9-11: The NEADS audio files; important information for Historians


I have written about the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) audio files in two previous articles.  First, I explained  the Alderson transcripts.  Second, I addressed an issue–a non-issue really–raised about the Commission’s ability to obtain the NEADS files.  Both of those articles should be read before continuing with this article.

My purpose in this third article is to provide additional insight and guidance especially for future historians.  Modern day researchers and writers will benefit, but the intent is to facilitate work in the broad reach of history.  We start with the NEADS partial transcript.

The NEADS partial transcript

The NEADS partial transcript was the first secondary source document the Commission Staff obtained to provide insight into the activities at NEADS on 9-11.  Its direct and necessary complement is the first primary source information received, the radar files of the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron (RADES).

Multiple copies of the partial transcript were archived as workpapers by the Commission Staff, each annotated or cut and pasted in some fashion.  I archived at least two copies.

The most useful, partially color-coded as to speaking voice, is available at this link.  Retrospectively, I believe this is the copy I took with me on the first NEADS visit, based on the annotations.

A second, earlier copy is at this link.  In that copy I specifically annotated an important point about the NEADS partial transcript; it is partial for a reason.

According to the transcript: “MEMO FOR RECORD: 21 SEP 01.  Due to an equipment malfunction, the rest of the information recorded on DRM 2, DAT 2 was lost.  The incident tape was in the data recorder for playback purposes by SSgt James D. Tollack, 305 OSS [Operations Support Squadron], McGuire AFB, who was performing the transcription, when the computer equipment failure occurred.”

SSgt Tollack was the one person designated to transcribe the NEADS audio files in the immediate aftermath of 9-11.  He did his work at the NEADS Sector Operations Center.

The Sector Operations Center (SOCC)

NEADS had two main facilities, the Headquarters and the SOCC.  The two were located on Rome Air Force Base but physically separated by a distance of several hundred yards.  Typically, the Command and primary staff were at the Headquarters, but on 9-11 Colonel Marr and key staff were in the Battle Cab at the SOCC; there was an exercise scheduled.

My SOCC work files are available to researchers and historians.

The Tollack Saga

SSgt Tollack was the only person who listened, iteratively, to the NEADS tapes prior to the Commission Staff’s first visit in late fall, 2003. A copy of notes taken during our interview document the basic story.  Tollack said that, according to Jeremy Powell, NEADS personnel did listen to the tapes prior to Tollack’s arrival.

Tollack stated he arrived at NEADS on Sep 20, 2001; (added Jul 14, 2001) his travel voucher is for the period Sep 20 – Oct 4.  If so, his work did not inform the effort of General Arnold working with Jeff Griffith at FAA to establish an agreed upon timeline, the preparation of either agency for a White House meeting, or the release of the NORAD timeline on September 18, 2001.

A copy of Tollack’s travel orders is in the Commission’s paper files; that document will establish his time on station. (para deleted Jul 14, 2001)

Tollack worked long hours to accomplish the work that led to the NEADS partial transcript.  He did not type the transcript, but did type his notes which he gaive to two secretaries dedicated to him; they created the transcript.

Because of the equipment malfunction, Colonel Marr stopped Tollack’s work on DRM 2.  According to Marr during his inbrief for our first visit, he sequestered all the NEADS tapes to preserve them.  There was no attempt to further listen to or use the tapes between the time Tollack ceased work and the time the Commission requested the tapes and transcripts.

During our interview with Tollack I asked him about “Freedom files–should not have 20 min error.”  I will return to the Freedom Files subject later.  Tollack said there was no error in the NEADS audio files and he was, in fact, the person who discovered the 25 second error in the NEADS radar files, later documented by NTSB.

Getting the audio files

Despite Commission formal requests for a copy of the tapes and a transcript, NEADS was unable to deliver in time for our first visit the last week in October, 2003.  I arranged with our POC to obtain a copy of the tapes on site; there would be no transcript.

As agreed, NEADS provided, piecemeal, digitized copies of their tapes as Commission Staff was conducting interviews.  We worked with a copy of the partial transcript and the audio files and attempted to walk interviewees through the events of the morning of 9-11.  It quickly became apparent that the transcript was insufficient for the task at hand.  Our Team Leader, John Farmer, consulted with Colonel Marr and informed him that we were terminating the visit prior to the final interview with him.

