9-11: NEADS Tapes; an interesting quest

Correspondents have called to my attention that Kevin Fenton has blogged about the Commission Staff’s quest to obtain the NEADS tapes.  Let me state up front that I have no quarrel with Kevin or the History Commons Scribd initiative to make available the Commission files.  I have personally found that initiative invaluable.  I have met Erik Larson and applaud the many hours he has devoted to a necessary and critical task.

I have also in other articles cautioned about applying post facto clarity and understanding to facto events.  Here, the caution applies to both the events of 9-11 and to the Commission’s quest to understand and report on those events.  I also cautioned about taking snapshots of the Commission’s work. One such quest was the effort to obtain all available NEADS tapes, which we ultimately did.  One such snapshot is the History Commons glance at a segment of staff work.

Kevin wrote me a private email laying out his analysis which is both interesting and informative.  It is a snapshot of the Commission’s work, one that has the beneficial effect of showing that the Commission Staff was working formal and informal channels at the same time.  That should come as no surprise to anyone who has engaged in such research.  I did respond to Kevin.

Insight provided to Kevin Fenton

I began by stating, “Kevin, that is a fair question.  Let me say up front that, ultimately, it [NEADS production of the tapes] was not nefarious.  So, please don’t try to make anything out of something that is not there.”

I continued: “In several discussions with our DoD POC we worked out how we would proceed.  NEADS would digitize the remaining channels and provide them to us on site during our first visit.  The original tapes were analog, reel-reel.  We found that delivery [on site] to be insufficient for our purposes and we called a halt to the first visit.  NEADS was offering up all the tapes, but it was piecemeal.”

I then explained what we did after we received the audio files.  “Once we received the digitized files then we contracted out a transcription effort.  One firm, Alderson, decided to use a technique of tracking individual voices, which is OK as long as folks understand what they were doing.  I posted an article on this on my website one I realized that [other researchers] were totally askew in their analysis of the Alderson tapes vis D1989.”

I then elaborated on the original transcription effort by NEADS.  “In the course of the NCO’s work [specialist brought in by NEADS to transcribe the tapes immediately after 9-11] NEADS thought it had lost the contents of one recording machine.  Together with DoD we approached the manufacturer, Dictaphone [General Dynamics], and they were able to not only recover all the files but provide them to us in a format which was useful and effective.”

I then summarized: “Bottom line, we ultimately got all the NEADS tapes, it took a while.  In the course of all our work we determined that the two channels that recorded the voices of the WD [Weapons Director, i.e. controller] and the WD/T for the Otis fighters were not recorded.  My work files that run all that to ground have been uploaded by Erik.  We know that the channels were never recorded because we never hear those two voices bleeding over into other tapes.  Please don’t try to make more out of this then is there.”

I concluded: “Kevin, thanks for your continued interest and dedication.  NEADS performed very well that day; not so well in the aftermath.  They had a good story to tell [see Bronner, Vanity Fair] and the blew it, as General Arnold acknowledged.

For The Record

The resolution of the NEADS tapes is documented by DoD in its rolling production spreadsheet.  Let me hasten to caution that this, itself, is a snapshot; the DoD spreadsheet was iterative, at least weekly.  A relevant version of the  spreadsheet is included in this file available on the History Commons Scribd site.  Here is the embedded documentation.

NQRAD/NEADS/Department of the Air Force Materials
The NORAD tapes of interest to the Commission contain 46 channels.
NORAD is currently transferring the information on those channels to compact
disks. Those CDs are scheduled to be delivered to the Commission as indicated
below. The schedule is determined by the real-time process by which each 6-hour,
40-minute channel can be recorded onto a CD.
CDs containing:
• 10 channels were delivered November 5, 2003
• 8 channels are scheduled for delivery by close of business November 10,
• 4 channels are scheduled for delivery by close of business November 12,
• 6 channels are scheduled for delivery by close of business November 14,
• 18 channels are scheduled for delivery by close of business November
19, 2003

Even after we determined the difficulties DoD and  NEADS were having in copying the tapes and a subpoena was issued, it still took weeks for the audio files of all channels to be delivered.  Retrospectively, NEADS could not make a complete delivery during our first visit.

The important question for historians, researchers and writers is: “Were all available tapes provided and considered?”  How the Staff got to an answer of “Yes” is perhaps interesting and informative but it is of no probative value.

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