9-11: NORAD; the Crux of the Matter, two perspectives


On January 16, 2013, Kevin Ryan published a Foreign Policy Journal” article: “The Case Against Ralph Eberhart, NORAD’s 9/11 Commander.” Ryan’s work will stand or fall on its own merit and needs no further comment. General Eberhart’s Air Force biography is at the following link


Researchers, Historians, and Academicians will need additional perspective to judge the “case.” The issue of NORAD performance is long standing, and I have written multiple articles that directly relate to the issue at hand. The purpose of this article is  to pull together a body of information, including my articles, that illuminates the issue for those interested in the subject. But first the crux of the matter.

Crux of the Matter

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) failed, in the aftermath of 9/11, to reach agreement on the essential times of the day. Specifically, they could not agree on the military response times. NORAD, unilaterally, made a rush to judgment and published its own flawed timeline as a news release on September 18, 2001. NORAD’s haste was to get something pulled together for a pending White House meeting to discuss how the nation responded.

The NORAD timeline carried the day and doomed national level entities and persons from that point forward to construct a nonsensical narrative to fit the NORAD timeline.The timeline was set in concrete later that year when General Eberhart testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

FAA, for its part, acquiesced and several months later published its own timeline which did nothing to set straight the original NORAD news release. As a result, FAA poorly prepared Administrator Jane Garvey and Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta for their May 2003 testimony to the 9/11 Commission. Both presented testimony that confused rather than clarified.  They were immediately followed by NORAD representatives who not only stuck closely to the original timeline but compounded the matter by making yet another error in timeline preparation.

NORAD made three small but critical staff errors in three years worth of work. NORAD’s failure to validate and verify simple facts caused national level leaders, including the President, to believe that the government had been responsive to the attack against the nation’s capital and gave the appearance of being responsive to the second plane in the attack against New York City.

The Errors

NORAD determined in September, 2001, that it was notified about American Airlines Flight 77 at 9:24 EDT. Concurrently, they determined that the notification concerning United Airlines Flight 175 came at 8:43 EDT. During preparation for its May, 2003, testimony NORAD determined that it had been notified of  United Airlines Flight 93 at 9:16 EDT. All three time were wrong. Two of the three (AA 77 and UA 93) were the result of a staff failure to read the official log of the day. The third (UA 175) was the result of the NORAD and FAA failure to reach agreement.

The 9/11 Commission staff sorted all that out and reported an accurate timeline, one based on primary source information, the radar and audio files of the day, and the key secondary document, the official Northeast Air Defense Sector log.

With that understanding of the crux of the matter and the errors that were made we now turn to the body of information necessary for researchers and historians to judge Ryan’s perspective and my perspective, which follows. And we begin with two in-depth articles I wrote in past years which provide my perspective.

A Different Perspective

January 2010: “9-11: NORAD; Should It and Could It Have Done More”

June 2011: “9-11: NORAD and FAA Timelines; in perspective”

Those two articles, taken together, provide a detailed account of the events of 9-11 based on primary source information and supporting secondary source material, specifically the official Northeast Air Defense Sector record, the Mission Crew Commander/Technician log.

The January, 2010, article includes a discussion of a NORAD analysis, “9-11 Excursion (AA77 and UA93),” directed by General Eberhart.

The perspective I provide is also based on the cumulative history of my continued interest in the events of 9-11 since the Commission was disestablished. For additional background information we begin with the conclusion of the work of the Commission Staff and the referrals we made.


The Commission Staff understood that work on the issue of NORAD and FAA notification and response times was not finished. The matter was referred to the Inspectors General, Department of Defense and Department of Transportation on July 29, 2004. Both officials, statutory appointees confirmed by the United States Senate, took the matter for action.

Here is a link to the Scribd.com file concerning the referral. That referral concluded the formal work of the Commission on this issue. It is noted for the record that we have ready access to these documents because of the dedicated, persistent work of Erik Larson. His diligent work to upload all of the released Commission files saved me, personally, hundreds of tedious hours to retrieve my own staff work.

Finished in final draft but unpublished, was the Team 8 Monograph, an audio project that told the story in the air on 9/11 through the actual voices of those involved. The Monograph lacked formal agency clearance and the embedded audio files had not been transcribed. More on that later.

I summarized my perspective in a 2006 letter to the Editor, Washington Post, unpublished, but directly relevant to this discussion.  I used a Sudoku metaphor to highlight how an early error in analysis makes a puzzle or problem unsolvable.  Once the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) staff made a critical error in reading its master log of the days events it was not possible for anyone, at any level up to and including the President, to make sense of what happened that day.

