9-11: SVTS; a cold war system, warmed over

This is one of a continuing series of articles about the linear management processes used by the government on 9-11.  I use the term ‘linear’ deliberately.  My overall construct for analysis is chaos theory.  Chaos is non-linear and my point about linear processes is that they were ill-suited to the task at hand.  SVTS, Secure Video Teleconference System, pronounced by many as ‘civ its’ is one such linear process.

Key Points

There are two key things to know about SVTS.  First, it was–and likely still is–a closed system.  It was immune to new information in real time.

Second, it was the management process of choice for Richard Clarke; he had others as we shall discuss.  Clarke wrote in Against All Enemies; “…I want the highest-level person in Washington from each agency on-screen now, especially FAA…”  ‘On-screen meant SVTS.

In fairness to Clarke, I can’t say that I or anyone else would have reacted differently at the time.  It was an available secure means of communication.

SVTS Background

I personally watched the establishment of the SVTS system.  One node was built in my office spaces in the 1987 time frame.  I watched the building of that closed system daily as each succeeding layer of security was added, layer, by layer, by layer…you get the idea.

I then operated that node for several years and was familiar with its inner workings.  I’m sure the workings have changed over the years, but my observation while on both the Joint Inquiry and 9-11 Commission staffs was that it was little changed by 2001.

Once inside a node participants had no access to their staff or to real-time information.  They were stuck with whatever staff they had brought with them and with the information they had brought to the table.  Moreover, the layers of security were such that if a door opened at any node the conference came to a screeching halt while the identity of the entering person was established.

The operating principle was one of cold war paranoia.  It was important that everyone at every node know exactly who was privy to the subject at hand.  It was also important that there be no separate electronic inputs and that the SVTS conference, itself, not be electronically exportable.

So, when Clarke then wrote in response to a Condi Rice question; “We’re putting together a secure teleconference to manage the crisis…I’d like to get the highest-ranking official from each department,” he effectively decapitated each agency at a critical time.

Commission staff notes from our interview with Commander Gardner at the NMCC are a good summary of the situation.  According to our notes; “re SVTS, we lost principals thruout day to SVTS, no runners to SVTS other than what Principals brought back.”  In comparison with the Air Threat Conference our notes have Gardner saying, “re ATCC & SVTS, They were competing venues for C&C [command and control] & decisonmaking (sic).”

Activation vs Convening a Conference

Once staffs were alerted to bring up a secure conference the activation process took time.  SVTS was not a 24-hour operation so the key in the ignition had to be turned, so to speak.  Staff woud then work to make sure everything was functioning and that all nodes were up on the line.  That was not instantaneous,  Concurrently the principals had to be summoned from wherever they were and logged in and accounted for.  My recall is that the whole process of bringing a conference on-line took a while, on the order of 15-30 minutes.

I have read Clarke’s description of the conference and my sense is that it conflates information.

The conference was activated at 9:25 and convened at 9:40.  Here is what the Commission Report says: “At the White House, the video teleconference was conducted from the Situation Room by Richard Clarke, a special assistant to the president long involved in counterterrorism. Logs indicate that it began at 9:25 and included the CIA; the FBI; the departments of State, Justice, and Defense; the FAA; and the White House shelter. The FAA and CIA joined at 9:40.”

That  means it took 25 minutes to bring the conference on line.  Clarke wrote, “Okay, Let’s start with the facts.  FAA, FAA, go.”  That keynote statement was made no earlier than 9:40, according to information available to the Commission Staff.

What else was available?

First, we have established that a NOIWON conference was convened at 9:20 which linked together the NMCC, the White House Situation Room and the FAA.  The problem was that the phones were manned primarily by analysts, no principals and, in the case of FAA, those analysts were on the third floor, seven floors below the FAA’s operation center.  I am also familiar with NOIWON and my estimate is that it was not suited for the operational need at hand.

Second, Clarke, himself, acknowledges that an Air Threat Conference had convened.  “On my way …[the] Situation Room deputy director, grabbed me. ‘We’re on the line with NORAD, on an air threat conference call.”  As we know, FAA was never effectively on that conference until well after 10:00.  It, too, was unsuited for the purpose at hand.

Third, the FAA activated its primary net at 9:20 and secondary source information shows that the NMCC link worked.  However, as the Commission Staff learned that link was still born; it was never used.

Retrospective Comments

With the clarity of hindsight we can conclude that the FAA’s primary net was a better vehicle for Clarke to use.  He apparently didn’t know about it and Jane Garvey apparently did not suggest it.

So, at 9:45 clock-time on 9-11, we can  link to other articles and categories and summarize what is happening.  Herndon Center has just ordered an airborne inventory and is accumulating information about possible wayward flights, to include UA 93 and AA 77.  Garvey reports to Clarke on AA 11 and UA 175, only.  She reports there are eleven other potential problems but she does not have the specificity that is rapidly being accumulated by Herndon because of the order for an air inventory.

Mineta, according to Clarke is not yet in the loop. “Jane, where’s Norm?”  Langley fighters are rapidly approaching the DC area and will be directly overhead by 10:00.  The President is en route Air Force One and will take off at 9:55 for the nation’s capital.

None of the real time information concerning the airborne inventory or the Langley fighters, or UA 93 and AA 77 is finding its way into the SVTS conference.  The only way to communicate with SVTS participants is, according to Commander Gardner, via runners, which they didn’t have.  So they waited for the principals to return with news.

On 9-11 a cold war-conceived closed system was immune to current information via electronics, semaphore, or smoke signals.  SVTS was a convenient venue to manage a crisis, it was not the right venue

Chaos Theory: 9-11; Ghostbusters, Herndon Center takes charge


In separate articles we have established three things that now converge.  First, we established that Chaos Theory, metaphorically, can be used to analyze events on 9-11.  Second, we established that AA 77 approached the nation’s capital undetected and that FAA’s Eastern Region was chasing ghosts.  Third, we established that the battle commanders that day were Colonel Bob Marr at NEADS and Ben Sliney at Herndon Center and that they weren’t talking to each other.  In this article we begin to explore two things, the convergence of events and the convergence of my separate analytical threads.

