally in the traffic display system as it proceeded to “land” at DCA. When Cleveland Center entered the new flight plan for UA 93 the icon for that plane jumped, literally, on TSD to a location in the general vicinity of Camp David. When I observed that jump while watching a replay of the TSD tape at Herndon Center my immediate assessment was that the jump was the most likely source for the false information that UA 93 had crashed near Camp David. I know of no verification of that assessment.
National Level awareness
No one on any staff at any level sorted out the situational awareness on the morning of 9-11 to support the later statements and testimony of Administrator Garvey, Secretary Mineta, or Generals McKinley, Arnold and Eberhart. Testimony by all senior officials was inaccurate and garbled.
Timelines developed by NORAD and FAA were never in agreement and were individually flawed. Further, military officials conflated information about D 1989 with UA 93 because D 1989 was the only plane on which NEADS/NORAD established a track that morning.
The Air National Guard twice perpetuated its misunderstanding. First, they commissioned Leslie Filson to publish Air War Over America. Second, they misinformed Lynn Spencer in her earnest effort to tell the story in the skies that morning in her book Touching History.
The attack was well planned and well executed, the northern prong more so than the southern prong. After several years of synthesis of both primary and other source information I’m reasonably convinced that we know why the northern prong proceeded as it did.
The Attack against New York
Why did Atta choose Portland and Logan? Elsewhere in my writings I have described the choice of Portland as simply a “plan B.” Atta intended to succeed at some level with just himself and one accomplice. Hence their entry into the National Airspace System at a remote location.
The choice of Logan was logical for at least two reasons. First, it cancelled out the delay factor that morning, which could not be predicted at any airport. By choosing Logan, Atta had some degree of confidence that whatever the delay for the planes hijacked by Atta and Al Shehhi the delay would be on the same order of magnitude.
Second, Al Shehhi as a passenger on a United airplane had a reasonable opportunity to hear transmissions on frequency from AA 11 by listening to cabin channel 9. Given the restricted airways out of Logan westbound, it was likely that both planes would be on the same frequency during their time in Boston Center’s airspace. Both planes were on the same frequency when Atta transmitted over the air. The pilot of UA 175 reported that fact to New York Center (ZNY) air traffic control shortly after the hand off from ZBW to ZNY.
We will likely never know to what degree Atta and Al Shehhi planned what happened, but they had the acumen, the training, and the time to calculate their plan in detail. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fact that Al Shehhi changed the transponder code on UA 175 just as soon as AA 11 flew into the World Trade Center north tower.
The Attack against Washington
The southern attack was poorly conceived in contrast to the attack against New York City. The choice of two different departure airports meant the attackers could not negate the delay factor. Further, there was no chance that the two planes would ever be on the same frequency.
What we can surmise, given the scheduled times and the boarding times, is that the southern attack was intended to lag the northern attack and that it would begin in the same time frame that the northern attack was finished. Given that UA 93 had departed 30 minutes earlier then UA 93 would have lagged AA 77 by roughly 20 minutes. UA 175 lagged AA 11 by 17 minutes.
Terrorism as Theater
Brian Jenkins has long held the position that “terrorism is theater.” Nowhere is that more evident than in the attack on the morning of 9-11. Atta set the scene for Act I; he captured a world-wide audience as Al Shehhi closed the Act.
That same act was supposed to repeat itself in Washington. Hanjour set the scene for Act II; he captured the same world-wide audience, but Jarrah failed to close. The passengers aboard UA 93 had figured things out and they closed the Act prematurely.
The convergence of evidence is clear that Mineta misspoke when he testified to a time of “9:20.”
First, it is simply not possible to do everything Mineta said he did after 9:03 and be in the PEOC by 9:20 in action and receiving information. Moreover, there was no information to receive. The FAA’s primary net was not activated until 9:20, the first national level conference to be so activated. No operational information was ever passed on that net.
Clarke’s SVTS conference was activated at 9:25 and did not become operational until 9:40. The NMCC began its Significant Event Conference at about the same time as SVTS was activated; the Conference was terminated and an Air Threat Conference was convened about the time the Pentagon was struck.
Second, Mineta arrived at the White House as it was being evacuated. CNN raw footage and BBC footage supporting “Clear The Skies” is conclusive that the evacuation did not begin until after the Pentagon was struck.
Third, Mineta still had to pass through the gates and checkpoints and then proceed all the way across the White House and then down to the PEOC.
The 9-11 Commission Staff concluded that Mineta and the Vice President were not together in the PEOC until after 10:00. The plane they dealt with was the by then notional UA 93 as it completed the flight plan entered by Cleveland Center and “landed” at Reagan National at 10:28.
The simplest explanation may be the best. Norman Mineta internalized what he saw and heard to rationalize a story that made sense at the time to himself and his staff.
The UA 93 story was straightforward, other than the conflation with D 1989, as shown in the bifurcation chart. So, that was a given to those working the timeline issue; it was known down. Therefore, it must have been AA77 that was the problematic threat. That notion persisted and manifested specifically as NORAD prepared for the May 23, 2003 first air defense hearing.
So how did 10:20 the actual time at issue for Mineta become 9:20? There are three plausible explanations, based on my own experience in two major operations centers dealing with the problem of accurately establishing event times.
First, he glanced at a clock for Central Daylight Time and internalized that time. Second, his staff later confused the difference between Eastern Daylight Time and GMT, five hours vice four. Third, his staff confused the time of interest for UA 93 to be Central Daylight Time, the time zone for Cleveland Center.
Only Norman Mineta can clear this up.
4 thoughts on “9-11: Chaos and Ghosts; little understood at the time, poorly understood even today”
It is confusing; that is why I rely on the primary sources where/when possible–the radar and the audio files. Everything else, including the logs of the day, is derived from the primary source information. I took the time to write the Scott Trilogy to demonstrate the problem one knowledgeable researcher had in reporting on the events of the day. Thank you for your comment and interest.
Comments are closed.