9-11: The Attack; A Military Operation, examined

Author’s Note

The major sources for this article are the 9/11 Commission Report and Commission Staff, Team 7, Monograph, “Staff Report, August 26, 2004.” All times are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).


This is the second of a series of three articles discussing the attack on September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, as a military action. In the first article we discussed the attack in terms of the classic principles of war. In this article we examine the components of the attack in military terms. We begin, however, with a principle we have not discussed, one that overarches the classic principles.

It is a military imperative that the odds of success in battle are improved by getting within the decision cycle of the opponent. Staying inside the cycle, once there, is added exponential value. The 9-11 attackers did all that, not once, but twice.

Decision Cycle Successes

Strategically, the attackers were always well within the decision cycle of the government bureaucracy. The attack came during the transition from one administration to another. Such transitions move forward by fits and starts as a new administration grapples with the policies and priorities of the old order as they fit or, more likely, do not fit well with the policies and priorities of the new order. What to do about counter-terrorism and the emerging threat of the spring and summer of 2001 was just one aspect of the transition.

The details of the transition period are well covered in the reports of both the Congressional Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission. Both the Inquiry and the Commission found that a key transition meeting concerning the terrorist threat was scheduled for September 12, 2001. The attackers were within that decision cycle by one day.

Tactically, the attackers were also well within the decision cycles of both the operator and the defender of the National Airspace System. The operator, the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, moved quickly to a decision to ground all commercial air traffic. Concurrently, the Center moved fitfully to a decision to issue a cockpit warning to commercial aircraft in the air. Both decisions were the right thing to do; both decisions failed to save United Airlines flight 93 (UA93). The attackers were within the decision cycle of their enemy and that advantage held long enough to allow the hijacking of the fourth plane.

The attackers also operated within the decision cycle of the air defenders, overwhelmingly in the attack against New York City, barely so in the attack against Washington, DC.

In the chaotic last minutes of the flight of American Airlines flight 77 (AA 77) the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) did acquire the fast moving unknown (AA 77) as a target; to no avail. The Langley fighters, by then airborne, were 150 nautical miles away, over the ocean. The Otis fighters, available if they had stayed in a holding pattern directed by NEADS, were inexplicably over New York City.

The Langley fighters established a combat air patrol (CAP) over the nation’s capital at 10:00 and were well positioned to deal with the approach of UA93. However, they had no authority to engage. That authority did not reach NEADS until 10:31, well after the remaining crew and passengers aboard UA93 took matters into their own hands.

Not only were the attackers within the bureaucracy’s decision cycle, the cycle, itself, was misfiring on all cylinders. It was badly out of tune. With that preamble behind us we now move to what was promised in the first article, a staff officer’s Powerpoint view of the battle.

The Attack

The following graphic was included in a presentation, “It Was ‘Chaos’ Out There,” on November 17, 2011, at The Air Force Historical Foundation and The Air Force Historical Studies Office 2011 Biennial Symposium, “Air Power and Global Operations: 9/11 and Beyond.” I was on Panel 1: “9/11 and Operation Noble Eagle.” Fellow panelists were John J. Farmer, Jr. and Maj. Gen. Larry K. Arnold, USAF (Ret).

9/11 The Attack

The graphic depicts most of the military components of the attack—infiltration, assembly, preliminary line of departure, line of departure, and attack on two axes of advance, each with two prongs. It lacks one necessary component, the advanced party. We will discuss the battle in terms of the tactical components shown on the slide, but first the advanced party.

Advanced Party

At no time did the advanced party number more than six individuals: the four pilots, Mohammed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah; and two long-time al-Qaeda operatives, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar. Here is the story of their arrival in the United States.

Advanced Party

It took nearly the entire year, 2000, for the advanced party to establish itself, an activity that spanned the continent and avoided detection. Al Mihdhar and al Hazmi arrived on the West Coast in mid-January. Al Mihdhar did not stick around long, departing for Yemen on June 9, 2000.

Al Hazmi remained until Hanjour joined him in early December, transiting Cincinnati, en route. The two soon moved to Tucson, Arizona in mid-December. This was not Hanjour’s first trip to the United States. He had prior entries in 1991, 1996, and 1997, all without incident.

Meanwhile, Atta, al Shehhi, and Jarrah had established an East Coast presence. All three arrived at Newark, al Shehhi first on May 27. Atta followed shortly, arriving on June 2. Jarrah arrived last, on June 27 and immediately flew on to Venice, Florida.

All three traveled abroad in early 2001, Jarrah to Beirut, Atta to Germany, and al Shehhi to Morocco. Both Atta and al Shehhi encountered difficulty upon return. Neither presented a student visa. Both persuaded Immigration and Naturalization Service screeners that they should be allowed reentry to continue flight training. Neither had any problem clearing customs.

The primary purpose of the advanced party was to obtain sufficient training and certification to pilot hijacked commercial airliners. Their main additional duty was to absorb enough cultural, language, and geographical expertise to pave the way for the arrival and care of the troops as they infiltrated. Not once did the six call enough attention to themselves to trigger a law enforcement intervention at any level—local, state, or federal.

With the advanced part well established, trained and mission ready, the next order of business was to infiltrate the troops deemed necessary for mission success.


Infiltration to the East Coast took place swiftly, from April to June, 2001, as depicted on the first slide. Part of that infiltration included the cross-county travel of al Hazmi and Hanjour, who had moved from Southern California to Tucson, Arizona. Hazmi and Hanjour arrived on the East Coast in early April 2001.

Mission requirement was for 15 additional troops to round out the crews. The effort was not quite successful. Thirteen individuals in five groups of two and one group of three infiltrated during the period late April to June 27, 2001. A fourteenth individual, al Mihdhar, himself an original member of the advanced party, completed the infiltration, symbolically, when he entered at Newark, New Jersey, on July 4, 2001. An alert immigration officer at Orlando, Florida, turned a fifteenth individual back on August 4, 2001.

There is scant, inferential content in the “SIGINT Retrospective” provided to the Congressional Joint Inquiry by the National Security Agency that suggests the al Mihdhar spent his final days abroad attempting to recruit one last individual. (This is based on my iterative reading of the Retrospective while on the Joint Inquiry staff.)

Once infiltration was complete the next task was one not included in the Power Point, mission-specific training.

Mission Training

We know few details about the extent of team training. The assumption is that such training was sufficient for the advanced party to decide who would be on what crews and what role each would play during the actual assault on the crews of the targeted airplanes.

At some point, a tactical decision was made that Ziad Jarrah would be short one team member. We can only speculate on why that decision was made. Atta and al Shehhi were focused on the main target, New York, and needed full teams. Hanjour had two of the advanced party with him, al Hazmi and al Mihdhar, and was the logical next choice for a full team. Those decisions left Jarrah, demonstrably the weakest link, holding the short straw.

Individually, all of the so-called “muscle” hijackers maintained physical fitness and picked up enough social and language skills to operate undetected in an unfamiliar society. Two were selected to participate in the most important training event, an orientation flight.

The military term of art is “terrain walk.” one method of preparing commanders and staffs for imminent battles by having them walk or at least observe the terrain on which they are going to fight. Altogether, six of the hijackers took part in that training, including all the pilots.

Orientation Flights

Orientation flights took place during the period late May (al Shehhi) to August (Hanjour and al Hazmi). Nawaf al Hazmi was Atta’s second in command, according to the Commission report, a logical reason for him to make an orientation flight. One additional attacker, Waleed al Shehri, took an orientation flight, alone.

Al Shehri was a member of Atta’s crew for AA 11 and his point of origin for his orientation flight (July 30) was Boston, as was Atta’s a month earlier. This may have simply been Atta making sure that at least one of his group had some sense of potential barriers to come. It could also simply have been validation and verification of cabin procedures after takeoff.


Once final plans were complete, training accomplished, and tickets purchased (August 25-September 5) the attackers moved quickly to assembly areas near their designated airports, with one exception.

Assembly Areas

AA11. Mohammed Atta and one colleague, al Omari, spent the night in Portland, Maine. The rest of Atta’s crew stayed in Newton, MA.

There is no contemporary information that explains why Atta chose Portland.  Two explanations are logical using a military model. First, the Portland digression may have simply been to allow an early morning probe of the National Airspace System security posture at a small, local hub.

Second, it could have been a Plan B, an alternate scenario to allow Atta and one colleague to hijack one plane and fly it to a catastrophic end, given that all else had failed. That reduced accomplishment would still have been a success of sorts.

UA 175, AA 77, UA93. Al Shehhi and crew stayed at two different Boston hotels the night before the attack. The AA77 crew formed up in Laurel, Maryland and then stayed in Herndon, Virginia the night of September 10. The UA93 crew moved to Newark, New Jersey on September 7, and were joined by Ziad Jarrah on September 9.

The Final Hours. On the night of September 10, 2001, nineteen attackers in five small groups made their final preparations. They had passed through every layer of international, national, state, and local security with no alarm raised. Jarrah, himself, received an early morning speeding ticket in Maryland on September 9, with no consequence.

The attackers were not home free. Remaining ahead was passage into the National Airspace System. They had to cross the designated lines of departure.

Lines of Departure

Lines of departure are control features of any military attack to facilitate planning and execution.  The attack on 9/11 had two such lines, an initial line of departure at Portland, Maine, and a final line of departure that extended the length of the north Atlantic seacoast from Washington DC on the south, through the New York metropolitan area, and on to Boston. Crossing of the lines was near flawless, with one potential misstep.

Portland. Atta and al Omari entered the National Airspace System at 5:45. The attack had begun. Atta’s expectation was that he and his colleague were safely through and would not face a further challenge in Boston. He had misjudged and become visibly angry when he learned he did not have a boarding pass for AA11 which required passing again through a security checkpoint. That was the potential misstep. According to the August 26, 2004, staff report:

The agent explained to Atta that he would have to check in with American Airlines in Boston…The agent remembers that Atta clenched his jaw and looked as though he was about to get angry…He said that Atta looked as if he were about to say something in anger but turned to leave.

The Final Line of Departure

Entrance into the National Airspace System was the single most critical aspect of the attack. Success hung in the balance.  Retrospectively, we can assess that the planning was thorough and the execution swift and certain, as depicted in the following chart.

Flight Scheduled Security Board Take Off
AA11 7:45 7:15+/- 7:31-7:40 7:59
UA175 8:00 7:15+/- 7:23-7:28 8:14
AA77 8:10 7:18-7:36 7:50-7:55 8:20
UA93 8:00 7:30+/- 7:39-7:48 8:42


The overall planned window of exposure (security, board, take off), excluding the Portland initial line of departure, was less than one hour (7:15-8:10). Including Portland, the window was two hours and twenty-five minutes (5:45-8:10).

Mohammed Atta (AA11) allowed al Shehhi and crew (UA175) to board and most likely enter the National Airspace System first, perhaps another probe to protect his own mission. Atta’s flight was scheduled to depart first and his crew boarded with just minutes to spare.

Based on available records, the first two attackers to enter the National Airspace System were Khalid al Mihdhar and Majed Moqed (AA77-Dulles). Both entered security screening at 7:18.

By any measure, the window of exposure was minimized.  All attackers crossed the line of departure in less than 1/2 hour (7:15-7:36) at four widely dispersed entry points into the National Airspace System.  Further, all then boarded within 32 minutes (7:23-7:55) on four different commercial airplanes.

Entrance into the NAS and boarding was predicated on scheduled departure times. The attackers planned that all would be in the air within a narrow time frame, just 25 minutes (7:45-8:10), and out of the reach of law enforcement and intelligence agencies at every level.

All that remained was to commandeer the four flights and fly them to target. Defense then rested with the airline crews, the air traffic control system and, if requested, four active air defense fighters, two at Otis Air Force Base, MA, and two at Langley Air Force Base, VA. Assault was imminent.

Two Axes, Four Prongs

The Northern axis was narrowly defined, a single departure airport, and the two-pronged attack unfolded with military precision.  The Southern axis was broadly defined, two departure airports, and that two-pronged attack failed on one prong.

Takeover of the planes was swift, the crew and pilots were overwhelmed with simple weapons and physical force.

Dominance of the National Airspace System was achieved through tactical manipulation of the transponders. The following table depicts the timing of the attack as we know it, retrospectively.

Plane Hijacked Transponder Impact
AA11 8:15+/- 8:21 Off 8:46-47
UA175 8:43+/- 8:46 Changed 9:03
AA77 8:53+/- 8:56 Off 9:37-38
UA93 9:28 9:41 Off 10:03

Author’s Note. Precise impact times are not relevant to this discussion and I have rounded them. Commission Staff preference was to use times rounded to the minute, but that became problematic concerning the impacts of AA11 and AA77.  Ultimately, times as established by the National Traffic Safety Board were used in the final report.

The Northern Attack

The selection of Boston as a departure point for both planes had major tactical advantages.  First, targeting two planes within a short departure window eliminated a key variable, departure time delay. Second, the narrow flight corridor for west-bound traffic was reasonable assurance that both AA11 and UA175 would be on the same frequency at the same time. Third, the selection of a United flight for the second plane provided an opportunity for Al Shehhi as a passenger on UA175 to listen to cockpit air traffic control communications on cabin channel 9. That was not a given, but likely.

First Prong. Atta commanded the flight efficiently and effectively.  He turned the transponder off before turning south and while still in Boston Center air traffic control space. The sharp turn south in New York Center air space allowed a straight approach on a clear day to a highly visible target.  If necessary he also had the Hudson River corridor to follow.

Second Prong. Al Shehhi’s command was equally efficient and effective. Whether or not he heard Atta’s broadcasts on frequency the evidence suggests he heard the UA175 pilot check in with the New York Air Traffic Control Center. Shortly thereafter the plane was commandeered. This had the net tactical result of presenting two different air traffic control situations to two different traffic control centers.

Although AA11 was in New York Center airspace the plane and its flight plan still belonged to Boston Center. There was no formal hand-off from one center to the other. As one result, it was Boston Center not New York Center that asked the cockpit of UA175 to confirm an altitude of 29,000 feet for AA11, which the cockpit did.

Because there was no hand-off, New York Center took initiative to enter a new track, AA11A, into the air traffic control system so that it could track the plane in its airspace. That was a reasonable action to take, but the net result was added complexity to a situation that was about to become significantly more confusing.

Chaos Begins

At precisely the time the fireball from the impact of AA11 became visible Al Shehhi changed the transponder code on UA175 to 3020. That had the tactical effect of introducing a Mode C Intruder into the air traffic control system. Such an intruder is a plane squawking a code not recognized by the system and it “intrudes” on controller scopes by presenting a track with no data block attached. New York Center, and the same controller at that center,  now had multiple problems on their plate at the same time.