Eastern Region, ZDC and IAD

In the immediate aftermath of the first tower strike Eastern Region established a teleconference and continued to try and figure out what happened in New York City.  That task became unmanageable when UA 175 struck the second tower.

Nevertheless, Eastern Region kept trying to establish a body of information concerning past events and was trying to determine what happened to the towers and to locate AA 11 and UA 175.  It was by no means established in the immediate aftermath of the impact of UA 175 what had in fact happened to either tower.  Individual FAA managers and controllers intuitively knew the fate of both planes but that was not a corporate understanding.

We will learn in a later article that Eastern Region had reached an erroneous estimate of the situation.  As they tried to give one update to FAA Headquarters, a traffic management officer at Herndon broke in and set the record straight.  That stark contrast between what Eastern Region knew and what Herndon Center knew will reveal  how conflicted FAA was in its management of the battle.  But that is a later story.

At this point in our research Eastern Region is reaching backward in time and is making skip-echelon calls to Centers, Towers and TRACONS to sort out what had already happened.  We have documented two of those calls, one to ZDC asking about AA 77 and another to IAD asking about UA 175.

Concurrent with that second call Herndon Center, taking a completely different tack, called all the air traffic control centers to pass on specific guidance to fight the tactical battle still ahead.  Herndon Center took that action at 9:30, effectively shoving aside Eastern Region.  Ben Sliney, on his first day at work in his new job was learning quickly and he made, in short order, two critical decisions.

First, at 9:25 he culminated a series of local ground stops by ordering that all traffic nationwide on the ground stay on the ground. Second, he ordered an inventory of all aircraft in the air; the subject of a 9:30 call by one of Sliney’s traffic managers that can be heard at this link. Ghostbusters Call Herdon to all Centers

Herndon Center and Managing Chaos

Chaos is deterministic; it is bounded randomness; it is self organizing.  In order to combat the chaos of the morning someone had to got a grip on the bounds; and that someone was Ben Sliney.  His two key actions, a ground stop and an airborne inventory, were belated but each singularly effective in damping down the chaotic nature of the double bifurcated attack.  His actions assured the attack would not further bifurcate, even though that was not in the terrorist attack plan.  But he did not know that.

The nationwide ground stop assured that no more problematic airliners would enter the National Air Space.  The airborne inventory gave specific actionable orders to all air traffic control centers to let Herdon know immediately of any problems.  Cleveland Center responded within seconds.

Cleveland Center

Immediately, Cleveland Center, ZOB, reported what it knew about UA 93.  That call can be heard at this link.  UA 93 First Reported to Herndon Center.

This call establishes the fact that FAA knew about UA 93 at some level above an air traffic control center soon after 9:30.  FAA also knew that AA 77 was lost but neither ZID  or ZDC had yet provided any specificity to Herndon Center.  They did not do so because they did not know where the plane was.

Readers will recall that in the original Transponders and Ghosts article we established that each transponder manipulation presented a different problem to air traffic control.  We will never know why Ziad Jarrah waited until well after the turn back to turn off UA 93’s transponder, except that it was a fourth variation on a theme.  Whatever the reason, ZOB was able to effectively follow and report on UA 93.

What is happening and what isn’t happening

The most obvious point is that only one of the battle commanders, Sliney, has actionable information.  No one has shared critical information with Colonel Marr at NEADS.  No one has recognized that Marr and Sliney needed to be in contact.  We do know that NEADS was able to effectively follow D 1989.  Demonstrably, we know that they would also have been able to follow UA 93, but they were never cued to do so.

Herndon Center has now exerted itself and will do so more forcefully as the minutes go by.  Specifically, it will set the record straight at FAA Headquarters.  Even so, that accurate information will not find its way to the NCA or to NEADS.

By 9:42, Jane Garvey will be the captive of an SVTS conference and will not know what air traffic controls knows or what air traffic control has passed to FAA Headquarters.  At the same time, Norman Mineta is en route the White House, a fact established by Richard Clarke who convened the SVTS.

As John Farmer wrote in The Ground Truth, “Thus, years later, Richard Clarke could still believe that his high-level videoconference had been the nerve center of the nation’s response; no one had done the thoroughgoing analysis that would have exposed the reality that national leadership was irrelevant during thos critical moments.”

9-11: The Air Threat Conference Call

The tape and transcript of the Air Threat Conference (ATC) are among the most important documents concerning events on the morning of 9-11. Without them historians and other researchers cannot accurately report on the national level response. The purpose of this article is to fill the gap; to detail what we do know and to place the ATC in perspective.

We have at least three sources of information in addition to the Commission Report; the memorandum of the Staff’s tour of the NMCC, the personal notes of an NMCC officer, Major Chambers, and the notes of interviews with NMCC personnel, specifically Commander Gardner. Interview MFRs will be forthcoming from NARA; but we have enough information to get started and we start with the orientation and tour of the NMCC.

Orientation and Tour of the NMCC (MFR)

The NMCC manages crises through a series of conferences according to established checklists. Typically, the first action is to convene a Significant Events Conference (SIEC); a ‘catch-all’ conference to address any significant event. If the event escalates the conference may transition into a threat conference. The NMCC briefly convened an SIEC but was immediately faced with a threat and a decision.  The NMCC had two courses of action available; one to continue the SIEC as an Air Event Conference; the other to terminate the event conference and convene an Air Threat Conference. The NMCC chose the latter, a serious decision with strategic level implications, as we shall see.

Major Chambers (personal memoir within a week after 9-11)

It is Major Chambers who wrote about the immediate aftermath of the second Tower impact that, “The world had just changed, forever.” He described the first NMCC action, the SIEC, as a mechanism to “ensure all the military command centers have the same information at the same time on events that aren’t a military threat.” He further wrote that, “The SIEC was taking much longer than expected to bring up. The FAA wasn’t in the conference, they couldn’t go secure, and so we couldn’t get first-hand information from them.”