And there the matter stood in my mind until Lynn Spencer published her book, Touching Historyin June 2008.

An Old Story Resurfaces

Spencer’s book caught former Team 8 members by surprise.  We thought that we had laid to rest any notion that the air defense on 9/11 had been responsive or that the Andrews Air Force Base fighters had been involved in the hunt for any of the hijacked planes. Yet, the story, largely told in 2004 by Leslie Filson in Air War Over Americaemerged once again.  Team 8 wrote an OpEd article in rebuttal, published in the New York Times on September 13, 2008.

And looming on the horizon was a date certain in the work of the 9/11 Commission, August 2009.  By agreement, our files as archived at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), were to be made public five years after the Commisson’s charter ended.

The NARA Release

NARA released primarily work files and officials files that had been committed to paper and stored. The full release of Commission files is an ongoing project and will ultimately include electronic files and classified files not yet agency-cleared.

I had printed out and boxed an extensive amount of my own work so that I and others would have access to it.  Again, thanks to Erik Larson, we have access to most of that work. For my part, I struggled with how to manage future work, based on the release of the work files, and decided to create my own website so that I could work on issues important to me and so that I could control establish my own baseline to address (edited Feb 27, 2013, underlined text added) the questions posed by others. (www.oredigger61.org) That has worked well over time and has allowed me to set the pace of my own work. I have also started a second website (www.9-11revisited.org) to serve as a more concise, Cliff Notes version of my primary site.

The most important outcome  of the release of Commission files was the reconstruction of the Team 8 Audio Monograph, “A New Kind Type of War.”  That effort required that NARA find the text and audio files; both had been archived separately.  That was a non-trivial task which required that I review file listings and point archivists in the right direction.  They succeeded in finding all the files and I contacted Team 8 leader, John Farmer, who orchestrated the transcription of the audio files and publication of the Monograph in “The Rutgers Law Review,” on September 8, 2011. (Correction made Feb 28, 2013)

Concurrently, Jim Dwyer, New York Times, wrote a front page article publicizing the effort and the imbedded audio files.

A second important outcome was that I have been able to develop a theoretical construct, Chaos Theory, that helps explain and clarify how events of the day occurred and the impact those events had in the aftermath.

Chaos considered, briefly

The 9-11 attack was a two-axis assault on the National Airspace System, each axis with two prongs. One expected outcome of such an attack is to cause confusion and chaos for the defenders. One aspect of chaos is disruptive feedback. The attack that day produced at least four disruptive feedback events: the false report that AA11 was still airborne; the false report that Delta 1989 had been hijacked; the creation of a new flight plan for UA93 which gave the illusion that it was still airborne well after it crashed; and the report of a fast-moving unknown near the White House.

The ripple effect was such that NORAD and FAA, working together and separately, were unable to provide national level authorities an accurate account of the attack and the defense against it. The ripple effect continues to this day and has transcended the events of September 11, 2001, to the continuing worldwide unrest, most recently in Africa.

That ripple effect was best captured by Ted Koppel in a statement several months ago.  Koppel said, “Could bin Laden in his wildest imaginings, have hoped to provoke greater chaos.” Current events aside, Koppel’s statement perfectly describes the government’s failure in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, to explain to the administration, the people, the Commission, and, ultimately, the families, what happened that day.

So, What Did Happen?

We do not have to guess. The primary sources of the day, radar files and audio communications, in conjunction, tell us what happened.  And that is the account told in the Commission Report and augmented by the publication of “A New Kind of War” by the Rutgers Law Review in August, 2011.

I have also augmented the Commission Report by telling the story of that day from multiple perspectives. The most important perspective is that of the voice of the single individual on point that morning to fight the air defense battle, the NEADS Mission Crew Commander, Major Kevin Nasypany. That story was recorded in Nasypany’s voice in real time.

We know how NEADS operated that day and we also know how they operated in the days leading up to 9/11. NARA has archived the NEADS audio files for Exercise Vigilant Guardian for the period September 3-11, 2001, and has made those files available.  The Vigilant Guardian story is also told by real voices recorded in real time.

Historical Perspective

My assessment will also stand or fall on its own merit.  The broad reach of history will decide those merits. Historians may well conclude that the air defense story and its interpretations are interesting, but pale in comparison to the long list of defensive failures that occurred in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years before an air defense response was necessary.