Al Shehhi flew leisurely over western Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, well toward Trenton/Philadelphia. He made a second, unnecessary change to the transponder code (3321), made a high altitude, six-minute, 180-degree turn, and then plummeted his commandeered plane in a steep, high-speed dive directly into his target, which he had to bank to hit. The northern attack, a one-two punch with dramatic effect, was complete at 9:03.

That traumatized a nation and left New York Center and the air traffic control system with four known problems and one it did not know about. The known problems were: what hit the World Trade Center north tower? where was AA11? where was UA175? and, what was the Mode C intruder, code 3321, that hit the south tower? The unknown was what was happening to AA77 several hundred miles to the west.

The Southern Attack

The attack against Washington, DC, was likely planned to mirror the attack against New York City, one impact to gain media attention followed by a second impact. We do not know the sequence of attack or the designated target for each plane.

Nor do we know why the departure airports, Dulles and Newark, were selected. What we can assess, retrospectively, is that the plan required airliners that could be hijacked in the airspace of two different FAA en route control centers and not in Boston or New York Center airspace.

What we do know is that one target was the Pentagon and the other target was most likely the Capitol.  I discount the White House as a target. It was too small, too obscure, and paled in comparison to the Capitol as either a target of choice or a target of opportunity.

Whatever the planned sequence for the southern attack, Hani Hanjour completed the mission of striking one of the two targets. Ziad Jarrah did not, for multiple reasons.

The First Prong

Intended or not, Hanjour struck first. The planning and coordination details remain obscure. Retrospectively, however, there is the appearance of detailed planning and coordination.  The transponder on AA77 was turned off  seven minutes after AA11 struck the World Trade Center, North Tower, and 10 minutes before UA175 struck the South Tower.

A simple plan, therefore, would have been to turn AA77 around prior to 9:00 and, concurrently, to turn off the transponder, regardless of what was happening to the North. The tactical actions of Atta and al Shehhi suggest that the southern attack was time-based.

Atta struck early, just fourteen minutes after takeoff, secured the cockpit, turned off the transponder and then turned sharply south and headed directly to target. Al Shehhi, on the other hand, took his time. He struck after UA175 crossed into New York Center airspace, waited for the fireball from the AA11 impact, immediately changed the transponder code, and then leisurely turned UA175 around. Once 9:00 arrived he plummeted steeply at high speed directly to target.

Based on that sequence of actions, my assessment is that AA77 likely was the first prong of the southern attack. I now assess that the timing of the turn back to target was time-based and not geography-based.  That is a change in perspective. The unknown variable that morning was departure time delay. If Hanjour’s task was to commandeer and turn AA77 around in a given time-frame (9:45-10:00 8:45-9:00) then departure time delay did not matter, it was simply factored out of the equation. (Correction made Feb 17, 2015)

It was fortuitous, but perhaps not necessary, that the flight was commandeered in Indianapolis Center air space. The hijackers did not need to know the inherent radar issues at Indianapolis Center. It was sufficient to present a different problem—transponder turned off during the turn back to target—to a different Air Traffic Control Center.  AA77 could just have well been hijacked in Washington Center airspace to meet Hanjour’s timeline.

Hanjour, in his approach to Washington, DC, followed the Interstate 66/Route 29 corridor. He descended from altitude to below 10,000 feet just south of Gainesville, Virginia.  Ironically, at that time he passed nearly directly over Vint Hill Farms, the designated location for the new Potomac TRACON and, ultimately, the site of the new Air Traffic Control System Command Center.

Once Hanjour saw his target he executed a wide, descending, 330-degree turn to lose altitude, regain his target and then accelerate to impact. Hitting the Pentagon was the intent, but any impact short, left, or right would have been devastating.  Coming up short, AA77 would have hit the Navy Annex. Crystal City was to the right.  Rosslyn was to the left as was Arlington National Cemetery.

My seventh floor office at 400 Army Navy Drive, Crystal City, provided an unobstructed view of the Pentagon.  I felt and heard the impact. By the time I got to the window, a matter of seconds, the fireball had dissipated and the sky was filled with black smoke and papers floating around at eye level.

We had no warning. At the time I and most colleagues were surfing the internet to follow events in New York City.

The Second Prong

Earlier we established that Ziad Jarrah had drawn the short straw, one that got even shorter as the morning progressed. The takeoff delay at Newark was 42 minutes, a good half hour longer than that experienced by any of the other three designated pilots. With just three colleagues he was still able to commandeer his targeted airliner, UA93. Whether or not cabin channel 9 was available on that flight, Jarrah and his crew did not strike until the flight was in Cleveland Center air space.

There is no clear picture of planned timing for UA93 as compared to the correlation of AA77 to AA11 and UA175.  Given that UA93 was to be the second prong of the southern attack, the planning would have to correlate to AA77 and adhere to an overall plan to hijack four planes in the air space of four different Air Traffic Control Centers.

UA93 entered Cleveland Center air space at 9:24 and was hijacked within minutes.  Jarrah had to wait 42 minutes (8:42-9:24) regardless of takeoff time.

UA93 was scheduled to depart 10 minutes prior to AA77. The departure delay that morning at Dulles (AA77) was 10 minutes. At Newark (UA93) it was 42 minutes. Assuming the plan was for the two departure delays to be comparable then UA93 was planned to be hijacked in the same time frame as AA77.

In other words, it was the planned intent that both planes in the southern attack be hijacked after the impact of AA11 and before the impact of UA175. Jarrah met just one of his two takeover objectives. He waited until the plane was in Cleveland Center air space. However, he had lost control of the timing.

Nevertheless, Jarrah managed to stay just inside the decision cycle of the defense.  UA93 did take off before a New York Center ground stop was issued. His crew took over the cockpit  as air traffic controllers were attempting to issue cockpit warnings to pilots. Air Force air defenders were poorly positioned. The Otis fighters were over New York City well to the north and the Langley fighters were two minutes from take off far to the South.

Even with those advantages Jarrah was fighting a losing battle. First, he had difficulty controlling the plane. On the turn back to target he could not maintain level flight and ascended to over 40,000 feet. Thereafter, he failed to maintain altitude but did manage to turn the transponder off. Worse, in the cabin, his colleagues were not able to prevent the remaining air crew and passengers from learning enough about events of the morning to take matters into their own hands.

With no help from any level of government, solely on their own recognizance, passengers and crew forced UA93 to crash, far short of the intended target. By 10:03 the battle was over, at least for the attackers.  Not so for the defense.

The Defense

Concerning the Northern Attack, crews of two planes had been overwhelmed, their planes commandeered and flown to catastrophic fate.The Federal Aviation Administration knew it had a problem, but had no idea of what else was to come. An active air defense had finally been mounted, but solely in response to events in New York.

The Otis fighters were placed on battle stations at 8:40, scrambled at 8:46, and airborne at 8:52, an elapsed time of 12 minutes from the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) obtained actionable information from Boston Center, an outdated set of coordinates.  That was a reasonable response, accelerated a bit because the Otis pilots had heard Boston Center’s initial call to Cape TRACON and, in effect, put themselves on battle stations before the order came to do so.

Shortly after the Otis fighters were airborne their controllers learned that they no longer had a target, a fact the pilots also knew, according to air traffic control communications. NEADS, the controlling organization made the tactical decision to continue and to put the fighters in a holding orbit in a military training area south of Long Island.

The fighters reached their western most point about 9:10 and began a holding pattern. That was, retrospectively, the single critical time for the defense.

The defenders had that single, fleeting moment of opportunity to better defend the nation’s capital. However, that is only known through retrospective analysis. No one, at the time, knew what else was happening. The one clue was that AA 77 had gone missing. That clue, unrecognized as another hijacking, was only known by Indianapolis Center. The Center decided that the plane was lost and initiated rescue operations.

The Southern Attack on the nation’s capital had begun, unrecognized. The attackers were still well within the decision cycle of their opponent.

9:10 EDT, A Critical Time, Retrospectively

At 9:10, the Otis fighters were at their closest point to Washington, DC, 225 nautical miles. The Langley fighters were on the ground in the Norfolk, Virginia area, 115 nautical miles to the south. AA77 was eastbound over central West Virginia, 48 nautical miles east of Charleston, WV, and 80 nautical miles west of Harrisonburg, VA. UA93 was westbound over Central Pennsylvania, just northwest of State College, PA.

In military terms, here is the disposition of friendly and enemy forces at 9:10:

0910 Tactical Situation

At 9:10, Indianapolis En Route Traffic Control Center concluded that AA77 was lost and it initiated rescue procedures by notifying its higher headquarters, Great Lakes Region. Concurrently, the Center notified the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

At 9:10, the joint surveillance radar system supporting NEADS reacquired AA77 as a primary only, search target. NEADS surveillance technicians and identification technicians know what to do with primary targets. Finding, identifying, and tracking them is their bread and butter. No one told them to look to the West. Instead, they were concentrating on the skies over New York City and Boston.

At 9:10, NEADS considered engaging its remaining two air defense aircraft, the fighters at Langley Air Force Base.  The NEADS Mission Crew Commander recommended the fighters be scrambled. The Battle Cab directed otherwise and the last remaining air defense fighters in the inventory were placed on battle stations.  That was a reasonable decision at the time, given the information available. Retrospectively, it was exactly the wrong decision.

The Otis fighters were 25 minutes flying time away from the Pentagon. The Langley fighters were 13 minutes flying time away, but were still on the ground.  The Otis fighters were airborne in 12 minutes from the call to battle stations (8:40-8:52). Applying that same standard to the Langley fighters they were also 25 minutes away.  If tasked, in a perfect world, either set of fighters would have reached the Pentagon at about 9:35. (Flight times are based on a rate of progression of .9 Mach, as established by NORAD in its September 18, 2001, published timeline, explanatory note ****.)

9:10 EDT was the single, most important opportunity for the defenders to protect the nation’s capital. No one, at any level, had any idea of the disposition of enemy forces. Even worse, as events progressed, no one at any level had a coherent picture of the disposition of friendly forces. And that begs a question, Why Not?

Why Not

First the attack on September 11, 2001 was an attack against the National Airspace System. That precisely defined system had a single, named operator and a single, named defender on the East Coast.

The operator was the National Operations Manger (NOM), Benedict Sliney and his supporting organization the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center. The defender was the Commander, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Air Force Colonel Robert Marr and his supporting organization, the Sector Operations Center.

Sliney, in his first day on the job, and his predecessor had never met Marr. The two organizations had never interfaced in any meaningful way. Despite multiple exercises that suggested otherwise over the years, the two organizations had no procedures in place to rapidly share information or to handle hijackings. They did not share and had no way of sharing a common operating picture of the battlefield.

Second, the hijack protocol was not just out of date, it was obsolete. But no one knew that because if it had been exercised at all it was done so notionally. For example, the tapes from NEADS show that the exercise cell at NEADS played the roll of all higher headquarters in the ongoing exercise in the Vigilant Guardian series.

Third, not one national level mechanism for sharing information had yet been convened. The earliest convention was at 9:16, a NOIWON, a watch officer informal information exchange network. It was convened by the CIA watch center simply to try and find out what was going on. Ironically, the key voices (FAA, NMCC) were on the NOIWON call, but no one recognized that. (The 9:16 time is derived from documents released by NSA in reponse to a FOIA request for CRITIC messages of the day.)

FAA convened its primary net at 9:20, which included a link to the National Military Command Center (NMCC). That net never became operational and was subsumed into the FAA’s internal tactical net.  The NMCC, at its end, convened a Significant Events Conference shortly thereafter. FAA could not be linked and the conference was terminated in favor of an Air Threat Conference at about the time the Pentagon was struck. FAA could not join that conference, either.

At the White House, the Secure Video Conference System (SVTS) was activated at 9:25. Richard Clarke convened a meeting of senior officials shortly after 9:40. Logs of the day show that Jane Garvey, FAA Administrator, and George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence, entered at that time.

Also at the White House, the PEOC (President’s Emergency Operations Center) became operational at about the time the Pentagon was struck. The Vice President arrived shortly before 10:00 according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

National Command Authority

United 93 plunged to earth at 10:03. The battle was over and the National Command Authority (NCA) was just getting itself organized. The fate of UA93, known to Cleveland Center, the Air Traffic Control System Command Center, and FAA Headquarters, did not register at the Pentagon or the White House. The NCA diligently followed what it thought was UA93 because that is what they gleaned from TSD (Traffic System Display) information.

I established earlier that the simple tactical plan was to present four different situations to four different Air Traffic Control Centers using transponders as the weapon.  There was no need for the attackers to know or even anticipate what would happen. It was sufficient to just create four different situations. Each Center reacted differently to the situation presented.

Boston Center could not hand off AA11 to New York Center. New York Center left the flight plans for both AA11 and UA175 in the TSD system and created a new track for AA11, AA11A. Indianapolis Center concluded that AA77 was down and initiated rescue coordination procedures.  Cleveland Center was more creative and that became a problem no one anticipated.

Cleveland Center was tracking UA93 and knew it would enter Washington Center airspace if it continued on course. The Center, therefore, took the logical step, it entered a new flight plan for UA93 into the TSD system. That flight plan terminated at 10:28 when UA93 “landed,” notionally, at Reagan National Airport.

And that is the “plane” that Norman Minetta in the PEOC was following.  His testimony to the Commission was one hour off. The time was 10:20, not 9:20 as he stated.  National level awareness and understanding remained confused and conflicted thereafter.

Why? A fatal flaw in the NORAD timeline of September 18, 2001, established that the military was notified about AA77 at 9:25. That time was etched in stone in October, 2001, when General Ralph Eberhart testified to that time in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Thereafter, the administration struggled to establish a narrative that the national level was responsive to the approach of both AA77 and UA93.

The narrative was doomed from the start. No one at any level vetted the work of staff officers at NEADS who made the initial error. Moreover, when NORAD and FAA prepared themselves for May, 2003, testimony to the Commission, no one at any level in either organization validated and verified the original NEADS staff work. The testimony of both Jane Garvey, FAA Administrator, and Norman Minetta, Transportation Secretary, conflated information concerning UA93 to correlate to AA77. NORAD representatives who followed did no better in their testimony.

So, how did the national level get it wrong?  The answer, in part, is in the language of chaos theory. And that discussion will be the third and final article in this series.

In the telling we will also look at why the Otis fighters were not available for the defense of the nation’s capital.  Whatever else we might observe about their tactical maneuvering that morning they clearly disregarded the advice of Wayne Gretzky.

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.





9-11: AA 77; Research Sources, an update


This article updates researchers and historians on the state of publicly available information concerning American Airlines Flight 77 (AA 77). I reference previous articles I have written which may also be helpful.