Chambers also provided perspective on the ATC. “The ATC is reserved for when aircraft are considered hostile. For [NORAD], tasked with defending the U.S. and Canada against enemy aircraft, the term “hostile” carries a lot of weight.” Because of the significant high level of the participants the NMCC elected to simply drop the SIEC and start over. Some agencies did not hang up as they should have so, “as with the SIEC, it took longer than expected to convene the ATC.” According to Chambers, the ATC was convened within “a couple of minutes after the Pentagon attack.

Chambers also alluded to Continuity of Government (COG) and Continuity of Operations (COOP). “While one group was focusing on the President’s status another was putting some other plans into effect. The Speaker of the House and a few others on the chain of succession were whisked away to another secure location…” It is not clear if this draconian step would have been taken if an Air Event Conference had been convened instead of an ATC. Nevertheless, COOP/COG plans were implemented.

Chambers spoke to the issuance of the shoot down order and his memoir does not support the testimony of Norman Mineta. Chambers wrote, “I heard one of the most chilling orders I could imagine. VPOTUS passed on the order via the ATC that any aircraft confirmed to be under hijacker control was to be shot down. Instinctively I knew this was the right thing to do. Every passenger on the first three aircraft (emphasis added) were dead, along with thousands of others.”

Chambers also commented on the fighters at Andrews. He wrote, “The Air National Guard fighters at Andrews AFB, just east of D.C. weren’t part of the active air defense system, so they weren’t available.” Readers who are familiar with the ‘roles and missions’ of the military and why the specification of such duties is necessary will understand immediately why the NMCC did not consider the Andrews fighters an asset.

Commander Gardner interview notes

After the second WTC strike he and the ADDO (Leidig) knew they needed a national conference. They arrived at the need for an SIEC and were frustrated that it was not brought up more quickly. According to notes of Gardner’s interview the ADDO directed an SEIC at 9:20, the same time that FAA activated its primary net.

Gardner was concerned about convening a threat conference.  According to him a threat conference would have conveyed SIOP overtones that weren’t needed. SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the nuclear scenario. SIOP is serious business and perhaps the ATC did, in part, drive the national level to implement COOP/COG with no clear understanding of what the threat was.

Gardner further explained his concern by stating that threat conferences were for external attacks, however, there was no good domestic conference to convene.

Looking ahead to an SVTS article, Gardner commented that “we lost principals throughout the day to SVTS.” There were no runners [courier] or connectivity to the SVTS. All the NMCC knew was what the principals brought back. In his words, the ATC and SVTS were “competing venues for command and control and for decision making.” He was further frustrated that they lost principals to COG.

Commission Report

Commissioners and Staff had access to both the ATC tape and the transcript, and a copy of the transcript was made available during interviews of key NMCC personnel.  Considering all information received, including the source material cited above, the Commission established and reported the following details.

The FAA primary net was activated at 9:20 and Major Chambers answered the phone at the NMCC. However, that net never became operational. The NMCC convened a Significant Event Conference at 9:29 and immediately learned of the a reborn AA 11 as a threat. The event conference was terminated at 9:34 in favor of a threat conference call which convened at 9:37 as an Air Threat Conference, at the same time that AA 77 slammed into the Pentagon.

Ultimately, the ATC prevailed as the dominant means of communication among government agencies but the battle had passed them by.

In Summary

The NMCC did not have an adequate mechanism in place to address the threat that day. Given that a threat conference was needed they turned to the air threat conference.  By doing so they apparently complicated matters at the national level driving the NCA to SIOP-like decisions it perhaps did not want to make, included a COOP/COG decision.

Readers should consider this article a work in progress.  It serves to get some things on the record and to establish the Air Threat Conference as another in a series of linear processes the government used on 9-11 to try and deal with the situation.

NOIWON, additional considerations

As the NMCC was preparing for an SIEC, CIA convened a NOIWON conference. According to the orientation MRF; “The NMCC abandoned its attempt to convene a SIEC so its Watch officers could participate in the NOIWON Conference. After the NOIWON call the NMCC briefly considered convening an Air Event Conference, but decided to go directly to an Air Threat Conference.”

Ironically FAA was on the NOIWON call but at the Intelligence Watch on the 3d floor at FAA Headquarters. We need to note at this point that FAA participants in the NOIWON, themselves, did not have first-hand information either, so the NOIWON could not have been a source of FAA air traffic control information at that point. The fact that the NOIWON was a potential connectivity workaround, however, did not register at either FAA or the NMCC.

Gardner recalled the NOIWON as both a source of information and a detractor, it kept the ADDO involved. According to the MFR from the NMCC orientation the White House Situation Room insisted on having a flag officer on an open line to them. As we described in another article BG Seipe, a trained DDO who happened to be present was that flag officer and he had continuous line-of-sight to the DDO on duty. Gardner did not remember with “any fidelity” what he learned from the NOIWON and did not recall if FAA participated.

Chaos Theory: 9-11; NOIWON, a linear process you may not know about

In a previous article I said: “At the most crucial time national level entities were pulling standard operating procedures off the shelf and attempting to jump start antiquated and outmoded linear processes.”  That list of processes includes the FAA’s primary net, the NMCC’s significant event conference/air threat conference call, Richard Clarke’s secure video teleconference (hereafter SVTS), and something we have not previously discussed, NOIWON.

This is the first in a series of three articles that deal with  national level processes that worked but were either irrelevant or non-productive, or both on 9-11.  In the next two articles we will adress SVTS and a thing called CRITIC.


Sometime in the 9:20 timeframe on 9-11 the Central Intelligence Agency initiated a NOIWON conference call. That simple act accomplished what the NMCC’s Significant Event Conference and the FAA’s Primary Net could not do, it linked DoD and FAA together in a secure multi-agency conference.

