9/11: Air Threat Conference Transcript; DoD Release, in perspective

Author’s Note, February 5, 2014

Minor typo corrections, bolded, have been made.


On the morning of September 11, 2001, the National Military Command Center (NMCC) convened  an Air Threat Conference. The tape of that conference and accompanying transcript are among the most important primary source documents of the day. The tape has never been released. Only late last year, via a FOIA request in 2006, has a heavily redacted copy of the transcript been released. (Link added February 3, 2014, an oversight in the original posting.)

The release underwhelms and DoD has done a great disservice to the families, the public, and most of all to itself by releasing an important document in a way that confuses rather than clarifies. However, the release, while largely unhelpful, does provide some noteworthy insight.

It is my purpose in this article to provide insight for researchers and historians as they attempt to fathom what the Air Threat Conference transcript in its current public form adds to the conversation. But first, some overarching comments and then some perspective.

Overarching Comments

The initial report to the NMCC was stark, two aircraft into the World Trade Center and one confirmed hijack, AA11, headed towards the nation’s capital.  There was no mention of either AA77 or UA93. That information from the Air Threat Conference, or lack thereof, should have been a part of the DoD/NORAD preparation of General Eberhart for testimony before Congress, construction of the NORAD timeline, and preparation of General McKinley, General Arnold, Administrator Garvey, and Secretary Mineta for testimony before the Commission. None of that happened. Instead, a garbled government story emerged.

The initial NMCC attempt to switch from a Significant Events Conference to an Air Threat Conference failed because the classification level,  TOP SECRET, was too high for some intended conferees; FAA specifically, according to Commission Staff interviews with NMCC officers.  The conference was reconvened at the SECRET level but FAA was still unable to join.

Most important, the redacted transcript clearly establishes that the Air Threat Conference was “SIOP,” (Single Integrated Operations Plan).  My estimate is that this is the genesis of the national level attempt to implement Continuity of Operations (COOP) and Continuity of Government (COG) procedures.

The redacted transcript clearly depicts the confusion at the national level. Confusion about the threat, the attack, and its aftermath is understandable.  What is not is the consistent confusion about the disposition of friendly forces. The transcript, even in redacted form, describes chaos.

Chaos Theory Considered

In other articles I have established that Chaos Theory is useful in examining the events of the day, not in its pure mathematical form but in its language. We can use the language of Chaos Theory as a metaphor to aid in understanding what happened, retrospectively.  Specifically in this instance, chaos is nonlinear. Linear processes and procedures such as the NMCC attempt to convene a suitable conference, therefore, are largely futile and may even be counter-productive.

The series of teleconferences available to the NMCC were all linear processes, set procedures that allowed the orderly convention of the right voices at the right time to deal with a crisis. Except that never happened that morning. The attack was against the National Air Space system, a system operated by a single individual, Benedict Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager, and defended on the East Coast by a single individual, Colonel Robert Marr, Commander of NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector.

For the nation to have any chance at all that morning those two individuals had to be in communication and sharing a common operating picture of the attack. Nothing the NMCC did during the actual attack and defense that morning ever assisted the operator and defender of the National Airspace System.

The Tape and Transcript

At about 9:29 EDT, as a precursor Significant Event Conference was being convened, the acting Duty Director of Operations (DDO) pushed the record button on a small, inexpensive reel-reel recorder on his desk.  That was the state of the art in the NMCC that morning.  The recording was not time stamped and the system required that the DDO turn the tape over at the end of each side.  He missed the fact that the first tapes first side had run out, according to his interview with Commission Staff. As a result, there is a period of time, perhaps a minute or so, that was not recorded.

The fact of an Air Threat Conference was determined by Commission Staff based on information contained in NORAD documents. A formal request to DoD surfaced the fact of the existence of the tape which was not released to the Commission until DoD had time to make a transcription, not a trivial process.  As DoD staff worked through the tape making the transcript they found that the equities involved in the conference exceeded DoD. Thereafter, the tape and transcript came under the purview of the National Security Council (NSC).

The Commission negotiated a protocol that allowed DoD to retain a copy of the transcript for Commission staff use during interviews. A second copy, the original as I recall, was retained at the NSC.  At no time did Commission Staff have either the transcript or tape available at our offices for a detailed contrast and comparison with other responsive information.  No copy of the transcript or tape will be found in the Commission’s archived files; we had nothing to archive.