Informative Web Sites

The website, undicisettembre.blogspot, an Italian web site, has published an interview of Patrick Smith, a professional pilot. The pilot discusses the capabilities of the hijacker pilots, specifically Hani Hanjour, the designated pilot for AA 77, once commandeered. According to the website:

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot with more than twenty years of experience. He currently flies Boeing 757s and 767s. He is the host of the well-known Ask The Pilot website and author of the book Cockpit Confidential: Questions, Answers, and Reflections.

Another web site, new to me, is a worthwhile compendium of diverse information from multiple sources concerning the flight of AA 77 on September 11, 2001.

The blogger, cjnewson88, updated an article, “American Airlines Flight 77 Evidence.”  The article covers nearly every aspect of the AA 77 story.  Embedded are You Tube videos created or referenced by Newson.

Newson references the work of Tom Lusch.  Lusch has long been concerned about radar issues, such as the Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center loss of AA 77 as a primary target on controller scopes.

Lusch’s own work is exhaustive and one outcome is that he suggested refined language for the Commission Report to more accurately describe what happened at Indianapolis.  Newson includes Lusch’s language in his article. Two members of the Commission Staff have reviewed Lusch’s work and pose no objection to his refinement of our work.

Unfortunately, Lusch lost his web site some months ago and has just recently begun a reconstitution effort.  Interested readers can follow Lusch’s work at his new web site, “Thomas G. Lusch.”

Reagan National Tower and TRACON

Newson includes a video, “Ronald Reagan National Airport with ATC Audio,” that counts down the final minutes of the flight of AA 77. The radar time and air traffic control time may be off a bit when combined, but they are close enough to provide a history of the event as it happened. [Note: the title, above, is Newson’s title used on his website, not the title of the You Tube video, itself.]

At about 9:34 EDT radar time, a voice is heard in the background sounding an alert for the presence of an unidentified unknown approaching the nation’s capital. Shortly before 9:35 EDT an “S” tag appears on the track of AA 77. That tag marked the track so all TRACON and Tower personnel could easily follow its progress. That tag also allowed the Secret Service to follow the track since they had a radar feed from National TRACON.

The Secret Service did follow the track, once tagged, and provided screen prints depicting the advance of AA 77, as seen by the Service, to Commission Staff.  My archived AA 77 slide set has the times of those screen prints annotated.  I made those annotations, lightly in pencil, on the slide depicting the gradual, descending turn of AA 77 back to target.

Military aircraft in the area

The combined TRACON radar and Tower air traffic control communications also account for the presence of military fixed-wing aircraft in the area: Venus 22; Word 31; the Bobcats, 14 and 17; and Gofer 06.  I discussed all but the Bobcats in a 2009 article, “9-11: The Mystery Plane; not so mysterious.” I discussed the Bobcats in another 2009 article, “9-11: The Bobcats; a teachable moment.”

I recently posted a transcript of the Commission Staff interview with the Gofer 06 pilot.

AA 77

The convergence of evidence compiled by Newsom is conclusive. AA 77 was commandeered by five hijackers who then flew it into the Pentagon between 9:37 and 9:38 EDT, September 11, 2001.





9-11: Maine 85; a snippet of information, a snapshot of Commission Staff work


In past articles I have periodically taken the position that it is not possible to take snippets of information about 9/11 or snapshots of Commission Staff work and extrapolate either to a larger whole, with meaning.  Recently, a correspondent presented me with a question which combines a snippet and a snapshot into an interesting story.  The purpose of this article is to tell that story.

The Setting

The correspondent, a dedicated 9/11 researcher, found an exchange in the audio file of a Commission interview that suggested an additional dimension to exercise activity the morning of September 11, 2001. Specifically, he understood that there was a “delta track” operating offshore in a designated military training area, Whiskey 105. The time was shortly before 9:00 EST, eight minutes after the Otis fighters became airborne.

Ongoing off shore activity included the progress of the Otis Air Force Base active air defense fighters, Panta 45 and 46, to a holding pattern in Whiskey 105; the vectoring into a supporting holding pattern of the tanker, Maine 85; and the training flights of six additional fighters from Otis, operating as one flight of two and a second flight of four fighters. Here is screen shot of military radar tracks  in the area of interest during the period 8:30 to 9:30 EDT.

Otis Fighters

It was a complex situation, difficult to unravel, retrospectively. The situation was further complicated by an explanation by a NEADS officer who was trying to help the Commission staff understand what was happening that morning.

The Snapshot

We begin with the correspondent’s research. The information he uncovered supported the presence of an exercise aircraft, a delta track, juxtaposed with the Otis active air defense scramble. The presence of such a flight, however, was not supported by either radar or air traffic control communications.

The researcher was listening to the audio file of the Commission’s taped October 29, 2003, interview of Major James Fox, the Senior Director on duty on 9/11 at NEADS, the controlling organization for the air defense response that morning.  Commission Staff was using the tape of the Mission Crew Commander (MCC) position to guide the interview.

The Staff had the NEADS tape and a partial transcript of the tape previously provided as a result of a document request. Concurrently, the Staff and Major Fox were listening to the tape, starting and stopping as necessary for Major Fox to identify who was talking and what was transpiring.

The Snippet

The Staff was discussing the progress of the Otis scramble with Major Fox. The conversation reached a point where the recording revealed that controllers were tagging the tanker, Maine 85, so it could be separately identified on the scopes used at NEADS.  In the midst of that conversation a voice asked about “that delta out there.”  Major Fox broke in to inform the Staff what he thought the reference was.


Fox Interview Clip Maine 85


Here is a transcript of what was recorded during the referenced portion of the Major Fox interview,

Nasypany: (In part, to Battle Cab summarizing the Otis fighter  situation)  Hold them south of JFK about 10 miles at altitude. We also have Maine 85 in Whiskey 105 that can be used for this…

Staff: Can you hold that?

Fox: That’s all Nasypany.

Kara: That’s all Nasypany

Nasypany: Tag ‘em up, tag em up

Staff: Can you stop that. Do you know what tag ‘em up means

Fox: Alright. Put a track on him. Right now, without a track he is just a dot flying around. And they want him hit up with a track so we can know the information on that aircraft.

Staff: On which aircraft?

Fox:  Probably talking about Maine 85

Staff: And that’s a tanker

Fox: yes

Staff: And why does that come into play here?

Fox: Because as soon as we’ve had the Spiders (Otis flight Panta 45 and 46) airborne for 10, or 15, 20 minutes going south, coming south of Long Island we gonna have to think about getting them gas or doing something with them. So, thinking that way may have them up for a while we’re starting to look for tankers that are in the air that we can take.

Staff: To refuel them

Fox: Yes

Kara: Off the FAA transcript, at this point in time Boston Center is now controlling Jeep One, Jeep One, a second set of fighters off of Otis

Fox, Yeah, they would have been part of the flight that was going out to Whiskey 105 for their training

Kara: This is a training mission coming into play here, and Jeep is the call sign that the fighters are using

Fox: yes

Kara: Okay

Staff: Pick up please [name] at 8:59 on the [indistinct]

Nasypany: Discusses where he was when alerted. Fox interjects and now we know where Nasypany was.

Nasypany: Hey, [indistinct] that delta out there… the delta up there, five three

Fox: That delta that they are referring to there is also a different type of track like a Z track. Only a delta track is what we usually put on an aircraft that is going to be ah, it is usually, ah it’s often military, not always. But it’s usually going to be flying off the coast and just staying in that area and then coming back in. It’s a track that we know who it is, it’s going to be playing around off the coast and then coming back.

Staff: So you’re putting that delta track on the other Spider (Panta 46)?

Fox: Ah no, the delta track was ah, unfortunately it’s not in here, ah, it was probably near where that tanker was. Ah, he was just pointing out, I just wanted you to know that when they said delta they weren’t talking about Delta Airlines, they were talking about a type of track. He was probably just using it as a point of reference to show someone where Maine 85 was or something.

Based on Fox’s explanation the researcher wanted to know about the delta track. When he first posed the question to me I had no recollection of the delta event. After listening to the audio file of our interview I accepted Fox’s explanation at face value and worked to sort out the situation.

My Initial Estimate

I confirmed there was no supporting radar information and no additional primary source audio information, either in air traffic control tapes or the NEADS tapes. My initial estimate was that the delta reference was to the westernmost track of one of  the additional Otis fighters, one that was in close proximity to the track of the tanker, Maine 85. The correspondent did not accept that estimate.  Since my assessment was based on a static screen shot of the tracks of all aircraft, I concurred.

Back to Basics

At that point, I realized that Fox may have been off in his explanation and I listened to a tape which isolated the MCC position.  Here is a transcript of what was actually said concerning the “delta.”

MCC Delta Up There

MCC: Hey, is that the delta, that delta out there ?

Voice: Five three, delta, right here

MCC: The delta up there? Five Three

Voice: Five Three


Voice: Ah, that’s not what they told me, so, sorry

My Second Estimate

In context, I inferred that the MCC was asking about a status slide on one of the three overhead screens on the NEADS operations floor. The North Truro Radar, J53, was off line for maintenance and getting it back on line was an item of concern to NEADS.  The correspondent did not agree with that estimate, either. I was on the right track concerning the “five three” reference, but still did not have a satisfactory answer concerning the identity of the delta track.

Back to Basics

Anyone who has spent any time at all with the NEADS tapes knows that they are a babble of sound, a conflation of disparate conversations overlapping and interfering with one another, as recorded on tape. It is not possible to sort out any conversation thread on the NEADS floor without listening to all channels to figure out what is happening.

The two voices in the MCC conversation, one male and one female, were most likely associated with the two activity centers close by the MCC position. The surveillance section leader was to his left, and the identification section was to his right. The surveillance section establishes tracks for unknown aircraft. The identification section, once an unknown track is established, has a finite, short number of minutes to identify the track.

And sure enough, one of the identification technicians acted on the MCC’s question and sorted things out. Here is the transcript of what transpired.

0859 Delta is Maine 85

Dialing sounds

ID Technician: Maine 85, this is HUNTRESS ID, go.

Maine 85: [indistinct]

ID Technician: Maine 85, you are coming in broken, please say Mode 3

Maine 85: It is Five Three Six Two

ID Technician: Maine 85, copy Five Three Six Two, please stand by

[eight seconds pass]

ID Technician: (to a colleague) Ah[indistinct] try that one

[28 seconds pass, sounds of keyboard strokes]

ID Technician: I got it. Mo (Master Sergeant Maureen Dooley, head of the ID Section), you want to scream up at Weapons to tell them that Maine 85 is the delta north of J Five Three, they’re wondering about it.

It took the ID Technician about a minute to complete the task from the MCC and to provide actionable information to the military controllers. At the time, Maine 85 was North of Boston just crossing the Massachusetts shoreline, over 50 nautical miles north northeast of North Truro at the Northern end of Cape Cod.

Maine 85

Maine 85  took off from Bangor Air Force Base at about 8:34 EDT, and proceeded southerly towards off shore military training areas south of Long Island.

Approximately 9:23 EDT, it established a ten minute north-south race track holding pattern. As it concluded the second orbit at about 9:44 EDT, it was vectored toward New York City to support the Panta active air defense fighters.

At about 10:00 EDT, it entered a refueling holding orbit due South of New York City near the Southwestern tip of Long Island.

Here is a screen shot of the Maine 85 track from takeoff to 10:00 EDT.


Final Comment

This vignette is an important reminder to serious 9/11 researchers, historians and academicians. It takes both a dynamic radar picture and air traffic control communications and/or NEADS tape analysis to figure out what is actually going on at any given point in time.  Moreover, concerning the NEADS tapes, it is necessary to listen to all channels for details about the time in question.

How the Otis active air defense fighters ended up over New York City is a story for another day.









9-11: Congressional Joint Inquiry Report; the 28 pages, a comment

Update, March 28, 2015

And here is the Dan Christensen response to the panel’s report, “Miami Herald” March 27, 2015

Report Backtracks on Sarasota Saudis

Update, March 25, 2015

A three-member panel has conducted a review of where the FBI stands in regard to the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission. “ideastream” published a short article, this date, “Panel Finds FBI Made Strides After Sept. 11, But Must Speed Reforms.”

According to ‘ideastream’ the panel found that, “Contrary to media reports, the FBI did not have a source in the 1990’s with direct access to [Osama bin Laden] nor was there credible evidence linking the Sarasota, Florida, family to the 9/11 hijackers.”

Panel members were Bruce Hoffman, Edwin Meese, and Timothy Roemer.

Update, February 18, 2015

And, now, “The Hill” has it a bit wrong, which is baffling.  “The Hill” leads its article with this comment:

President Obama is coming under pressure from lawmakers to declassify 28 pages of the 9/11 report that were blacked out when the document was first released to the public.

We can suppose that the oblique reference to “the 9/11 report” is actually to the Congressional Joint Inquiry report, but that’s not quite the way it reads. “The Hill” does acknowledge that there were two separate reports. I am not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt that they actually know which one was redacted.

The push has also gained momentum with the endorsement of former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who, as the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, oversaw a congressional inquiry into the attack that was separate from the 9/11 Commission.

And in other news, family members Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie Van Auken wrote a succinct, published letter to the “New York Times.” The letter references an earlier, accurate, “Times” article of Feb 4, 2015, “Claims against Saudis Cast New Light on Pages of 9/11 Report.” The “Times” clearly understands the difference between the Congressional Joint Inquiry work and that of the 9/11 Commission.

A still-classified section of the investigation by congressional intelligence committees into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has taken on an almost mythic quality over the past 13 years — 28 pages that examine crucial support given the hijackers and that by all accounts implicate prominent Saudis in financing terrorism.

Update, Evening February 6, 2015

And here is a decent FactCheck.org summary of the 28-page issue

Update, February 6, 2015

And, now, CNN has it wrong. Laura Koran penned an article, “Renewed Debate over 9/11 Commission Report as new claims emerge,” published on February 5, 2015. Koran and contributors Jake Tapper and Chloe S0mmers wrote:

Recent allegations from a convicted al Qaeda terrorist have brought new attention to an old debate over whether the White House should release 28 still-classified pages from the 9/11 Commission Report, the majority of which was released over ten years ago.

That is simply wrong and now shows national media confusion about the distinction between the work of the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional Joint Inquiry that preceded it. Even worse, the CNN reporters have now made Senator Bob Graham a member of the 9/11 Commission.

And in January, commission member Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator from Florida, told CNN’s Michael Smerconish the still-classified pages in question “primarily deal with who financed 9/11, and they point a strong finger at Saudi Arabia.”

For the record, Senator Graham was a co-chair of the Congressional Joint Inquiry. He was not a member of the 9/11 Commission.
Update, January 20, 2015

Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Towers, definitively addressed the 28-page issue in a September 9, 2014, article in the New Yorker. Wright’s narrative is clear-eyed, accurate, and best defines the publicly held knowledge concerning the issue.