The NOIWON (National Operational Intelligence Watch Officer’s Network) has been around for a long time. It is a hotline that allows the several WAOC (Washington Area Operations Centers) 24-hour alert centers to informally discuss things that go bump in the night. Among its subscribers on 9-11 were the CIA, NSA, DIA, State Department, NMCC, FAA, and the White House Situation Room (WHSR). I knew from previous experience as a user of the NOIWON that it was not a recorded line. Nevertheless, the Commission Staff persistently asked agencies, specifically DoD, if the line was recorded that day. The ultimate answer was that it was not.

Any node on the network could activate the line at any time. Typically it was used to quickly share information and ask questions about untoward events. It was, primarily, an intelligence/information sharing line not an operational line. Despite its fancy sounding name and despite the fact it linked multiple locations together it did not play a major role on 9-11.

Twice Activated

We know from secondary source information that the NOIWON hotline was at least twice used on the morning on 9-11. A Log from the FAA’s Intelligence Watch shows that the line was activated by the CIA sometime after 9:16 and before 9:25. According to interviews with concerned FAA personnel CIA was asking what was going on, the line was left open, and subsequent conversations consisted mostly of people asking questions; what little information was exchanged was second hand. None of the primary source information from NEADS or the FAA’s Herndon Center was directly fed into the NOIWON conference.

NSA initiated a second NOIWON conference at 10:20.  We will speak to that conference in a subsequent article on CRITICS.

NOIWON treated seriously by the NMCC

The NMCC considered the NOIWON link a primary source of information and devoted a general officer solely to the line. Brig Gen Seipe, himself a trained DDO, was present that day attending the same closed door promotion board meeting as did the designated DDO, BG Winfield. In fact the NMCC had four trained DDO’s available for duty that morning; Winfield, Seipe, Navy Capt Leidig (the ADDO), and Army Colonel Susan Kuehl, the supervisor of day-day operations at the NMCC.

The NOIWON line rang in the DDO’s office and later after Winfield relieved Leidig he always had line-of-sight contact with Seipe.

NOIWON not recognized by FAA as a secure line of communication

By contrast, the FAA’s node was in the Intelligence Watch several floors below the Washington Operations Center and there was no direct secure communication link even within FAA headquarters. The Watch did maintain a small secure room off of the Operations Center but that capability was not immediately activated.  The NOIWON conference was never a factor in FAA’s attempt to gain operational contact with FAA DoD (corrected Oct 22, 2009).

Chaos not managed

We have consistently shown that linear processes, the default government solution across the board that morning, were ineffective if not counter-productive.  The government’s habitual reference to checklists, SOPs, and established protocols was not just a ‘failure of imagination’ it was a failure of performance.  No one at any level solved the ‘strange attractor’ equation and linked Herdon Command Center and NEADS together to fight the battle.

NOIWON was one status quo linear process available to share information.  It was not value added to the battle fought by  Colonel Bob Marr at NEADS and Ben Sliney at the Herndon Command Center.

Chaos Theory: 9-11; a battle not a war

Summation to date

We have previously established that chaos is one descriptor of events on 9-11 by participants, researchers, and the media.  We have established that the Theory and its language can be used at least metaphorically to discuss events of the day.  In this article we will discuss the attack on 9-11 as a battle in a larger war and will continue to use the language of Chaos Theory to do so.

In an earlier article, we introduced the construct that NEADS and ZBW (Boston Center) were strange attractors in the sense that they become the focal point for the expedient exchange of information.  We also identified a third strange attractor but one with no DoD partner, the FAA’s Herndon Center.  It is at the level of the strange attractors that the battle should have been fought and was fought that day.

Relevant and non-relevant voices of the battle of 9-11

Considering the events of 9-11 as a battle allows us to identify four relevant voices of the day and, concurrently, allows us to set aside the national level voices as immaterial. The four relevant voices are Colonel MARR, NEADS Commander; Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager; General Arnold, CONR Commander; and Jeff Griffith, FAA’s senior Air Traffic Control voice on 9-11. The immaterial national level voices are the President, the Vice President, the Secretaries of Defense and Transportation, the Acting Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CINC NORAD.

There is one additional voice of interest, another strange attractor, Richard Clarke. Clarke’s attempt to establish the White House Situation Room as a focal point failed to attract a meaningful flow of information. There is anecdotal evidence that Clarke’s effort was actually a detractor, destructive feedback in the language of Chaos. We know from FAA tapes that the FAA leadership was called away at one time (9:49-9:50) to participate in Clarke’s secure video conference. We also know from the interview of an NMCC staff officer that the senior military leadership was also called away at critical times to participate in the same conference.  Interestingly, that same staff officer referred to activity in the NMCC as “managed chaos.”

Battles and wars

There is a difference between fighting a war and fighting a battle. Generals (and Presidents), and their civilian equivalents in the case of FAA, do not fight battles, they fight wars.  Battles are fought by the rank and file.  And in the battles in the war on terror the rank and file includes civilians.  Battles are managed by some echelon between the rank and file and the senior leadership.

The Battle of 9-11was fought by NEADS and the Herndon Command Center but they were never in meaningful contact during the battle.  The battle was fought valiantly but ultimately ineffectively by Colonel Marr and Alpha and Delta flights at NEADS, and by Ben Sliney and his national traffic managers at Herndon.

The Battle was managed by the next higher echelons, CONR for NEADS and FAA Air Traffic Control for Herndon. The battle was never managed effectively despite the personal efforts of CONR, General Arnold, and Air Traffic Control, Jeff Griffith.

One reason is that chaos reigned and could not be harnessed. Chaos is deterministic, not random, and the flow of information and response that morning was going to inevitably follow the path of least resistance. Arnold and Griffith, acting separately and, themselves, never in contact were unaware that the path of least resistance was to/from NEADS and the en route air traffic control centers acting separately. For there to be any chance at all to interdict the attack that path of least resistance had to be between NEADS and Herndon. Even then, the only potential opportunity was to interdict the southern two-pronged attack against the nation’s capital.