Commission Staff was allowed to listen to the tape at the NSC under the supervision of a junior staffer whose task was to stop the tape at certain specified times and fast forward beyond brief snippets of information.  It was a boring job for the staffer and on one occasion as I listened he forgot to stop the tape.  What he was supposed to suppress in that instance was specific call sign reference to Continuity of Government (COG) helicopters.  To me, it was nonsensical. What he was suppressing was the same information I had routinely heard on air traffic control communications provided by FAA.

There is, in my estimation, no credible reason for the tape and transcript, unredacted, to be withheld beyond the minimum statutory limits for doing so.

A Note for Researchers and Historians

The redacted transcript is best used in conjunction with two other, more definitive documents. First, is the Commission Report, itself. A critical portion of the narrative concerning the events of 9/11 was based on the Air Threat Conference, as detailed in Chapter One notes. Keep the Report handy as you make your personal assessment of the DoD redacted transcript

Second, is the staff generated transcript surfaced under a Mandatory Declassification Review orchestrated by Robbyn Swan, co-author of the Eleventh Day. That document, “Air Traffic Conference Call, DJH Notes,” provides needed time correlation and should be concurrently used in order to understand the times and timing of the line entries in the redacted transcript. The staff made that transcript in order to integrate the Air Threat Conference into our own timeline.

With that background and guidance let us now consider the recently released redacted transcript.

The Situation

The national level did not start to get itself organized until 9:16 EDT, when CIA convened a NOIWON (National Operational Intelligence Watch Officer’s Network) to find out what was going on. The NOIWON, with which I had personal familiarity, is a desk/center level analyst information exchange network to quickly discuss things that go bump in the night. The network ties the WAOC consortium (Washington Area Operations Centers) together in real time.

No one on the NOIWON had any information beyond that which was being learned from news networks.  The important point is that all the key organizations, specifically the FAA and the NMCC, were on the network. The network, however, was not suited for operational coordination. The FAA node, for example, was on the 3rd floor of the FAA building, several floors below the FAA’s crisis center.

At 9:20 EDT, FAA activated its primary net, a mechanism for crisis coordination outside the FAA. One of the first entities called was the NMCC. The officer who answered told Commission Staff that he quickly learned that nothing was happening on that net.  He tasked a newly assigned non-commissioned officer, one not yet assigned to a specific NMCC watch team, to sit and listen to the network.  I interviewed her and found that nothing happened on the net that morning.

What happened was the FAA relied primarily on its internal tactical net. The NMCC was never a party to the FAA’s tactical net.

At 9:25 EDT, the SVTS (Secure Video Teleconference System) was activated. It became operational at 9:40 EDT, when the FAA Administrator and the CIA Director entered the conference. The SVTS was a cold war legacy system heavily layered with security which isolated conferees from their staffs. While both the NMCC and the FAA were active on the conference, participants had to communicate via runners to the DDO and the FAA crisis center.

Amidst all this activity the NMCC, which had simply been listening in on the NOIWON conference, decided it had to do something and a Significant Event Conference was convened at 9:29 EDT.  Staff officers told Commission Staff during interviews that they were literally pulling binders off the shelves in their effort to convene an operational conference that made sense.

The Conference Begins

The NMCC soon learned that FAA was not a party to the Significant Event Conference and decided to do something else. In response to information from the Air Force that they had established a crisis action team, the DDO said, “I concur, convene an air threat conference.”  NORAD concurred and announced it was “proceeding with an air threat conference.” Notably, NORAD also verified that “hijacked aircraft is still airborne heading toward Washington DC.”

The Threat

The threat was established immediately after the SECRET level Air Threat Conference was convened. The DDO announced, “An air attack against North America may be in progress.” NORAD concurred; “We have radar and visual indication of a possible threat to CONUS. Unknown country of origin.”

Given that a Russian air launched cruise missile exercise was scheduled, the die was cast. The nation prepared for an air attack not a terrorist attack and a COOP/COG response was required.

In NORAD’s defense it did attempt to dampen the situation. A possible hijack was mentioned. No CINC’s assessment, a critical necessary step was forthcoming; “CINC NORAD is not declaring air defense emergency at this point. And, NORAD recommends that this conference be reconvened when further information and unconflicted reports are available.”

By then it was too late.  The next communication recorded was, “This is the DDO providing an update. There’s a report that an aircraft has crashed into the Mall side of the Pentagon.”