Nevertheless, four months later, on January 19, 2015, a blogger, Michael Rubin, committed the error of conflating the Congressional Joint Inquiry Report with the 9/11 Commission Report. Rubin wrote:

And yet, so much remains inexplicably unknown about that day. President George W. Bush redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission report. A number of congressmen have read the redacted pages.

It is as if Wright had written in a vacuum, so far as the blogosphere is concerned.


In December, 2002, the report, “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” was published.  The title was carefully chosen. The Joint Inquiry examined intelligence failures on and around 9/11, but did not examine the events of the day, itself. That task was left to performed by the 9/11 Commission, an entity that was established only at the insistence and persistence of the 9/11 families. (This paragraph was revised and updated on February 18, 2015, at the suggestion of Lorie Van Auken, to clarify the narrow role of the Inquiry concerning intelligence failures.  Van Auken also pointed out, correctly, that the Inquiry could not leave a task to a Commission yet to be formed.)

Over time, the Joint Inquiry Report and the Commission Report have become conflated in the minds of some and redactions in the Joint Inquiry Report are often attributed to the Commission Report. Hopefully, this short article will help writers avoid any more conflation.

The Major Redaction

The Joint Inquiry report was redacted throughout, most notably the pages from page 396 through page 422, inclusive. That is a redaction of 27 pages in the copy I have, a printout of unclassified Senate Rept No. 107-351/House Rept. No. 107-792.

The confusion in page count arises, in part, because the relevant section of the report, “Part Four–Findings, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters,” is 28 pages. There is also an internal page reference sequence that goes from page 415 to page 443, 28 pages.

There are no redactions in the Commission Report.

The Finding

The Joint Inquiry reported that, “through its investigation, the Joint Inquiry developed information suggesting specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States. The Joint Inquiry’s review confirmed that the Intelligence Community also has information, much of which has yet to be independently verified, concerning these potential sources of support.”

The Conflation

A recent article in “The American Conservative,” typifies a mistake made by multiple writers and bloggers. The article discusses a Saudi connection to the events of 9/11 and in the telling makes these statements:

Many of the loose threads are gathered up and detailed in a 28-page segment of the 9/11 Commission report.

Curiously, President Bush ordered those 28 pages classified, so that no one without extremely rare security clearances could read them.

That is a Joint Inquiry Report reference erroneously attributed to the Commission Report. This is not to single out the “Conservative,” it is just one example that has come to my attention.

A better example came my way via a 9/11 Google alert on October 8, 2014. In a “Huffington Post” article, “The Saudis, 9/11, ISIS, and American Secrecy,”  the journalist, David Vognar, opened his most recent post with this language.

There is a growing movement in the United States against secrecy and a growing distrust that government is operating in the people’s interest. I’ve written previously about this crisis in democracy. Related to both of these movements is a call for President Obama to declassify and release the 28 classified pages from the 9/11 Commission Report that President Bush deemed too vital to United States intelligence operations to be released in the 2004 report.

The journalist community, to have any credibility at all on this issue, needs to do better in understanding that the Joint Inquiry Report and The Commission Report are separate lanes of the road with a wide median between them.

Full Disclosure

While I did not participate in the writing of the redacted narrative I did read it, in draft, at least once.  I do not recall with any fidelity the contents, so I won’t speculate.  I was surprised at the extent of the redaction and my sense is that the pages should be reviewed for release. That undertaking is a nontrivial task. There are multiple equities involved—the agencies, the two houses of Congress, and two administrations.

My experience as an investigator for the DoD Inspector General provides perspective. During an investigation of the 1985 Zona Rosa Massacre in El Salvador we needed to visit the Reagan Presidential Library in order to review National Security Council information. That visit, by government investigators and facilitated by NARA, required the concurrence of the President of record, the sitting President and the General Counsels for both.

And that involved just one branch of Government, the Executive Branch. Add the Legislative Branch to the mix, not subject to FOIA, and the task compounds. Not to mention the agencies involved and their equities.

9-11: Impact Times; Infra-red Data Released by NSA

Addendum October 9, 2014

This addendum makes one correction and adds a PDF of my May 15, 2014 appeal letter. Based on the date of that letter it took NSA not quite five months to reconsider. Here is a link to my appeal.

IR Appeal Letter May 2014

Data Release

On October 4, 2014, I received a letter from the National Security Agency, Central Security Service, dated September 23, 2014.  The letter responded to Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) case 70401 (NARA case number NW 168), my appeal to an earlier complete denial of all infra-red related information.

The release authority has now provided graphic analysis of the data for all four impacts, as originally provided to the Commission. The times, in all cases, are consistent with the times established from radar files and air traffic control tapes.

Here is the transmittal letter for the information release.

NSA MDR Letter Sep 23 2014

I addressed the total denial of all infra-red related information in a short post on March 25, 2014 under “Current News.” It took just over six not quite five months for the National Security Agency to reconsider. I based my appeal narrowly, asking only for the infra-red impact times, and nothing else. That is perhaps a lesson learned  for researchers and historians, present and future.


The 9/11 Commission Staff requested infra-red data concerning the impacts of the four hijacked airplanes on September 11, 2001.  The staff took that extra step because an analysis of seismic data by a separate individual reported a impact time for United Airlines Flight 93 three minutes after the 10:03 EDT impact time as determined from radar files and air traffic control tapes.

It is important to know that the later time, 10:06 EDT, was not a seismic data time. It was the extrapolation and interpretation of seismic data by a single individual. His coauthor and the sponsor of his article, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, chose not to validate and verify his work when asked to do so by the Commission Staff. Instead, they simply referred the Staff back to the person who had made the extrapolation. I addressed the seismic issue in detail in an article published in 2010.

In 2011 during a visit to the National Earthquake Center, Golden, Colorado, I informally asked the staff there to take a look at the interpretation that led to a time of 10:06 EDT. They, too, declined, and simply referred me back to the original author.

The Staff Request

The original request is “Document Request No. 4-34: Final data from the Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center (DEFSMAC) that established the time of impact for each of the hijacked aircraft.” The response to the Commission was classified “SECRET//X1” and was titled (U//FOUO) NSA’S ANSWERS TO DoD DOCUMENT REQUEST No. 4-34.” The response is annotated NW#: 168 DocId: 8977.

The Response

There are two graphs that are accurate to the minute and the approximate seconds for each impact, if extrapolated. The following chart depicts my current extrapolations. The intensity measurement is in Kilowatts per microsteradian (KW/sr-μ).


Impact Time


AA11 8:46:30+/- 250 KW/sr-μ
UA 175 9:03:10+/- 3500 KW/sr-μ
AA 77 9:37:30+/- 900 KW/sr-μ
UA 93 10:03:10+ 2000 KW/sr-μ

One graph depicts the times for all planes except UA 93. A second graph pertains to UA 93 and incudes a peak intensity time centered on 10:03:16-17+, and a dissipation time of 10:03:25+  Peak intensity was recorded as 5000 KW/sr-μ.  That graph provides an approximate measure of the time the fireball was observable, a period of about 15 seconds.

There is no data to indicate that DEFSMAC considered peak intensity for the other three impacts.

I do not recall making an extrapolation while on the Commission Staff. It was clear from the graphs provided that the infra-red times were consistent with other primary source data.  In particular, the infra-red data was conclusive for a 10:03 EDT impact time for UA 93, not 10:06 EDT, as had been speculated.

Here is the graph titled: “Aircraft Impacts – NY & DC, 11 September 2001 – IR Intensity vs Time (Zulu)

IR impact times AA11 UA175 AA77

Here is the graph titled: “Impact of United Flight 93 – Pennsylvania, 11 September 2001 IR Intensity vs Time (Zulu)”

IR Data UA93


This completes my work on all speculation that the seismic extrapolated time is relevant to the impact on UA 93. It is not, now, and never was. All such speculation is based on the work of a single individual who informed the Commission Staff that the seismic data, itself, was not conclusive.

At some future time a scientist or engineer will examine the original raw data—seismic, radar, and infra-red—and will find that the three data sets are consistent.

9-11: Education; an update on the 13th Anniversary


From time to time items of interest come to me via a Google Alert, “9/11 Commission.” Today, the alert surfaced an education-related article, “Remembering 9/11: Teachers evolve lesson to adapt to growing history,” Leslie Parrilla, San Bernadino (California) Sun. The target school audience in this case is 10th and 11th grade classes at Rancho Cucamonga High School, students who were preschoolers or younger on that eventful day.

9/11 in Transition

The article marks  the transition of the events of 9/11 from a news event to an historical event.  As Parrilla writes, “educators have transitioned teaching from the event as a shocking, traumatic, personal occurrence to a historical, social and cultural event. Each years class brings more detachment from the event to the point that in just a few years students exposed to the curriculum will have not yet been born.

The Commission Report

Teachers are now asking students to do their own literature searches and to begin asking about the “nitty gritty,” to search and learn in depth. At least one teacher is making assignments based on the 9/11 Commission Report.

“Government teacher William Reinhart at Verdugo Hills High School in the Tujunga area of Los Angeles said he continues to teach Sept. 11 as the evolving story that it is, from watching it unfold on television that day with students in his classroom, to making more detached generations connect dots by linking 9/11 to current airport restrictions and the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“That (history) didn’t exist in the year or two, three years after,” Reinhart said. “We as a nation were in the grieving process and there were orange alerts and red alerts and you could only bring liquids here or there and there were shoe bombers. We were kind of catching our breath. All the subsequent years after that it’s changed a little.”

Now Reinhart approaches instruction about that day through history and government, through counter-terrorism policy and the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. He hands out assignments about the 9/11 Commission report.

Personal Comment

I substitute taught at Thomas Jefferson high school in Northern Virginia for two years in the early 1990’s. It was two years of pure enjoyment watching students being challenged to critique and create and responding to that challenge.  I am confident that today’s high school (and college students) will be able to sort out fact from fiction as they deal with the events of 9/11 in historical perspective.

(Note: Thomas Jefferson is consistently the highest or among the highest rated high schools in the nation.)



9-11: The Hijacking of AA11; historical perspective


The hijackings on September 11, 2001 were the first such events with domestic implication since the February 12, 1993 Trans-Atlantic hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 592. I recently found work I had done on the Commission Staff concerning the historical perspective of the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11 (AA 11) on 9/11.  I don’t have the NARA file reference. The compilation of work files suggests I did this research during my review of the Payne Stewart incident sometime after May 2003.


Here is a replication of the data in my work files.

Item Lufthansa 592 American 11
Date February 12, 1993 September 11, 2001
Goal Political Asylum Unknown
Type Trans-Atlantic Domestic
Hijackers 1 5
Nationality Ethiopian Saudi, Egyptian
Weapon Starter Pistol Knives, Spray
Method Pilot Hostage Crew Neutralized
Initial Reaction LE Presumed LE Issue
Air Defense Otis AFB Otis AFB
Lead Pilot Duffy Duffy
Battle Cab Marr (BC) Marr (FO)
Weapons Fox (WD) Fox (SD)
ID/MCC McCain (IT) McCain (MCC/T)

Here are the accompanying bullet points:

  • Lufthansa Flight 592, Frankfurt to Cairo, hijacked to New York
  • May Testimony: No domestic hijacking in last decade
  • Lufthansa: First hijacking since 1986
  • First trans-Atlantic hijacking since September 1976
  • Multi-agency conference 2 hours and 20 minutes after FAA first notified; FBI lead, on the ground
  • Otis AFB Air Defense fighters are scrambled, take handoff from Canadian jets and escort plane to JFK


The acronyms are LE (Law Enforcement), BC (Battle Commander), FO (Fighter Officer, a position in the Battle Cab), WD (Weapons Director), SD (Senior Director), IT (Identification Technician), MCC/T (Mission Crew Commander/Technician).

The “May Testimony” reference is to the first air defense testimony to the Commission in May, 2003.

The hand-off from Canadian jets was standard procedure.


The Commission Staff recognized early in our work that the hijacking protocol in existence on 9/11 was obsolete. Events of the day quickly bypassed existing procedures because no one really knew what the procedures involved. The key item in my work file matrix is the line “Initial Reaction.”

The mind set was, first, that AA 11 was experiencing major system failure and the air traffic control task was to clear the path.  When it became clear that there was a probable hijack the mind set changed to a perceived need to get air defense involved to intercept and escort the plane to its unknown destination where law enforcement would take over once the plane was on the ground, just as had been done with the Lufthansa flight nearly nine years earlier.

Exercises over the years played lip service to the hijacking protocol; it was never seriously tested.  Researchers can gain some sense of how events were handled at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) by referring to my discussion of Exercise Vigilant Guardian.  In sum, higher echelons were played notionally by the exercise cell at NEADS.

Key Point

I have commented on this before in other articles. NEADS (and Otis) had the most experienced personnel possible on duty on 9/11 concerning hijackings. The lead pilot in both 1993 and 2001 was Lt Col Timothy Duffy (link is to Otis AFB).  Colonel Robert Marr, NEADS commander on 9/11, was the Fighter Officer, the key staff officer in the Battle Cab in 1993. Major Fox, Senior Director on 9/11, was the Weapons Director who controlled the fighters in 1993. MSGT McCain, the Mission Crew Commander/Technician on 9/11, was an Identification Technician in 1993, and would have been involved in locating and identifying the Lufthansa flight.

Longevity in service at one organization is typical of assignments in the Air National Guard.  For example, Brigadier General Dawne Deskins, the NEADS officer who received the first set of coordinates for AA 11 from Boston Center on 9/11, ultimately commanded NEADS. She was promoted to her current rank in March, 2014.

Perspective for Historians

There have been just four domestic hijackings in the last quarter century, all of them on September 11, 2001. Prior to 9/11, there had not been a domestic hijacking for years.  The single hijacking incident that tested the nation’s air defense was the Lufthansa case.  That turned out to be a test of routine procedures.

The routine procedure was that air defense would be tasked to intercept and escort and to “identify by type and tail” as was the case on 9/11. Boston Center was not looking for fighters to engage a target they were looking for fighters to intercept AA 11 and escort it somewhere.

The Battle of 9-11: An Act of War; the Principles of War, considered


Heretofore, the conventional wisdom has been that the event known as 9/11 was a terrorist attack. Many analyses, including mine, have bounced along that road, poorly defined, with predictable results. The literature, published or web, has yet to come to grips with what happened that day.

In this article I take a new approach. After months of reflection, measured in years, my understanding is that the chaos of the day, in the days thereafter, and continuing to this day, is the aftermath of a deliberate military strike, an attack on two axes of advance, each axis with two prongs.  The purpose of such an attack is to cause confusion and chaos that becomes unmanageable for those who defend against it.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to begin a new discussion, one that will ultimately lead us to chaos theory. We begin with a classical approach, consideration of the Principles of War.