For it to have been different, the warfighters—the generals, senior civilians and the National Command Authority—would have long before had to have identified the threat posed by the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center, and to have identified who it was that would fight a terrorist battle brought once again to American soil. That required a clear and early understanding that the attack would be from the air. Absent that understanding no one in a position of authority had the acumen to understand that a terrorist air attack on the East Coast would be fought by NEADS and Herndon.

The battle unfolds

Prior to 9:03 there was little awareness that a battle was in progress. ZBW/ZNY declared a hijacking in progress at 8:25, linear response processes kicked in and the event was managed accordingly. However, ZBW circumvented one linear process, the hijack protocol, and notified NEADS directly, an initiative that had the detrimental effect of short-circuiting the national level.

There was no awareness at any echelon that the attack was multi-pronged and the northern prong, itself, two-pronged. The traditional mindset that the hijacker would seek safe landing prevailed; institutions reacted accordingly. No one thought to connect NEADS to Herndon. Even if the national level at some point was prescient enough to have made the connection the opportunity to do so was pre-empted by ZBW.

All that changed dramatically when UA 175 struck the south WTC tower and ZBW determined that Atta said, “we have some planes.” Linear processes were set in motion at all government echelons, military and civilian. However, no national level management process was capable of managing the fast moving chain of events. Only NEADS and Herndon were focal points for information and they weren’t talking to each other. NEADS relied on ZBW but also reached out quickly to four other air traffic control centers—ZNY, ZDC, ZID, and ZOB—New York, Washington, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. And that is where battle managers failed the battle commanders. Herndon was also talking to precisely the same set of sources.

No one had the situational awareness to redirect the flow of information. The battle managers got no help from higher up. At the most crucial time national level entities were pulling standard operating procedures off the shelf and attempting to jump start antiquated and outmoded linear processes. Not one of them was successful; not the NMCC’s significant event conference, not FAA’s primary net, and not Clarke’s secure video conference. Arnold and Griffith were left to their own devices. In Griffith’s case he established an air traffic control operations center separate from FAA’s Washington Operations Center. In Arnold’s case he only knew what Colonel Marr knew. Neither battle manager was value added because they weren’t talking to each other and they did not know that NEADS and Herndon were not exchanging information.

The battle escalates

We will likely never know how sophisticated the attack actually was but the record is clear that the first clues emerging at Indianapolis Center about a southern attack came at the same time UA 175 was identified as a problem and then flew into the south WTC tower. In the language of chaos theory the attack bifurcated into two prongs, each with two prongs. No one, battle commanders and battle managers alike, had any situational awareness of an attack of that complexity. Moreover, that double bifurcation was beyond the capability of any national level entity to grasp or manage. And no one at any level knew that the southern attack was two-pronged. The stark simplicity of the one-two punch thrown at New York City advertised a similar attack on the nation’s capital. No one saw that second combination punch coming and it is only in hindsight that we can now see the symmetry of it all.

No awareness at the national level

Neither President Bush in a classroom in Florida, nor Vice President Cheney, Norman Minetta, Donald Rumsfeld and General Myers in Washington, nor General Eberhart at his headquarters office away from Cheyenne Mountain had situational awareness nor should they be expected to. They fight wars, this was a battle and echelons well below them were struggling to gain situational awareness.

The only place awareness could have emerged was at NEADS and Herndon acting jointly. Both had the manpower and the wherewithal to act but the window of opportunity was brief. American Airlines flight 77 was bearing down on the nation’s capital and no one knew it. Retrospectively, we now know that by 9:10 NEADS, properly cued, had the capability of quickly tracking AA 77. No one told them where to look.

In a perfect world

Only with the clarity of hindsight can we see what might have been. ZID knew it had a problem and notified two higher authorities, one FAA and one DoD; neither one of them NEADS or Herndon. By 9:10, at the same time AA 77 showed up again in NEADS radar, ZID had notified the FAA’s Great Lakes Region and the DoD’s Rescue Coordination Center that AA 77 was lost.

It is by no means certain that NEADS and Herndon, acting jointly, would have made a difference. What we do know is that both Battle Commanders demonstrated the capability to make swift, transcending decisions. Ben Sliney, on his own recognizance, initiated a nationwide ground stop. Colonel Marr initiated an intensive effort to generate fighter sorties from wherever he could muster them. It is not unreasonable to expect that the two of them, knowing that AA 77 was lost, would have put out an all points bulletin by the most expeditious means.

Under this scenario NEADS surveillance technicians would have established a track on AA 77 in a matter of minutes. The identification technicians would have had critical information if the false report of AA 11 still airborne then surfaced. Even sooner, The Senior Director and Mission Crew Commander would have scrambled Langley to a specific target.


Our discussion now leads to the third article in the Scott Trilogy which speaks to the issue of Rules of Engagement. I am still sorting that article out in my mind. Scott speaks to the largely irrelevant Andrews fighters and not to the fighters who would have been charged to intercept AA 77, the Langley air defense fighters. All informal time-distance analyses that I have worked through in my mind indicate that AA 77 and the Langley fighters would have arrived over greater DC skies at about the same time. And the unanswered question is, “then what?”

Where we stand

In this article we have identified 9:10 as the critical time for the nation’s battle commanders to take positive action to protect the nation’s capital. Ironically, that is the same time that NEADS first considered scrambling Langley but changed the order to battle stations only. Only NEADS and Herndon, acting jointly, could have fought the battle and then only against the southern attack. The northern attack was over before anyone at any echelon had the situational awareness to counter it.