Chaos ensued. The next threat report was that Delta flight 89 was possibly hijacked. That was followed by a report of a “possible inbound to D.C. 25 minutes out..” The NORAD response was explicit. “NORAD has no indication of a hijack heading to Washington, D.C. at this time.”

Things then took another chaotic turn for the worse. The DDO asked the Air Force for an update “on fighter cap” for the D.C. area. No one knew, Air Force or NORAD, even though three Langley fighters were in the process of establishing the ‘cap.’ The NMCC further request was, “I say again my previous request. Have any aircraft been scrambled in response to this United 93 and what is that status of fighter cap over D.C.?”

The NORAD response was nonsensical, in retrospect. “Roger, We currently have two aircraft out of Atlantic City; additional scramble pending and stand by for ETI (sic, should read ETA) to Washington, D.C. NORAD complete.”

Andrews mentioned

In other articles I have established that the Andrews fighters were not part of the air defense force that morning. They did not have the tactics, techniques, and procedures, or authentication tables to engage.  Even when finally tasked it took them well over an hour to get fighters in the air, well after the United 93 threat had been resolved.

Nevertheless, Andrews was considered. The DDO asked; “Have the assets out of Andrews been launched?” NORAD responded, “NORAD, no information on assets out of Andrews.”

The FAA joins

Sometime after 10:15 EDT, the FAA joined the conference, not from FAA headquarters but from the CARF (Central Altitude Reservation Function) at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, Herndon, Virginia.

The specific question to FAA was, “This is the DDO. Vice Chairman would like to know who’s controlling the aircraft over Washington D.C.”  The response: “If there are any aircraft that are airborne over the Washington area they are being controlled by our Washington Center.”

The NMCC did not have a grip on the disposition of friendly forces. The FAA voice advised that “we understand that there are some military fighters that have been launched to patrol the Washington area.” The DDO responded, “That’s correct. We have reports of two aircraft currently over Washington.”  There were actually three, from Langley.

The FAA voice responded, “That I do not know. I’m back in secure area in the command center. I’d have to go out on the floor to find out who is out there.” He reiterated that “Washington Center is controlling all aircraft in the Washington area at this time.” That was an accurate statement.

The confusion goes on and is worth reading even with the redactions keeping in mind the Commission Report and the Commission Staff version of the Air Threat Conference.

Other Interesting items

Page 62 contains a direct reference to COOP/COG operations. The DDO reported, “We’re still working the number of passengers for that first aircraft for SITE-R.”

Page 78 establishes NMCC awareness of the accurate disposition of friendly forces. CONR reported, “total of 7 airplanes over Washington D.C. right now. Four F-16s [Andrews] and three F-15s [Langley] over Washington D.C. Two F-15s [Otis] over New York City at the moment.”  That time was no earlier than 11:15 EDT, or so.

Page 93 establishes the arrival of Air Force One in Barksdale. General Arnold, CONR, reported, “ABC news, unfortunately, just announced that Air Force One is in Barksdale.”

Page 150 establishes that MOLINK was at least periodically on the conference.  During a polling of conferees, “MOLINK: this is MOLINK.”  MOLINK was/is a long existing Moscow-Washington hot line established in the early 1960’s.

It was likely a charter member any time an air threat conference was convened since the most likely threat was Soviet/Russian.  It is possible that MOLINK was used that morning in the concerted effort to convince the Russians to cancel their ongoing live fire exercise. They did.

As an example of the effort, during my work on the Congressional Joint Inquiry we established from logs of the NMIC (National Military Intelligence Center) that the Director, Defense Intelligence Agency directed the DDI (Duty Director of Intelligence) to call the Defense Attache’ in Moscow to ask the Russians to cancel the exercise.  A later log entry established that the Director, himself, made the call to the Attache’.

Page 164 establishes that “VENUS CONTROL” was responsible for Presidental movement. “VENUS CONTROL: This is Venus Control confirming that we did just talk to Air Force One and they are airborne on their way to Andrews Air Force Base.

Recall that the so called “mystery plane” was Venus 77, an E4B that took off hurriedly at 9:43 EDT, headed west and then turned back east to establish a 60-mile long racetrack orbit centered on Richmond, Virginia in support of the departure of Air Force One from Florida.  It was that turn back east which was noticed and photographed with subsequent ungrounded speculation as to its presence.

The continued DoD insistence on heavy redaction of the air threat conference ensures that unwarranted speculation will continue.