The Principles of War

All students at the several military colleges and schools, to include the service academies, and ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) chapters at high schools, universities and colleges have learned these principles by studying significant battles of history, such as Gettysburg, for example. It is time to add the battle of 9/11 to the study list.

Here are the principles as published Army doctrine, as taught at the Worchester Military Institute. The order of listing provides a convenient memory aide MOOSE MUSS, the first letter of each principle.

9 Principles of War

The nine Principles of War, as defined in the Army Field Manual FM-3 Military Operations:



Mass Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time
Objective Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective
Offensive Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative
Surprise Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared
of Force
Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts
Maneuver Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power
Unity of
For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander
Security Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage
Simplicity Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding

The Principles and the Battle of 9/11

Mass. The attackers concentrated combat power at the decisive place and time.  The matter of scale does not matter. The attack was small scale in terms of the actual mass; it was large scale in terms of the effect of that mass.  Grade: 100/100.

Objective. The attackers directed the operation towards two clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable objectives. The preliminary objective was to overwhelm the National Airspace System (NAS) by commandeering four commercial aircraft operating in that system.  The final objective was to use those four aircraft as missiles and damage or destroy four specific targets; the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol. Grades: 100/100 and 75/100, respectively.

Offensive. The attackers seized, retained, and exploited the initiative. They successfully passed through every barrier to entry to the NAS, to include secondary screening at security checkpoints. A misstep occurred when Mohammed Atta became visibly angry when he learned he would have to pass through security a second time at Logan International. The attackers failed to retain and exploit the initiative after they seized United Airlines Flight 93 (UA 93).  Grade: 74/100.

Surprise. The attackers struck the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he was unprepared. Surprise was near total, at all levels of government, highest to lowest. The attackers did not maintain the advantage of surprise aboard UA 93. The remaining crew and passengers on that flight learned enough of the battle plan to thwart the attack on the final target. Grade: 88/100. (half credit for UA 93, initial objective achieved, final objective not achieved)

Economy of Force. The attackers allocated no essential combat power to secondary efforts.  Further, retrospectively, they assessed that each attack element required 5 members; two in the cockpit, one to guard the cockpit door, and two to control the passengers. We know there were two in the cockpit based on the cockpit voice recording from UA 93. At some point, a tactical decision was made to allocate just four attackers to flight UA 93. This is an indicator that New York City was a higher priority than Washington D.C. Grade: 95/100.

Maneuver. The attackers placed the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power. Once the aircraft were commandeered their combat power resided in the transponders. We know, retrospectively, that each of the four transponders was manipulated differently and each manipulation provided a different problem to a separate Air Traffic Control Center.

Boston Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding before its turn towards target. Boston Center retained responsibility for American Airlines Flight 11, leaving the AA 11 flight plan in the system because the Center concluded it could not hand the plane off to New York Center.  New York Center, therefore, had to enter a new track, AA 11A, in order to follow the flight.

New York Center, while engaged in the hunt for AA 11/AA 11A, was confronted with a Mode C intruder, code 3020/3321. The intruder was United Airlines Flight 175, a transponding aircraft that did not correlate to anything in the air traffic control system.

Indianapolis Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding during its turn towards target. Further, Indianapolis Center lost the capability to display American Airlines Flight 77 as a radar target on its air traffic control scopes. Indianapolis Center concluded that the plane was lost, perhaps down, and it initiated rescue procedures by contacting its next higher headquarters while concurrently notifying the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley AFB.

Cleveland Center had to decide what to do with an airplane that ceased transponding after its turn toward target. Cleveland Center concluded that it could transfer control to Washington Center and did so by entering a new flight plan for United Airlines Flight 93 into the system.  Whereas Boston Center left the flight plan for AA 11 in the air traffic control system, Cleveland Center entered a new flight plan for UA 93. United 93 “landed” notionally at National Airport at 10:28 EDT.

The attackers ability to maneuver was transcendent. It did not matter whether or not they had any idea of what would transpire in the defense. It was sufficient for them to understand that four different situations presented to four different air traffic control centers would be problematic. Grade: 150/100. (bonus points awarded)

Unity of Command. The attackers, for every objective, ensured unity of effort under one responsible commander. The planners delegated significant authority to the attacking party. The attacking party responded to the leadership of Mohammad Atta. Even though the fourth pilot, Ziad Jarrah, designated pilot for UA 93, was consistently distracted that distraction did not detract from this principle of war. Grade: 100/100.

Security. The attackers, with the exception of those in the cabin of UA 93, never permitted the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage. With the exception of Atta’s anger, as discussed previously, not one attacker flinched or betrayed that attack at any point while entering the NAS. The attackers lost the advantage of security aboard UA 93 because they were short one member and those in the cabin did not deny the passengers contact with the outside world. Grade: 80/100.

Simplicity. With the understanding that this was not a simple attack, the attackers did prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding. Every attacker understood his job and everyone was well prepared for the task at hand. The Last Night document attests to the detail of the planning.

By extending the scope of the attack to include an assault on Washington D.C., the attackers introduced a level of complexity that, while unnecessary for an attack against New York City, was necessary to cause uncertainty and confusion in the defense. Atta’s pronouncement to the air traffic control world, “we have some planes,” was, in my estimation, deliberate.  The attackers disregard for simplicity in favor of complexity was intentional. They took their chances with this principle of war. Grades: 100/100 for execution, 75/100 for planning.


Overall, in terms of the principles of war, the attackers met nearly every requirement for a high, but not perfect, score.  The attack was necessarily complex, it lacked focus in the southern axis of attack, and it lacked a 20th attacker to round out the fourth crew.

The battle of 9/11 was a preemptive military strike against an unprepared enemy and it caused chaos, the ripple effect of which is felt to this day.

What’s Next

I will publish two additional articles in this series. The next article will discuss the military aspects of the operation as they might have been drawn up by a planner or tactician using the staff officer’s tool of choice, a powerpoint. The final article will extend the discussion to chaos theory.

An attack on two axes each with two prongs is intended to cause confusion and chaos in the defense. And that is exactly what happened.

9-11: The August 6, 2001, PDB; in perspective


On September 11, 2012, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Anderson Cooper of CNN hosted a wide-ranging discussion about events of that day.  Among his guests were two that engaged in a verbal shoving match over the importance of the August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief (PDB).  Here is how Cooper introduced his guests.

Kurt Eichenwald joins us now. He’s a “Vanity Fair” contributing editor and author of “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars.” Also with us is Ari Fleischer who is press secretary for President George W. Bush.

Eichenwald took the position that the August 6 PDB was one in a consistent series of such briefings to the President and that a higher level of alert should have been sounded.  Fleischer took the position that the PDB, in context, was not specific and that the thrust of reporting was a potential attack overseas.

None of the three–Cooper, Eichenwald, Fleisher–provided any context on what else was going on in the world that year.  It was as if that PDB and previous such briefs were the only thing that mattered in the months leading up to 9/11.

A “PDB” was and is a collection of articles, not a single item.  Further, the August 6 PDB and its expanded-distribution, executive level version, a August 7 SEIB (Senior Executive Intelligence Brief), did not energize either the President or the Intelligence Community as we might have wished, retrospectively.

Here is additional insight for academicians, historians, and serious researchers to help them understand how things happened in real time that summer.


The August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief (PDB) item, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US,” has had a long shelf life concerning the events of September 11, 2001. Much has been written and discussed, largely out of context, so that its place in the events leading up to the 9/11 attack has been misconstrued. My purpose here is to place that single PDB article in perspective based on my own work on the Congressional Joint Inquiry. I start, however, with the context provided by the 9/11 Commission in its final report.

The Commission Report.

The President’s Daily Brief is an accumulation of subjects, not a single topic as some of the discourse about the events of 9/11 suggests.  It is important, therefore, to explain in quantifiable terms where a single item fits in. Here is what the Commission reported:

Each PDB consists of a series of six to eight relatively short articles or briefs covering a broad array of topics; CIA staff decides which subjects are the most important on any given day. There were more than 40 intelligence articles in the PDBs from January 20 to September 10, 2001, that related to Bin Ladin. The PDB is considered highly sensitive and is distributed to only a handful of high-level officials.

The wording, “more than 40 intelligence articles,” implies a quantity that was not as great as it appears. Additional Commission report language allows a quantitative assessment.  Assuming that the PDB was provided six days a week there were 200 briefing days in the period specified. Given that the average number of articles was seven (Commission reported 6-8) there were 1400 “intelligence articles” briefed to the President, 40 of which were Bin Ladin-related. One of every 35 articles was Bin Ladin-related; not quite three in every 100. In the world of statistics and probability the odds were not good that any one article was Bin Ladin-related.

That revelation is not quite so stark, but still grim when we look at the frequency with which the President was briefed about Bin Ladin. Forty articles in 200 days is one in every five days. About once a week.  In sum, by measure of either frequency or number, the President was not briefed about Bin Ladin in any actionable, consistent way at his level.

So, what does all this mean and what was happening at a level of the intelligence community that was actionable?  And for that we turn to the Senior Executive Intelligence Briefs (SEIB).

Senior Executive Intelligence Briefs (SEIB)

Here is what the Commission report has to say about the SEIB.

The Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB), distributed to a broader group of officials, has a similar format and generally covers the same subjects as the PDB. It usually contains less information so as to protect sources and methods.

The phrase, “less information,” is a non-specific way of saying that the SEIB, an intelligence product, does not contain law enforcement information.  And it is in that specific aspect that the companion SEIB to the PDB, issued on August 7, 2001, contained the same intelligence information as was briefed to the President, but did not contain the last two paragraphs of the PDB concerning FBI information which included these statements:

    • …patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other type attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York
    • …a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.

The qualitative difference between the August 6 PDB and the August 7 SEIB has long been known in the public domain.  According to “Source Watch“, Associated Press reporter, John Solomon, had surfaced the existence of the August 7 document on April 13, 2004.  “Source Watch” went on to report the following:

Officials, who “would only discuss the senior executives’ memo on condition of anonymity because it remain[ed] classified,” reported that the August 7, 2001, brief did not mention

  • “70 FBI investigations into possible al-Qaida activity that the president had been told of a day earlier in a top-secret memo titled…”
  • “a threat received in May 2001 of possible attacks with explosives in the United States or taht that [corrected Mar 15 2014] the FBI had concerns about recent activities like the casing of buildings in New York”

All that begs an obvious question. How did the Intelligence Community react to the August 7 SEIB? The answer is it did not. We turn first to the work of the 9/11 Commission.

The Commission and the SEIB

The Commission was constrained in page count for its final report in order to meet publisher requirements. One result was that some information was pushed to the end notes and those notes, themselves, were reduced in font to allow increased content. It is in the end notes to Chapter 8, “The System Was Blinking Red” that the story of the August 6 PDB and August 7 SEIB is told.

Footnote 3 details the scope of the effort.”The CIA produced to the Commission all SEIB articles related to al Qaeda, Bin Ladin, and other subjects identified by the Commission as being relevant to its mission from January 1998 through September 20, 2001.”

Footnote 37 explains how the PDB, itself, was drafted.

The CTC [Counter-terrorism Center] analyst who drafted the briefing drew on reports over the previous four years. She also spoke with an FBI analyst to obtain additional information. The FBI material ws written up by the CIA analyst and included in the PDB. A draft of the report was sent to the FBI analyst to review. The FBI analyst did not, however, see the final version, which added the reference to the 70 investigations.

The footnote continued, “Because of the attention that has been given to the PDB, we have investigated each of the assertions mentioned in it.”  We learn, for example, that, “The only information that actually referred to a hijacking…was a walk-in at an FBI Office in the United States…The source was judged to be a fabricator.”

We further learn that, “The 70 full-field investigations number was a generous calculation that included fund-raising investigations…Many of these investigations should not have been included.”

Footnote 38 explains the difference between the PDB and the SEIB. “The Deputy Director of Central Intelligence testified that the FBI information in the PDB was omitted from the SEIB because of concerns about protecting ongoing investigations, because the information had been received from the FBI only orally, and because there were no clear, established ground rules regarding SEIB contents.”

We now turn to my work on the Joint Inquiry staff for additional insight into the impact of the difference between the PDB and the SEIB articles.

Congressional Joint Inquiry Staff Work

I was on the Other Agency team for the Inquiry. Teams were dedicated to and had office space at CIA, NSA, and the FBI. Another team did the historical review across all agencies. The Other Agency team responsibility included all of DoD, less NSA, and the Departments of Energy, State, Transportation and Treasury.

Early in our work, we determined that the volume of intelligence reporting on terrorism/counter-terrorism during 2001 was not great, on the order of a few percentage points, never more than five percent at peak. That fact caused one Representative to finally ask a rhetorical question to the room at large, “would someone please tell me what the other 95% is.” The Inquiry staff took that for action and I did the staff work.

We asked for and received all the SEIB for the period Mar 1-Sep 10, 2001. That universe of documents was a reasonable approximation of the PDB, less law enforcement information, as the Commission reported.  We did not have access to the PDB.  Concurrently, we asked for and received all the the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, intelligence briefings for the same period. My work was compiled in a memo to the Representative signed by the, then, Staff Director, Eleanor Hill.  A copy was archived in my staff work files at the conclusion of our work.

Earlier, I mentioned Commission Report footnote 3 to Chapter 8.  That footnote implies that I had a larger universe of SEIB reporting for the spring/summer 2001 available to me than did the Commission.  I had 100% of the SEIB during the period of my interest because the analytical question was what else was going on.  The Commission staff’s focus was different, they wanted to analyse analyze [Corrected  Mar 15, 2014] the narrower universe of reporting specific to Bin Ladin and al Qaeda.

SEIB Analysis

I looked at all articles in all SEIBs for the period of interest. I then counted each article in several different categories, mostly geographic (e. g. China, Southern Europe, Russia) but including a specific category for terrorism/counter-terrorism articles, including those mentioning Bin Ladin.

There were routinely articles of interest in areas where the US had troops in harms way; Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch, for example. There were altogether about a dozen categories so no one category contained a majority of the reporting.  However, there was a strong plurality for one category, China.

An aggressive, assertive China was high on the interest list during 2001 prior to 9/11. Readers will recall that, apart for from [corrected Mar 15, 2014] economic and political concerns about China, there was a serious incident that year.  On April 1, 2001, China forced down a US reconnaissance aircraft and held the crew hostage for several days, a serious international event with potentially explosive ramifications.

There were many things on the nation’s intelligence plate.  Protection of US forces in harms way and concern about China competed with the emerging Bin Ladin threat for attention. As did a resurgent Russia. For insight into that threat we turn to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) daily intelligence briefings.

CJCS Daily Intelligence Briefings

The Chairman’s briefings were provided to us by the Defense Intelligence Agency in power point form on compact discs, which were archived in my Inquiry work files. First, let’s consider how the subject of terror/counter-terror was briefed to senior military officials.