The direct result of our termination of the visit was the issuance of a subpoena to DoD.  The audio files were delivered under a schedule provided by the Under Secretary of Defense in a November 6, 2003, memo.  There were no transcripts and Commission Staff contracted that effort, as I discussed in the Alderson article.

There was still a problem with the missing channels from DRM2.  The manufacturer, Dictaphone, took control of the tapes and was able to recover “most of the tracks,” as the Under Secretary reported in a November 25, 2003, memo.  Working with our DoD point-of-contact we were able to obtain digitized files from Dictaphone for all of the recorded channels from all three digital recording machines at NEADS.

The “Freedom Files”

The Dictaphone-provided files are the “Freedom Files,” alluded to in my question to Tollack about timing errors.  For a reason never determined, Dictaphone’s recovery process introduced a 20-minute error across the board for all NEADS audio files provided as a result of the manufacturer’s recovery process.  That error has no analytical impact except that it must be accounted for and analysts, researchers, and historians need to remember which set of files is at hand as they work.

Two sets of NEADS audio files

There are two sets of NEADS audio files in the Commission master files; the NEADS-provided set as documented in the DoD memo of November 6, 2003, and the Dictaphone-provided Freedom Files set as mentioned in the DoD memo of November 25, 2003.  Each set is useful in its own way.

The Freedom Files set has more channels, but none of the additional channels contains audio files that change anything, analytically.  The essential NEADS story is contained in the NEADS-provided files, the NEADS partial transcript, and the Alderson transcripts.

The NEADS audio files. These files are accurately time-stamped.  Researchers, however, need to make sure they line up clock time and tape time as they work with the files.  The files have the advantage of containing all the dead space, and some of the channels are just that, dead space.

It is not analytically useful to listen to the tapes using a basic media player.  A program such as Adobe Audition provides an easy way of identifying dead space, locating potential recordings of background conversations, and reducing noise and clicks.

I strongly recommend the NEADS audio files for researchers and historians, especially those examining the NEADS audio files for the first time.  Those files are in the public domain.

The Freedom Files. These files are not yet in the public domain.  They have the unique advantage of being conversation only; all dead space is eliminated.  Each conversation segment is time-annotated from the basic NEADS time clock, but does have a 20-minute offset.

Some of the conversation segments approach 30 minutes in length.  These are the information-dense segments from the MCC, ID, SD, and WD areas where conversation was near continuous.

The Freedom Files are extremely useful for researchers and historians who are familiar with the NEADS floor conversations and are looking for specific conversation segments.  Toward the end of our work I tended to use the Freedom Files almost exclusively, for example.

Two Channels not recorded

Nowhere in either set of primary source audio files from NEADS do we hear the voices of the controllers–the Weapons Director and Weapons Director/Technician–for the Otis fighters.  There is no primary source information that tells us how and why the Otis fighters established a combat air patrol over New York City, despite Lynn Spencer’s narrative in Touching History.

But that is a story for another article.  For our purpose in this article it is sufficient to identify the two channels that were not recorded.

According to my SOCC work charts, one console, ODC 19 was not recorded.  ODC 19 was the position for the Otis controllers.  The two channels missing are channels 15 and 16, DRM 2, according to the matrix on the second page of my archived work files.  That second page is a summation page and is more accurate than any following chart.

We asked Dictaphone for a determination as to why the two channels were not recorded.  Dictaphone could not make a forensic determination because the SOCC equipment suite had changed too much since 9-11.  It was, however, their judgment that the two channels were, for whatever the technical reason, not recorded on 9-11.

I agree with that assessment.  Anyone who has listened to the NEADS tapes knows that there is a cacophony of sound, especially at critical times.  It was that feature that caused Alderson to conclude that it was easier to try and follow individual voices.

That cacophony was caused, in part, because individual channels recorded side by side on the master tape bled over to each other during the process of copying individual channels to digital form.  For example, the voices of the Langley controllers are heard on multiple channels.  On the contrary, the voices of the Otis controllers are never heard, there was no bleed over because there was nothing to bleed.

What’s next?

This concludes our discussion of the NEADS files, a necessary step before the Otis scramble can be discussed, given that the military controllers for that scramble were not recorded.

I will refer back to this article when we begin our discussion of the Otis story.

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