The ultimate irony

In the aftermath the two officials charged with reconciling the FAA and DoD/NORAD timelines were General Arnold and Jeff Griffith

Chaos Theory: 9-11 Linear Processes/Functions, a listing

Added cockpit notifications on Feb 23, 2010

The list of linear processes or functions in place on 9-11 is growing; a running list is needed. A qualitative analytic approach using descriptors may be appropriate, TBD.

  1. Air Traffic Control procedures for airplanes that deviated from the norm. Ineffective
  2. Airline lock-down procedures. Counter-productive
  3. The Hijack Protocol between FAA and DoD. Irrelevant
  4. Rescue Coordination Center Procedures. Counter-productive
  5. FAA Primary Net. Ineffective
  6. Air Threat Conference Call. Ultimately dominated
  7. NOIWON Conference. Irrelevant
  8. SVTS Conference. Disruptive
  9. Air Traffic Service Cell Function, Effective later in the day, not relevant during the battle
  10. Central Altitude Reservation Function, Effective later in the day, became the FAA secure node on the Air Threat Conference Call
  11. FAA/NORAD Liaison Officer Function, Effective later in the day, facilitated the linking of FAA to the Air Threat Conference Call
  12. Secret Service VIP Protection. Disruptive
  13. COOP/COG. Counter-Productive
  14. Cockpit notification, belated (added this item on Feb 23, 2010

Chaos Theory: NEADS and ZBW; strange attractors, indeed

In an initial article we established that the words ‘chaos’ and ‘chaotic’ were often used to describe events on 9-11. In a second article we began an inquiry into whether or not chaos theory could even be used to analyze events of the day. The answer for now is yes, metaphorically, and perhaps, theoretically. In this article we will continue on the metaphorical track and use the language of chaos theory, specifically strange attractors, to begin exploring the nation’s response.

Sensitivity to Initial Conditions and Strange Attractors

Chaos theory tells us we can never know in advance the initial conditions to which events are sensitive. However, in the case at hand we can, retrospectively, describe the conditions that led to NEADS and ZBW being the two focal points—strange attractors–around which key information of the morning flowed. Two organizations and four people—Colin Scoggins, Maureen Dooley, Shelly Watson and Stacia Rountree–became the self-organizing loci for action.

At all higher echelons–all the way to the White House–entities charged with the national level response failed to manage the flow of information.

More linear processes that did not work

In a previous article I listed four linear processes that were ineffective on 9-11.  We can now add four more processes used that day that were also ineffective.  The four are: the Air Threat Conference Call; the FAA’s Primary Net; the NOIWON conference; and Clarke’s own SVTS conference.  Commission Staff notes from an interview with an NMCC staff officer show that Clarke’s SVTS (Secure Video Teleconference System) conference and the Air Threat Conference Call were actually counterproductive.

Richard Clarke’s instinct was to try and command the attention of the highest level person he could find in each relevant organization. It is hard to fault that approach, even in retrospect, but, in hindsight,  it was exactly the wrong way to proceed when managing chaotic events.  The better approach and perhaps an important lesson learned was to find the highest echelon at which real time information was flowing between FAA and DoD; to identify the strange attractors. Enter, stage center, ZBW and NEADS.

ZBW and Colin Scoggins

ZBW had a problem. It knew where AA 11 was geographically, it did not know where it was spatially. When Mohammed Atta turned the transponder off at 8:20 ZBW lost all technical capability to determine the altitude of an aircraft gone astray. From that moment forward the last known altitude, 29,000 feet, would be a given.

Despite air traffic control observations that the aircraft was descending and despite very real information held at American Airlines that the plane was way too low, the much higher altitude would prevail as people sought to understand what happened in the immediate aftermath of the 8:46 collision of AA 11 with the World Trade Center north tower. Both the Otis and Langley scramble orders, nearly 45 minutes apart, specified an altitude of 29,000 feet.

One person at ZBW knew that NEADS could determine altitude from primary only radar returns, Colin Scoggins. Colin was on break off the operations floor (edited Nov 4, 2009) when events first unfolded but as soon as he learned that altitude was an unknown he went immediately to the operations floor; he had important information. Despite Colin’s best efforts and the effort of other personnel at ZBW and at New York Center (ZNY) NEADS was unable to identify and track AA 11.

NEADS and the Identification Technicians

The professional life of identification technicians–in this case Maureen Dooley, Shelly Watson, and Stacia Rountree–is measured in minutes that can be counted on one hand. That is the time they have to identify unknowns when tasked. The NEADS tapes capture them as a non-stop whirlwind as they worked to get a grip on the facts of the day. No one came closer to managing chaos that day. Right or wrong, they shared information they had in near real time with those who they believed needed to know. During a single hour they made or received at least 26 calls to four different air traffic control centers and one to their Canadian counterparts. Not one of those calls was to a third strange attractor, the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC or, simply, Herndon Center).

Herndon Center, a Strange Attractor with no partner

The Herndon Center was buried so deep in the FAA organization chart that it was well nigh invisible.  The Center’s job was to manage air traffic flow; it had no role or place in the ossified FAA Region/Headquarter structure to manage everything else, including crises.  Yet most relevant real-time FAA information was held at or flowed to the Herndon Center.   Even when Herndon communicated accurate information concerning UA 93 to FAA Headquarters as it  was receiving a blow-by-blow account from Cleveland Center it made no difference at the national level.  Herndon may as well have been talking to itself.  So what was different here as opposed to ZBW?

Herndon, including the embedded military Air Traffic Services Cell,  had no operational DoD partner to talk to, no one to partner with to fight the battle that morning.  It wasn’t going to make any difference for the northern attack against New York City.  The element of surprise achieved by Mohammed Atta simply overwhelmed NEADS, ZBW and ZNY.  But soon after UA 175 struck the south tower Herndon knew a criticial piece of information:  “he said planes, as in plural.”  Yet the nation’s response to the southern attack against the nation’s capital never organized around the Herndon Center.