The terrorist threat was briefed on a single slide once a week. The content was static, unchanged, before the spike in terrorist threat reporting. As the reporting increased the content of the slide became dynamic, changing each week and then the frequency changed to more than once a week. That content and frequency change lasted through the period of peak intelligence reporting.

Thereafter, in August, the briefing item returned to its previous steady state. The immediate threat had passed and attention was turning elsewhere. JCS concerns during the peak reporting period were for the safety of US troops abroad, readiness (spread of hoof and mouth disease), and, unprecedented in recent memory, Russian military activities.

A Resurgent Russia

Typically, CJCS briefing items contain an assessment as the last bullet on the last slide. Such assessments for Russian military activities were alarming.  Examples included:

  • First such activity in a decade
  • First such activity since the end of the Cold War
  • First such activity since the collapse of the Former Soviet Union

Of concern were threats to US reconnaissance aircraft and, significantly, increased scope of activity of scheduled annual Russian military exercises. Of particular concern was the first ALCM (air-launched cruise missile) live-fire exercise in many years, scheduled for September 11, 2001. Even though the exercise was properly announced and a NOTAM (notice to airmen and marines) filed, the activity had the attention of the US Government, military and civilian.

Ben Sliney, the Federal Aviation Administration’s National Operations Manger at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center was among those paying close attention.  081709 Oakland Sliney Russian Missile Shot

General Myers, Assistant Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the morning CJCS intelligence briefing. Included in the briefing file for that day was a slide depicting the ALCM threat to CONUS, complete with range arcs for fueled and un-fueled ranges for the launch aircraft. That was the threat to the Pentagon briefed to General Myers by 7:30 EDT that morning.

A little over two hours later a very different threat aircraft, a commercial airliner flown as a missile, slammed into the West side of the Pentagon. It was a “New Type of War,” unrecognized before the fact.

Recognition of the threat on 9/11 at the National Military Command Center (NMCC)

DoD released late last year (2013) a transcript of the Air Threat Conference convened by the NMCC on the morning of 9/11. Even though heavily redacted, the release provides explicit  detail of the national level awareness of the threat just before American Airlines 77 struck the Pentagon.

This is [redacted] DDO at the NMCC. An air attack against North America may be in progress. The vice Chairman is in this conference…NORAD, what is the situation? NORAD: Copy, National. This is NORAD. We have radar and visual indication of a possible threat to CONUS. Unknown country of origin.

By now the reader should still have this question in mind. Why was the Intelligence Community not energized by the 6 August PDB and the companion 7 August SEIB, concerning the actual threat, not the threat as perceived as late as 9:35 EST on September 11, 2011 2001 [corrected Mar 12, 2014]. The devil is in the details.

The SEIB Coordination Process

Senior Executive Intelligence Briefing items were generally coordinated in the evenings before publication with at least the five major agencies, three all-source agencies (CIA, DIA, State) and two single-source agencies (National Imagery Mapping Agency and National Security Agency). Articles could proceed to publication without coordination.  A line at the bottom of each article listed the coordination.

Neither DIA nor State Department coordinated on the 7 August SEIB article concerning Bin Ladin. Twice, on consecutive evenings, DIA refused to coordinate for specific reason.

There was no documentation for the State Department lack of coordination.  The evidence was that State was not listed on the coordination line.

The DIA refusal is documented in the logs of the National Military Intelligence Center (NMIC) for the desks of the Duty Director of Intelligence, Team Chief, and Terrorism Analyst as obtained by the Joint Inquiry Staff and archived in its document collection.

Joint Inquiry Staff twice interviewed DIA supervisors responsible for the refusal to coordinate. Their answer was straight forward, simple, and understandable.  There were two reasons.

  • The intelligence content was nothing more than an historical summary
  • The title did not match the content

The CIA used the same title for both the 6 August PDB and the 7 August SEIB.  Without the law enforcement content, the title made no sense to DIA and they could not concur in the SEIB article as presented to them for coordination.

It was the ultimate, even fatal manifestation of the “Wall” between intelligence and law enforcement information.  The President was briefed on a threat which the major players in the Intelligence Community did not receive.  The President and the Community did not, in military terms, share a common operating picture of the battlefield.

“For want of a nail…”




9-11: Gofer 06; Tape of Pilot Interview, transcribed

Transcript of Interview of Lt Col O’Brien

Transcribed by Miles Kara, March 4, 2014

Source is NARA file provided as ANG O’Brien-1.wav

Added, Mar 6, 2014. NARA advises that the interview was conducted on May 5, 2004. NARA will upload the audio file to its 9/11 archives in the next few weeks and it will be publicly available for anyone who wants to listen to the interview


Commission Staff arranged a telephone interview from an Air Force office where a STU-III (classified phone) was available.  That was neither efficient nor effective so I elected to conduct the interview unclassified and recorded it.  No MFR was made of the interview.

Following is a final draft transcript of the audio file, subject to additional editing for small segments marked [unclear]. No date was established during the actual recording. I’ve asked NARA to assist in determining the date of the interview. My recall is that the interview took place in 2004.

The Interview

Kara:  and how about Colonel Maheney (sp) can you hear me loud and clear?

Maheny: Yes I hear

Kara: OK, we understand the problem and that was part of the ah part of the background I was going into, at least [unclear] looking at events of the day of 9/11, and we are part of a staff of about 80 people sent out through out government. And that really brings us today to talk to you, Colonel O’Brien, and because we are collecting so much information, a wide variety of people we are talking to, our Commissioners have asked that we record our interviews as we move along, and with your permission we would like to record this session today

O’Brien: That’s fine with me

Kara: OK

Maheny: OK

Kara: And for the record, we’ll get everyone’s names.  I’m Mr. Miles Kara, 9/11 Commission.

Sullivan: Lisa Sullivan, 9/11 Commission

Air Force Rep: Tom [unclear] [Office of] Air Force General Counsel

Kara: Colonel Maheny go ahead

Maheny: Lt Col Paul Maheny, Staff Judge Advocate, 133d Air Lift Wing

O’Brien: and Lt Col O’Brien, 133d Air Lift Wing is also with you

Kara:  Colonel O’Brien let me just start with maybe a couple of sentences on your resume’. How long have you been a member of the Department of Defense and the position you held on 9/11.

O’Brien:  I’ve been with the Minnesota Air National Guard since December 1976, and the position I held on 9/11, I was the aircraft commander of Gofer 06.  I was also, my full time position here, I am a technician, federal civil service employee, and I was chief of stan/eval [standards and evaluation], in that time as well.

Kara: And for the record, I naively assumed Gofer was spelled G O P H E R, but I find out that may not be so. How is it spelled?

O’Brien: It’s spelled G O F E R.

Kara: Even though it’s from Minnesota, we’re going to do it that way I guess.

O’Brien:  Correct, they can only give us five digits in the prefix of our call sign, so we are limited to the F as opposed to the P H.

Kara: And, Colonel O’Brien, as we briefly discussed on the secure line, we are going to conduct this unclassified today, if at any point you feel that we are verging on classified, please let me know. And my reason for, my background for determining that we can talk unclassified is that we hold the air traffic system transcripts of that day, we hold the radar of that day, all of which is unclassified. And we also understand, Colonel O’Brien, and correct me if I’m wrong, you did an unclassified interview with the Department of Defense historian, is that correct?

O’Brien: Actually I did the interview, not with the historian, but I did it with ah, and forgive me for not knowing which one, it was one of the cable channels, The Learning Channel or The Discovery Channel, and that was after I was contacted by public affairs. I believe it was the Department of Air Force public affairs who contacted me, said they had a request to do some research for a [unclear]  of the Pentagon, and had cleared it through their staff  and they said that as long as I didn’t have a problem with it they were OK with me conducting an interview with them.  Since then, I have also done an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is a local newspaper here, strictly from a [unclear] on the effect on local people as far as 9/11 was concerned. Just about a week or two ago, I got a request to do an interview with a local public radio station, Minnesota public radio, just to follow up on that. And they just did a real basic interview on the incident that happened that day.

Kara: On that basis then, let’s proceed unclassified and, again, with the caveat that if you understand that we are going to talk about anything classified please let me know and we will adjust accordingly here.

Kara: And according to the mission debrief, Colonel, you were in Washington DC to simply, you were going to ferry some cargo back to Minneapolis, is that correct?

O’Brien: That’s affirmative. We had been on a Guard lift mission down to the Virgin Islands, prior to that. And as an add on to that mission we were supposed to pick up some parts that were supposed to be waiting for us at Andrews Air Force Base, something that only after a few phone calls that morning we found out that the parts had possibly wound up at Dover Air Force Base but they couldn’t verify that for sure. So at that point our Commander at Minneapolis told us just ah to come on home. So, we spent the evening of the 10th September at Andrews Air Force Base, [unclear] remaining overnight, and then we were scheduled to fly home on the eleventh from Andrews to Minneapolis.

Kara: And do you recall what your original flight plan time of departure was when you first decided to come back?

O’Brien: Well, I believe we were scheduled for a 10 o’clock departure, you know the mission was fragged [frag order], this was before we went to Minneapolis on the first day of our trip. And after the determination was made that we weren’t sure where the cargo was, at that point they cleared us to come home whenever we were ready. And so, we really you know didn’t try to make a hard takeoff time, it was just whenever we could get the airplane ready [unclear]. I believe we actually got off at about 9:30 local, Eastern time.

Kara: And what model C130 were you flying?

O’Brien: We fly a C130 H3

Kara: And how is, does, does that model, the H3, carry any armament on it at all?

O’Brien: No, we don’t have any armament on the H3 at all. We do have some defensive systems, we have the capability of chaff and flares, none were loaded on that day.

Kara: And the C130 H3, is, is it, does the H series have an armed model at all?

O’Brien: I’m not aware of any armed H model on the 130’s. I believe all the gunships are previous models to the H.

Kara: And it’s fair to say, then, if you were not carrying any armament that day, there’s no way that Gofer C130 that you were flying, C130H3 model, engaged either American 77 or United 93 that day.

O’Brien: Ah no, there was no way we would have had any way of engaging those aircraft.

Kara: Nor, as one of the popular myths out there on the fringes has you firing a missile into the Pentagon, you had no capability to do that either, is that correct?

O’Brien: That is correct

Kara: OK,  I just, and the reason I ask those questions simply is to get that on the record up front so that we can uh, we are working, Colonel O’Brien, to tell the story of 9/11 as accurately as we possibly can. And that involves us talking to controllers, to pilots, to anybody else who was involved that day, and we are trying to understand the events of the day almost as if we had been in their seat, that day. So that will explain some the questions I am going to ask you.

O’Brien: Understand.

Kara: What was your situational awareness of the events in New York before you took off?

O’Brien: We had no knowledge of anything that had taken place in New York. The first time we knew anything about the events that took place in New York were as we were departing the Washington DC area. It was a frustrating feeling because knowing we would have been in a better position to orbit over the Pentagon and possibly help out with any kind of rescue efforts, a birds eye view of maybe telling them of what was happening traffic wise or where they possibly effect the best rescue effort. And, when they asked us to depart the area one of the first things I did was direct one of our crew members to get on one of our navigational radios and call the [unclear] that shared the same frequency spectrum as the radio stations and so we attempted to get a Washington DC radio station on that radio to learn more about what was going on behind us. And the first thing we heard when we got the, to my recollection, first thing we heard when we got that [unclear] radio tuned up, was that the second aircraft had impacted the world trade center, or at least a aircraft had impacted, I’m not sure about the second one.  As soon as we heard that we knew that, our suspicions were that this was bigger than just an attack on the Pentagon.

Kara: And that was when you were in the air that you heard that?

O’Brien: That’s affirmative

Kara: OK, And on the ground, and Colonel, we pulled your flight strips from Andrews Tower, and we’ve got two flight strips on you. And the first one is at 1330, 9:30 Eastern Daylight Time, and we believe that was your original takeoff scheduled that was entered into the flight data system. And, then later, we have a second flight strip which is 1333, and we believe that is the flight strip that was executed when you actually got wheels up. And that seems to correspond with your recollection that you were up at about 9:31?

O’Brien: Correct

Kara: And what I’d like to do now for you, Colonel, is start playing for you some of the tapes we have from the air traffic control system. And the purpose of the first segment is to show that while you were on the ground at Andrews you were actually delayed for a couple of reasons as you took off and you actually got off a little bit later then you might have otherwise. So let me play that first segment, and I’ve got the recorder with the segment on it close to the telephone and hopefully you can pick it up at your end. So let’s try it. I’ll play it through until you are off the ground at Andrews and then we’ll stop and chat about that briefly. So here we go.

[played tape from Andrews Tower]

Kara: Could you hear that all right Colonel O’Brien?

O’Brien: Yes I did, some of it was a little garbled, but I got the gist of it.

Kara: Right, do you recall those conversations?

O’Brien: Yes, I do. First time I’ve heard them, and it’s a somewhat eerie to hear them again after all this time.

Kara: And it’s a little bit eerie in that the time frame we are talking about Colonel, and my apologies if it causes you to think in an emotional area, But had you not been delayed for three minutes you would have been out there in the flight path of American 77, as it turns out. And we know at that time you had no situational awareness that you knew that 77 was out there when you took off, is that correct?

O’Brien: That’s correct

Kara: And the reason that you were delayed, there are at least two, perhaps three reasons, and there, and, let me recount them as I understand them, and if that’s not correct let me know. You were first held because of the wake turbulence for a seven four heavy [Word 31] that was going off. That was one of the “kneecap” [NEACAP]. I think you were held briefly a second time because of a grass cutter. Not sure on that. And then third, there was a helicopter that was coming across and you were held up for that. Does that square with what you remember?

O’Brien:  That’s affirm. If you like I can elaborate a little bit on the seven four seven, but ah…

Kara: Yes, yeah, would you please?

O’Brien: Well, my recollections on the seven forty seven, and I remarked to the crew while we were starting our engines, as I remember the seven forty seven cranking up, we were facing them. We were headed, our aircraft was pointed southbound towards where they keep the seven forty seven, Air Force One, and the other aircraft. And uh I remarked to the crew that I thought it was unusual that that seven forty seven had gotten started up and had departed in a fairly short time span. I don’t remember the exact time, but I know that, for example, for our aircraft with a four-engine start, typically under normal circumstances, it might take us fifteen minutes or so to get all the engines started, all the check lists accomplished and [unclear]ready to taxi. Seemingly, this aircraft had departed a lot quicker than that, but not knowing anything else that was going on, you know, [unclear] that airplane got off fairly quickly.

Kara: Do you recall if he got priority over you, were you held up so that he could go first, or not?