Linearity gave way to non-linearity as the southern attack developed and the nation’s response its self  became chaotic.  No extant linear structure was capabable of dealing with the situation.  In the absence of any effective government structure or process the response self-organized and NEADS and ZBW for a short time became  the strange attractors.  No one at any higher echelon had personal, organizational, or situational awareness to capitalize.  Ultimately, the NEADS/ZBW nexus was transient and the nation’s response rapidly devolved and self-organized around the only people that could make a difference, the passengers and crew aboard United Airlines flight 93.

Chaos Theory: 9-11, thinking out loud

Can Chaos Theory Even Be Applied to 9-11?

This is a fundamental question. According to Nina Hall (Introduction to Exploring Chaos, Norton, 1993) “Chaos theory has resulted from a synthesis of imaginative mathematics and readily accessible computer power. It presents a universe that is deterministic, obeying the fundamental physical laws, but with a predisposition for disorder, complexity and unpredictability.” Does that understanding allow us to say as some observers have that events on the morning of 9-11 were chaotic; that ‘it is chaos out there?’ Certainly the language of chaos theory is useful to describe the events of the day, but can the theory, itself, be applied? Let us start by considering the affirmative and the negative as one source has it.

In the broadest sense the affirmative is supported by Ian Percival in his article in Hall’s compendium of a series of articles in New Science, “Chaos: a science for the real world.” Percival says, simply, “The theory of chaos touches all disciplines.” However, Percival later clearly supports the negative. “The state of Eastern European politics may look chaotic, but you cannot study a subject of this type using chaos theory.” Percival minces no words here. The seeming disorder of politics is not chaotic, though it may look so.

And that may be the case for 9-11, except that the events of 9-11 themselves were essentially a military attack and response, almost always ‘chaotic’ by anyone’s definition of the term. Military lore has it that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. There is an exception if the attacker achieves the military principal of surprise. Mohammed Atta did just that and his battle plan proceeded as planned; it became ‘chaotic’ only in its final moments in the sky over Shanksville. The response, on the other hand, descended into chaos at multiple, discrete, times beginning with Atta’s first transmission, ‘we have some planes.’

So, what to do? We have a situation described in multiple instances as chaotic yet at least one voice in the literature cautions against the use of chaos theory as a basis for study. Reader, be warned, leap in logic coming up. Let’s turn to a self organizing source, Wikipedia to see what we can find. There are several entries but one that looks a bit promising is “Chaos theory in organizational development.”

Chaos as Metaphor

One of the first things the Wikipedia article tells us is that “‘parallels’ between organizations and the sub-atomic particles exist largely in terms of analogy (metaphorically) between two very different domains of activity.” Here we can acknowledge that the domain of activity on 9-11, described as chaotic, is different than, for example, quantum mechanics. Wikipedia introduces us to Charlotte Shelton. Shelton co-wrote “From Chaos to Order: Exploring New Frontiers in Conflict Management” in 2003. Wikipedia credits her in this way: “The introduction of chaos theory brings the principles of quantum physics to the pragmatic world.” This leads to a discussion in the article on self-organization, one of the specific observables when looking back at the events of 9-11. More on that later.

Time for another leap in logic.

A Paper You Never Heard About

In March, 1997, then Major Susan E. Durham, Ph. D. wrote a research paper at the Air Command and Staff College titled, “Chaos Theory for the Practical Military Mind.” Durham is clear that chaos theory is a mathematical theory and acknowledges the difficulty in application to social situations. Yet, despite what we learned from Percival about proceeding along those lines, Durham jumps right in cautioning, “when we don’t recognize the potential in well-behaved systems to deteriorate suddenly into Chaotic behavior, we also risk losing control.

Nothing on the morning of 9-11 was more well-behaved than the system of loading passengers onto commercial airliners and transporting them to their destination. Nothing had been more well-behaved in a decade than the need for a military response to a hijacked aircraft. There hadn’t been any. It was an orderly morning and linear systems were in place to manage the events of the day, or not.

Four Linear Systems (In order of appearance)

The first linear system challenged that morning was the FAA practice for handling planes and pilots who didn’t follow established procedures. On any given day planes and pilots deviate for benign and transient reasons. Controllers exercise various techniques to correct the situation which can take several minutes. When AA 11 went ‘nordo’ and then quit transponding Boston Center went through its checklist of techniques with no success. Its greatest fear was that the plane was experiencing serious mechanical failure and the Center took steps to allow a continued safe passage. At 8:24 what was a linear situation handled by a linear process suddenly became nonlinear. Mohammed Atta announced “we have some planes.”

The second linear system challenged was the airline practice to go into lock down when a plane was in distress. That system was alerted around 8:20 when the AA 11 flight crew reported a hijacking in progress to American Airlines. The debilitating result of lock down procedures is to create a black box, literally the equivalent of a black hole in space, an entity that sucks all available information into a closed system. The system proceeded at American Airlines (and, later, at United Airlines) as planned with the unfortunate result that no one outside of American Airlines knew what they knew. In and of itself the system did not become nonlinear until the company learned about AA 77 and it suddenly had two situations to deal with simultaneously.

The third linear system challenged was the hijack notification protocol. As spelled out in the staff statement at the Commissions June 2004 hearing, the protocol was laborious, unsuited, and never used. It was irrelevant.

The fourth linear system challenged was the search and rescue protocol. Indianapolis Center did not know it had a hijacking; it thought it had a plane down and implemented search and rescue procedures. The Center called the USAF Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) at Langley AFB to report the loss of AA 77. The RCC immediately initiated well established procedures and multiple state law enforcement agencies and the Civil Air Patrol were notified. No one outside the RCC community was notified and there was no apparent feedback loop to the Langley Air Force Base Command Post. This linear system remained stable that morning with the net result being that it was the source of false circular reporting confirming that AA 77 was down.