O’Brien:  No, I don’t recall any priority like, you know, when we call for a taxi, I don’t recall any delays, you know, you have to stand by and wait for the seven forty seven. It may have happened, but I don’t recall that being any kind of conflict at all. It was just a matter of, you know, I think we maybe both started the starting engine sequence at about the same time. It’s just a guess because they don’t have propellers like we have, but ah, it seemed like they had gotten off much sooner than normal [unclear] departure would be.

Kara: And that’s normal to hold up for turbulence they cause when they take off?

O’Brien: That’s correct. There is a wake turbulence separation criteria that are in effect and they just hold us until they feel the wake turbulence from a departing heavy aircraft has dissipated enough to make it safe for departure.

Kara:  OK, the next segment I’m going to play for you, Colonel, is ah, I’m simply going to play it and see if you remember hearing it. It is not directed at you, but it is a conversation that occurs in the air between one of the two towers and another plane that is in the sky.

[side direction to Sullivan]

[Misplay of previous clip]

[side direction to Sullivan]

[A National Tower clip, a discussion of the situation in New York, but not clear, second plane into second tower]

Kara: Do you recall hearing anything like that while you were on the ground Colonel O’Brien?

O’Brien: No I don’t.

Kara: And you might have heard in the background Andrews calling for another release; that was the release on you. So this conversation was going on in the air. I think that’s Andrews, excuse me I think that’s National Tower and there was no reason for you to be on their frequency at that time. I just play that for you so that you have situational awareness as we now get you up in the air here.

Kara: Let me continue playing

[Played conversation between National Tower and Gofer 06 immediately after takeoff. Gofer 06 has the unknown in site and identifies it as a seven five seven. Gofer 06 is directed to follow the aircraft]

Kara: Colonel, let me just interject and I forgot to tell you that at the beginning, I have voice activated taped this so there are, the gaps that were there have been taken out and this is not in real time. [dead space and unrelated transmissions were removed to condense the information for the interview]

O’Brien: OK, I understand.

Kara: And, it uh, took you a while to get the tower to understand that you weren’t Gofer 86, you were Gofer 06.

O’Brien: Ah Yeah, that happens once in a while, it’s you know, not common, but it happens. So you just try and make sure that you correct them. It’s standard procedure to make sure there aren’t any confusions. Because sometimes there are similar call signs, either the suffixes are very close or the prefixes are close. And so, in case there was another 86 aircraft out there I didn’t want them to confuse us with them. So, consequently I am a little bit stubborn and try and make sure they have the right call sign.

Kara: And we appreciate that. And just for your situational awareness, you might have heard in the background, you’re on the Tyson at ah National Tower, and in the background you might have heard Krant position as they just became aware that they have a fast moving aircraft, so that’s going on in the background. And they’ve become aware, in real time, that they actually have a military aircraft up there that they can, that they can divert and that’s in fact what they did. So let me just continue this segment and then we can talk about it.

O’Brien: OK

[Continues playing tape from National Tower]

Kara: You recall that, Colonel?

O’Brien: Yeah I do, yes sir I do!

Kara: And, I have one clarification that I would ask. You make a report that the aircraft is down. And then later you say it’s into the Pentagon. When you use the phrase down, there, you mean down on the ground, is that correct?

O’Brien: That’s affirmative. I probably should have used some other terminology other than down, but that’s the first thing that came to mind. I witnessed an aircraft crash when I was back when I was in pilot training one of my class mates crashed in front of me on final and, so I’d seen that signature fireball and smoke [unclear] come up once before from a jet fuel explosion like that and I don’t think it happened quite that quickly. I don’t think it happened that quickly. You mentioned something about how you have the tape [unclear] off just a little bit. I recall it being a little bit of a delay from the first time I reported the aircraft until I reported the aircraft had went down.

Kara: And what I did Colonel was I compressed about three minutes of audio down into the segment that you heard hear. And I wanted to make you aware you are not hearing it in real time; I just simply did that in the interest of time.

Kara: When you identified the plane as a seven five seven did you have any indication at all of the company?

O’Brien: No, I didn’t at the time. And I remember when I debriefed with the folks in Youngstown, Ohio, that I was not able to really give them a commercial carrier. I think the aircraft was banked up, I recall, quite a bit steeper then what your typical aircraft, commercial airliner banks for a turn. I want to say it was between 30 and 45 degrees of bank constantly when he went by us at our 12 o’clock and passing through our one to two o’clock position. We were pretty much looking at the top of the airplane.  So, I remember seeing what appeared to be almost like a red stripe at the root, the wing root of the, ah, it would be the right wing, I guess, as they were passing by us. And in hindsight I realize now that it was probably the American Airlines, you know, their signature paint job that they have along the wing probably reflecting off the wing. But, all I remember is a silver 757 at that point and I believe that is what I debriefed to the Intel folks at Youngstown [unclear].

Kara: And it was clear to you that that was a seven five as opposed to either a seven six or a seven three?

O’Brien: It was definitely a 757 [unclear]. Where ah, where ah close enough, I guess the models are close enough. Seven six is obviously, you know, a little bit bigger than the seven fifty seven, but they’re fairly close in size and I guess I was correct in my initial assumption when ATC [air traffic control] asked me what type of aircraft that was. Subsequently, when I debriefed with the folks at Youngstown I, you know, said well I’m not quite sure, it was a seven fifty seven, possibly a seven fifty seven, but I guess my initial recognition of the aircraft in conversing with ATC was correct, that is was a seven fifty seven.

Kara: And it’s quite clear to us as we listen to these tapes that you gave a clear identification of the type aircraft to air traffic control in near real time. And as you are probably aware in the news it doesn’t get sorted out nearly as fast as you had it sorted out to air traffic control. And the question we have is, were you on the air with anybody else at that time? Were you with a military controller of any sort or talking to the military?

O’Brien: No we weren’t. Sometimes we are, we have our radios tuned up to the command post that we just departed, in order to give them a departure call so that they can plug it to the command and control system for the military. And that just updates our time so that the folks at our home station will have a better idea, you know, when to expect us for arrival. But we were not conversing with Andrews command post at that time.

Kara: And, the, so, the only military entity you would have been in contact with normally would have been a command post, in this case Andrews. And it was the case on that morning that you were not on freq with the Andrews command post?

O’Brien: Not at that time, no. No, we weren’t, we weren’t conversing with them at the time. And I can’t really recall whether or not we had made an off call to Andrews command post. Things were happening fairly quickly and any time you are operating an aircraft in the, in the Andrews area, you got a number of airports there, things are real, real busy. And my assumption is that we probably hadn’t even initiated our off call to command post just because things are a little bit more saturated as far as ATC calls and directions, it being a fairly busy environment there around Washington DC. You really have to listen up on the radios and not miss any calls to yourself because they are typically stepping you up in altitude only a thousand, two thousand feet at a time and giving you fairly precise vectors to keep all the traffic separated.

Kara: And when you say off call, what does that mean?

O’Brien: Departure call.

Kara: Departure. Oh, OK, I got it. And, a departure call, a courtesy back to the base command post, could have been done, but was not.

O’Brien: That’s, that’s to the best of my recollection. I don’t recall. A lot of times when we have a navigator on board we will delegate that to the navigator and let him make our departure call back to the command post so they can update the system. And I, I’m sorry I really don’t recall whether or not Colonel DeVito had made that call or not. I would have, I know the way I run things on an airplane, I would have delegated that to the navigator just because it is a busy area and it was the co-pilots [unclear] that day. Even though I was in the left hand seat as the aircraft commander I was working the ATC radios that day and I’m sure I would have delegated the UHF radio which we use to stay in contact with military command posts and the navigators, ah..

Kara: And that was Colonel Devito?

O’Brien: That’s correct

Kara: What’s his first name?  

O’Brien: Joseph

Kara: Joseph. And is that Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel?

O’Brien: He’s a Lieutenant Colonel

Kara: Lieutenant Colonel. And what ah, as you think back on that, what other traffic was there in the area that you can recall?

O’Brien: You know, I don’t recall, I’m sure there was other traffic. But, I don’t recall any other traffic, I mean it is just a very busy environment and to see, you know, traffic out there and to notice everything that’s in the area, you’re busier than you would want to be, especially when you are trying to listen up on the radio freq, ATC calls and all that, of course we are looking at things but we are not commenting and I’m not, you know registering and recording those things in my mind as far as, it would be unusual to see four or five different airplanes in that environment there, so you’re, for the most part, just clearing the area in front of you. And, of course, we’ve got a what we call a TCAS, it’s a, oh what should I say, it’s a piece of equipment that allows us to identify other aircraft out there that have transponder codes. And, between clearing out visually and using the TCAS equipment that we’ve got in the aircraft, and then [unclear] on ATC, that’s how we basically clear [unclear] other aircraft that might be in the area.

Kara: And the only traffic that was of concern to you for safety or safety reason was the traffic that was pointed out to you?

O’Brien: That’s correct. And I had ah, to the best of my recollection I had noticed him before the ATC call. I believe I first saw him about my ten o’clock position and then when the controller pointed the traffic out to us on the radios it was a, fairly obvious you know what airplane they were talking about, [unclear] sounded what should I say, kind of incredulous that we wouldn’t have seen that airplane because he was as close as he was to us. And that surprised us when he asked us to identify the airplane. Because, typically, ATC knows more about the aircraft than you do as far as the identity, they have an individual strip on each aircraft that identifies their call sign, type aircraft, the type carrier, the carrier that was operating that airplane, and so on and so forth, so when he asked us what kind of airplane,  it was it was a very unusual request.

Kara: And, based on our review of the radar and the air traffic control tapes and any other information we can get our hands on, the only other aircraft that we’re aware of that day that you may have been aware of either visually or on radar, first of all, did you see Word 31, the seven four, out in front of you?

O’Brien: I don’t recall that aircraft, I’m sorry.

Kara: And there was a helicopter that took off from the Pentagon oh a few minutes before you came across the Potomac, and he was headed northbound. You recall seeing a helicopter in the area?

O’Brien: No I don’t.

Kara: And the only other two airplanes that I’m aware of that are of interest, there were two Bobcats, and I think those were Air Force [unclear] out of Dover, but they were well at altitude, the were at 17 and 21 thousand on top of you, you recall either talking to them or being aware of them at all?

O’Brien: No we were not, we were certainly not communicating with them and we didn’t recognize, or I shouldn’t say didn’t recognize, but we didn’t see them as a crew, being down at 3 thousand feet or so we were our scan wouldn’t have gone up that high.

Kara: And then as ah you were, how many minutes or miles were you behind the plane you followed? Behind seventy seven?

O’Brien: Oh, behind flight 77?

Kara: Yeah

O’Brien: There was a delay from the time that they asked or that I offered to them, you know the aircraft rolling out on a northeasterly heading and still in a descent, I’m not sure how long of a time frame that was, but as fast as that airplane was going, I’m sure there was quite a bit of separation that took place between us and that aircraft before they then asked us to turn and follow that aircraft. And I remember, vaguely remember, trying to keep the aircraft in sight. And every once in a while we would get a glimpse off of the wing tip or whatever, but it was early in the morning, [unclear] practically 9:30 or 9:40 or so, and the sun was still somewhat low on the horizon. And with the east coast typically being hazy with just moisture and pollutants and things like that, it becomes a little bit more difficult when you are looking for the traffic eastbound, you know looking toward the east looking for traffic through the sun haze it becomes difficult and so we were really straining to keep that airplane in sight until the impact on the ground there and it became obvious where the aircraft was down.

Kara: And we have the radar reduction files from the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron at Hill Air Force Base and it looks to us as, as though, we analyzed that data, that it looks like you were about two minutes behind the aircraft. When you were able to make your turn and come and vector behind him it looks like you were about two minutes behind. I just point that out to you so that you are aware of it.

O’Brien: OK

Kara: And then you were asked to orbit the Pentagon as I recall, but you were called off of that. Could you walk us through that for a minute or so?

O’Brien: Well, initially, they gave us that heading of two seven zero, and, I can’t remember exactly when I took the aircraft from my co-pilot but I believe it was after that instruction. We were getting closer and closer to the Pentagon and I could see that the vector they were giving us could possibly take us through the plume of smoke that was coming up from the Pentagon. And, for what ever reason, I still didn’t know anything about the aircraft menacing the World Trade Center, but it was somewhat obvious to me that a pilot worth his salt would not have taken a disabled airplane into the Pentagon. And so, right away my suspicions began to, you know, rise that this was possibly a deliberate act and not knowing, you know, what might be coming up in that smoke, whether or not they had any kind of nuclear, biological, or anything like that on board the airplane, for a terrorism situation like that, I thought it was not a good idea to fly through that plume of smoke coming up from the Pentagon. And so I believe that’s when the notion came to me that I should not take the airplane, I had taken the airplane and I realized that at that point I would have to turn back to the right a little bit. We were heading approximately zero nine zero, you know heading still heading toward the Pentagon when we got that request from or direction from ATC to turn to a two seven zero heading. At that point I made the decision that we were going to turn a little bit to the South and basically enter a left hand orbit around the Pentagon, around the side of the Pentagon, which would keep it on my side of the airplane. I thought that was best since I was flying the airplane now. Then I thought, you know, about possibly trying to set up an orbit around the Pentagon to effect some kind of rescue attempt or whatever, and, or help out with any other information. I could possibly give them a birds eye view there and they were fairly emphatic about asking us to depart the area there at two seven zero at my [unclear] altitude. So, at that point I thought I’m not going to argue with ATC, we’ll just follow their direction and go ahead with whatever they wanted us to do.

Kara: Yeah. And for those of us who are not pilots, or rated, when you say your side is that the right side or the left side of the aircraft.

O’Brien: It’s the left side

Kara: Left side. And the time you’re in the vicinity of the Pentagon, and that’s just around 9:40 Eastern Daylight time. We you aware of or did you see any fighter aircraft or other military aircraft?

O’Brien: No, no we weren’t aware of any fighter aircraft?

Kara Ok. And then you proceed on your way, a heading of three ten, eventually, and you’re headed up towards Pennsylvania and I’d just like to play a little more audio for you. And what we have is, well the Tyson position is vectoring you as we just learned. The Krant position, on the other hand, is picking up situational awareness and a little bit of that was in the background. But I’d just like to play for you the other side of the conversations that were going on in the Tower that day. So, if you’ll just bear with me a minute.

Kara: Should be able to start it up.

[An audio compilation. The Dulles TRACON clip sounding the alert, conversation at National and Andrews ATC facilities, to include Venus 77]

Kara: OK let me stop it there. Colonel, that was the other side. What you heard in the background is a, a voice, a female voice said, National, anybody. That was the first identification of a fast moving aircraft approaching the DC area, and that was at about 9:33. And that’s just about the time you took off, so we have Dulles reporting that to National Tower and at the same time they are lifting you up. And we got both planes, if you will, coming toward the DC area, or toward the Pentagon area from different directions. At one point, and I don’t think you heard it, but the original point out on the 757, a voice in the background said, oh, you mean that Gofer guy. And he says, no, no, it’s ah it’s the “look” point out that I gave you.

[Comment. Researchers familiar with the National TRACON radar can correlate the “look” point out to the “S” tag which shows up on the primary only track of AA 77 in this time frame]

 Kara: Either that day or afterwards were you aware of any of that juxtaposition of your flight with the fast moving aircraft coming in bound?

O’Brien: When you refer to the fast moving aircraft are you referring to flight seven seven?

Kara: That’s correct. It’s not, no one knows it’s that it’s seventy seven, so when Dulles first gives that point out there, they pick up a primary only coming in, and that’s how it’s announced over the air traffic network.

O’Brien: OK, no, I was not aware of that fast moving aircraft. And like I said earlier, I believe I had first picked the airplane up, and I’m guessing we were ah at 3,000 feet, maybe had just been cleared up to 4000 feet, when I noticed the airplane. He was up a little bit higher than us at that point and then when ATC asked us again if we had the airplane in sight he had continued his descent down, was in a fairly, like I said, steep bank turn to the right at about our 12 o’clock position and at about the same altitude, I would say was about 3500 feet or so.

Kara: And as you may have heard, shortly after you reported the Pentagon crash and it became aware there was a ground stop in the DC area. And had you been further delayed until after that you wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.

O’Brien: I understand that.

Kara: Did you hear that ground stop come out over the frequency?

O’Brien: You know, I don’t recall hearing a ground stop, per se, over the frequency. If I did, it’s been so long that, you know, that memory has faded. There’s only certain things that really that stick out vividly in my mind.

Kara: Let’s take you up now on the three ten leg, and at some point in time you’re made aware of another situation that’s developed. And I don’t have the page with me from Cleveland Center who I believe was talking to you but what you recall [side comment to Sullivan], what you recall about the second event that day?

O’Brien: Well the second event, I had asked the crew if everyone was OK to continue on. This was after the witnessing the crash at the Pentagon. All the crew members came back and reported that they were OK to press on. That was my biggest concern at that point was how was everyone was doing. So we decided to continue on back to Minneapolis. We had been handed off from departure control to center [Cleveland]. And I believe it was the first center controller, Cleveland Center, who had pointed out traffic to us at our 12 o’clock. Couldn’t give us an altitude. And so we did our normal scan looking for traffic, go out [unclear], you know, increasing above and below. We really couldn’t pick any thing out as far as, you know, the traffic was concerned. And at that point we reported back to him that we didn’t have any traffic in sight. So he gave us a vector, about three six zero, basically a right 90 degree turn to head us to the north to deconflict with, should that traffic, you know, happen to be at our altitude. Shortly after we rolled out of the turn that another crew member [unclear] in the back of the aircraft reported to me smoke off the left side of the aircraft. And I turned I looked right away and saw, you know, the black smoke coming up from the ground.  This one wasn’t right after the impact, so I personally I didn’t see [unclear] you know, that yellow plume of flame or anything like that, all I saw was the smoke coming up from the ground. And at that point I reported that smoke to Center and gave them an approximate position, you know Paul and I [unclear] just about 20 miles away. And I think he came back and replied that he had lost the traffic that he was pointing out to us, about seventeen or eighteen miles, the two were close enough that I was sure that you know what he was pointing out to us possibly could [unclear relate]  to the smoke coming off the ground.

Kara: We have you from the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron, uh air traffic was accurate. The inbound path of a primary only, which we now know to be United 93, was at your twelve o’clock. It crashes near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 10:03 and at about that time I have you on radar evaluation reduction as just crossing from Maryland into that narrow projection of West Virginia and you are not quite in Pennsylvania, yet. And, at that point that you were vectored 90 degrees to the right, was that when you were 40 miles away, or was it further up?

O’Brien: Ah no, it was about 20 miles away, was my estimate that we saw this smoke, and that was just a rough guess on my part when I reported back to Cleveland Center, told them that we had smoke coming off of the ground. I estimated it to be about 20 miles.

Kara: Off the port side, right?

O’Brien: That’s correct, off the left wing tip, our nine o’clock position.

Kara: We have, he vectored you, at about 10:04 he vectored you 90 to the right and at 10:07 the controller brought you back again on course, at about 10:07, that’s about four minutes after the impact of United 93 into the ground. What was your awareness of other aircraft in the sky?

O’Brien: Well, ah the only thing I saw that I, you know, vaguely remember and I didn’t think it was significant at all, I saw a smaller white aircraft at a lower altitude and we were up high enough that it would have be difficult for me to, you know, give an exact altitude. But, if I had to guess right now, trying to remember what it looked like, I’d say it was, you know, below ten thousand feet, possibly down around five or six thousand feet, and if I remember correctly it looked like a white business jet and I believe it was north bound when I saw it. That’s the only other traffic that I recall seeing in the area beside the, you know, the smoke plume coming off of the field.

Kara: Let me come back to that business jet in a moment. But let me just simply ask you, do you recall seeing any fighter aircraft or any other military aircraft in the vicinity or on your flight path that day?

O’Brien: No I don’t.

Kara: OK, and I appreciate that. That’s helpful to us that you have that good recall.

Kara: The business jet, again, thanks to the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron, we believe that to be a Falcon jet, November 20VF that was, it was at altitude coming up oh it was at about zero three zero [azimuth] coming across the Pennsylvania border from Ohio, and was vectored by air traffic control from altitude down to, and I’m going on memory here, but it seemed to me eight thousand feet, which would square with your recall. That airplane actually did one three sixty loop just, just above the crash site and at uh at10:14 EDT, this would be ten, eleven minutes after the impact. It was immediately at nine o’clock from your left hand seat, which, you said you were on the left side, right?

O’Brien: That’s affirmative

Kara: That aircraft would have been at, uh, let me get my clock right, would have been at nine o’clock if you had looked out the window. And you think you saw him at about that time, perhaps?

O’Brien: That’s affirmative

Kara: And you were not then vectored to do anything else concerning that crash, and you continued on and landed uneventfully at Youngstown, Ohio.

O’Brien: That’s affirm. We get handed off, I believe, to another Cleveland center controller shortly after that. And it was then that he was somewhat hesitant in asking us, you know, what we should be doing at that point. I can’t remember his exact terminology, but it was something to the effect, I’m not sure if  I can ask you this but can you tell me what you guys are doing? And I just, you know, basically relayed to him that we were an air national guard aircraft heading back to Minneapolis. And he came back with something to the effect that well I’ve been told to get all commercial aircraft on the ground. And you’re a military aircraft so, you know, might want to check with your folks and see, you know, what they want you to do. And so I checked, I looked at one of our navigational charts and saw that Youngstown Ohio was the closest, or to me it appeared like it would be the best divert base if in fact if we had to divert someplace because [unclear] was going on. So I initiated contact there with command post there at Youngstown and they gave us instructions to the effect that we should land at their location, there.

Kara: As I listen to the tape from the Cleveland controller, it seemed like he was a bit challenging of you. He knew that all our planes were supposed to be on the ground and he was a bit challenging of you of why you were even in the air. Do you recall that?

O’Brien: Yeah, I don’t know if he was challenging us or if he was just uncomfortable with asking us, you know, and I thought back in hindsight that if he was, you know obviously he had must have had a strip on us, just like every other controller has, you know, with basic information of departure point and destination. And, you know, my initial reaction was well if he saw us departing out, out of Washington DC, out of Andrews Air Force Base, at approximately the same time that the terrorist incidents were taking place at New York and the Pentagon that we might be some kind of an evacuation airplane. And so, that’s the, I guess, the hesitancy I heard in his voice, not so much a challenge as he was somewhat uncomfortable even in asking us what we were, you know, doing. And, when I relayed to him that we were just an air national guard C130 heading back to Minneapolis that is when he made the recommendation that we probably contact someone in our command and control to, you know, see if they had further instructions for us.

Kara: By this time in the Washington area, and perhaps elsewhere, Andrews Tower, specifically, and later Dulles Tower, were making the following kinds of announcements. At 10:05 EDT, and at that point you would have been just crossing,  you would have just turned right vectored to 90, 90 right and crossing into Pennsylvania, Andrews Tower broadcast on guard that any airplanes violating Class B airspace would be shot down. And then, about ten minutes later, at 10:15, there’s a similar call for Washington, excuse me Dulles Tower making the exact same pronouncement to all airplanes in the sky, any airplanes approaching Washington DC. Do you recall hearing any of those announcements on guard or any other frequency?

O’Brien: No I don’t. And, I hate to, because it’s been two and one half years and I know you are playing back all the tapes, but, and I could have, you know I hate to say this, I could have imagined this after the fact. But when we were initially pulled to turn to the 270 heading, and I can’t remember how many radio transmissions it was after this, I vaguely remember one of the [unclear] guys saying that, you know, we have fast movers coming into the area and that is why they needed us to get out and the assumption that I made was, if in fact this is a terrorist incident, they just want us, you know, have the proper sorting out, good guys from bad guys, they just wanted all the airplanes they were talking to, to vacate the area. And I don’t know for sure if that was on the tapes or if they gave that to us, but I vaguely remember, you know,   remember something to that effect.

Kara: And the announcements that are referred to, we pick up on Washington area air traffic control towers. And I don’t remember whether center, Washington Center put that out or not, they might have. But at that time you were well within Cleveland Center’s airspace, and I don’t recall Cleveland doing that and that’s why I simply asked you if you,  you had heard a very precise announcement from any center or any tower that you might be shot down if you went back to Washington.

O’Brien: No, I don’t recall hearing anything like that at all.

Kara: OK and ah, let me just ask you squarely again Colonel, in reference to your proximity to the crash site of United 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, it’s a fact that you in no way, shape, or form, were armed that day, and you did not see any armed military aircraft, air defense fighters, or other aircraft that could have been involved in the downing of that aircraft.

O’Brien: No I didn’t

Kara: And, again, I thank you for that kind of precise statement because that will be very helpful to us.

Kara: As I go back over your mission debriefing there’s just a couple of points I’d like to ask you about. In one there was an inference that you were going to be or might have been interviewed by the FBI, were you so interviewed?

O’Brien: Yes we were. When we arrived at Youngstown, Ohio, I immediately asked to talk to the senior ranking person at the base operations building there, and I believe it was the Ops Group Commander that I talked to, but I couldn’t be for certain who that was right now, and basically told him that I think we should go to some place and discuss what we had seen. And, at that point I think we got a real basic debrief with the intel folks at Youngstown, Ohio, the military intelligence section at Youngstown. And then it was shortly after that that they said that the Cleveland, I don’t know if it was Cleveland, but they said the FBI wanted to come down and do an interview with some of the crew members, I thought they said they were coming from Cleveland.

Kara: And do you recall when and where that interview was conducted?

O’Brien: The interview was conducted back in the base operations building, actually, back in, but I believe it was right in the same intel, the secure area inside the intelligence section at Youngstown, the FBI [unclear]

Kara: That was on 9/11 and that [unclear]. Do you recall how long that interview lasted?

O’Brien: No I don’t, I would just guess that it was about15 to 20 minutes.

Kara: And then you used nomenclature that is interesting to me and that I am not familiar with. And I’ll just give you the nomenclature that you used and maybe you can tell me a little bit about it. I think you are talking about the modes on the airplane and you talk about “stick paint.”

O’Brien: That was a typo. And I commented, it was interesting to read the transcribed transcript of the taped interview that was done by our folks here at the Intelligence Section here at the 133d, because that was meant to say skin paint, S K I N.

Kara: That makes, in other words primary radar.

O’Brien: That’s affirm. We have a fairly sophisticated radar in the H3 model that we hadn’t had prior to this, and its got various modes in it, its got a weather mode, and its got a [unclear] mode, and its, one of the modes happens to be skin paint that we can range out to approximately 20 miles for primary targets. In other words if the aircraft is made of metal we’re going to pick it up on our radar. And we have various gates, air speed gates that we can set up to illuminate slow moving traffic or fast moving traffic, whichever. And so, typically we operate we call a skin paint medium mode. Where, what it basically does is eliminate all the ground clutter because it will actually pick up if you leave it at low mode, it will actually pick up traffic on highways, things like that. So the skin paint was a reference to the low mode radar.

Kara: And you can only go out 20 miles with that?

O’Brien. That’s affirm, that’s the maximum, if we’re really tight to you know, be very precise it’s got lower settings, we can get it all the way down to a mile and a half, where the bottom of the scope, top of the scope is a mile and a half out.

Kara: And in its, in its final minutes United 93 was at 8000 feet, and its altitude, or altitude above ground was probably [unclear] beyond your skin paint capability?

O’Brien: Well, you see, there’s a beam of radar, so it’s not, you know it can’t paint from the ground up to infinity, anything like that.  I’d have to get my tech order manual out to give you an exact, you know how big the slice of airspace it was looking at based on a certain distance as far as the maximum range of the radar is concerned. It’s not looking at a very wide slice of airspace, to my understanding.

Kara: Do you recall then, you never had United 93 on your TCAS or any kind of radar display?

O’Brien: Now, refresh my memory, 93 was

Kara: That’s the plane that crashed that you observed the smoke.

O’Brien: OK, no, that one we were not painting on skin paint nor were we painting it on TCAS.

Kara: OK

Kara: Colonel, we’ve covered quite a few items today, and based on my, ah [unclear] that I’ve given you in terms of some of the radar reductions I have and the tapes that you’ve listened to, is there anything I haven’t asked you about that I should know about in your observations that day?

O’Brien: No I can’t say that there’s anything at all, it’s interesting to listen to it again and kind of relive it.

Kara: It was my pleasure, Colonel, to play back for you your own voice that day. Have you been interested at some point in time that we were going to call you?

O’Brien: Had I been interested?

Kara: Had you been interested or not in whether or not the 9/11 Commission was going to reach out and talk to you?

O’Brien: You know, it hadn’t really crossed my mind, although you know ever once in a while when I think it has died down, I’ll get a request to you know do another interview or whatever, so nothing ever surprises me anymore.  It was interesting to hear from the 9/11 Commission, because I didn’t know how you know thorough they were going to be. And, so, anyway.

Kara: And your specific assistance to us today, as you’re well aware, Colonel, the public stories that are out about the day of 9/11 are loaded with myths, and mythologies, and incorrect interpretations, and just plain wrong stories out there. And part of it has to do with the ultimate fate of 77 and 93. And you’re an eye witness that day in both instances and your clear recollection has been extremely helpful to us and we thank you for that.

O’Brien: OK, I’m glad I was able to help the Commission out.

That concluded the interview. Kara, Sullivan and O’Brien talked briefly at the end, nothing substantive.