The missing link, feedback

The theory of chaos has it that feedback, itself, is a contributor to chaos. Percival tells us that “oscillating systems become chaotic because they possess an element of ‘feedback.'” That element “generates complex dynamics in simple systems.” Hall, herself, broadens our understanding. Her summation is that “Chaos also seems to be responsible for maintaining order in the natural world. Feedback mechanisms not only introduce flexibility into living systems, sustaining delicate dynamical balances, but also promote nature’s propensity for self-organization.” And it is, metaphorically, precisely on this point of self-organization that events of 9-11 turned, there was little feedback and some of that which did exist was counter-productive, for example the circular reporting of the crash of AA 77. Now, back to self-organization.


The Wikipedia article definition is: “Self-organization is the result of re-invention and creative adaptation due to the introduction of, or being in a constant state of, perturbed equilibrium.” All emergency response organizations, and 24-hour watch centers in general, live in this constant state. None of them know when the next call is going to come or what it will bring. The one certain thing is that equilibrium is transient and it most assuredly will be perturbed. Here the reference is to Dooley and Johnson (1995 “TQM, Chaos, and Complexity”). “Being ‘off-balance’ lends itself to regrouping and re-evaluating…in order to make needed adjustments and regain control and equilibrium.” Both NEADS and FAA’s Boston Center are organizations that live in a state of potential perturbed equilibrium. How they adjusted is one of the central stories of 9-11.

But, that wasn’t what was supposed to happen

The nation’s response was supposed to organize around set structures, two in particular. First, both the FAA and NMCC had procedures in place to ‘manage’ events that perturbed the equilibrium. Neither was effective, neither could talk to the other; they might as well have been on different planets.

Second, at the national level, things were supposed to organize around the White House Situation Room. The Secret Service removal of the Vice President to the surreal world of the PEOC virtually ensured that he would be out of touch and filtered from reality, not that the Situation Room was a much better place to be, information-wise. However, there at least the Vice President could have heard, perhaps seen, the Langley fighters overhead at 10:00, as captured on video in real time by a CNN camera crew.

Concerning both the PEOC and the Situation Room, I can’t help but recall George Plimpton’s classic description of a golf swing. Time.com has it this way: “His mind invents a nightmarish fantasy in which a team of inept Japanese admirals, located somewhere in his brain, shout useless instructions through the imaginary voice tubes of his creaking body machinery in an effort to help him hit the ball correctly:”

To be continued and a question

What if there had been feedback loops in place that in real time constantly informed FAA’s Herndon Center and Langley’s Command Post of unusual information available at, respectively, FAA’s Great Lakes Region and Langley’s RCC? Herndon knew about “we have some planes.” The Langley Command Post knew in real time that the air defense fighters had been placed on battle stations. Both the Great Lakes Region and the RCC knew that AA 77 had been lost. The time frame is shortly before 9:10, eleven minutes before Colin Scoggins sounded the false, yet oddly appropriate, alarm of an intruder from the north, and twenty two minutes before Danielle O’Brien noticed the real intruder from the west and sounded a second alarm.

Chaos Theory and 9-11, some preliminary thoughts

Conversations on the day of September 11, 2001, follow-on news reporting, and internal documents of the 9-11 Commission tell us that people at all levels struggled to describe, report, and analyze an event unparalleled in the nation’s history. The FAA’s New York Air Traffic Control Center Manager in a call to the National Operations Manager at the Herndon Command Center described the situation concerning United Air flight 175 as “kind of chaotic…” The sister of an Identification Technician at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector in attempting to reach a relative said “I’ll call back because it is such chaos.” And then the caller repeated that to her sister, “…it’s just me. I’ll call back it sounds like chaos.” More tersely and to the point, a staffer at the Herndon Command Center on the FAA’s tactical net simply said, “it’s chaos out there.”

Washington Post staff writers, Charles Lane, Don Phillips and David Snyder wrote an article on September 17, 2001, titled, “A Sky Filled With Chaos, Uncertainty and True Heroism.” That early characterization continued as primary source documents became available to the general public. The Associated Press on Aug 12, 2005, spoke to the release of oral histories in an article titled “Chaos of 9/11 revealed in vivid oral histories, Firefighters’ stories documenting horrific day released to public.” Earlier, on March 31, 2005, CTV (Canada) published an article, “NYC emergency call tapes reveal 9/11 chaos.” With the emergence of the tapes from the North East Air Defense Sector in 2006 the National Public Radio lead was “NORAD Tapes Reveal Sept. 11 Chaos.” And on September 21, 2007, New York Times writer Michael Powell published an article titled, “In 9/11 Chaos, Giuliani Forged a Lasting Image.

The 9-11 Commission Staff found things to be no different. A draft Team 8 Monograph, “A New Kind of War: Defense of the Homeland on September 11, 2001” contained this language: “The challenge to Commission Staff in relating the history of one of the most chaotic days in our history is to avoid replicating that chaos in writing about it.”

My resume submitted to the 9-11 Commission and uploaded to the web on the Scribd site by History Commons contains this language: “Proposed doctoral thesis on application of chaos theory to analysis.” I am ABD (all but dissertation) at the George Mason University, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. I left the program in late 1992 after passing comprehensive exams to accept employment with a new office at the Department of Defense Inspector General, which ultimately became the Office of Intelligence Review, my springboard to becoming first a member of the professional staff of the Congressional Joint Inquiry and then the 9-11 Commission itself. It is fitting, then, that I start working on some unfinished business and the juxtaposition of my earlier stated purpose and the chaotic events of 9-11 is a good place to start.

My understanding, certainly subject to change, is that chaos is bounded randomness and that the nature of things is that chaos gives rise to self organization. The bounds of the day were the established protocols–how was it that both hijacked and lost aircraft were to be reported, managed, and resolved. Self organization was bottoms up. Once folks in the ‘line of fire’ understood that they would get little or no help from elsewhere they took matters into their own hands. Nowhere was that more true than among the passengers on United Airlines flight 93.

Paul Davies in “Chaos Frees the Universe,” published in New Scientist, October 6, 1990 wrote: “The ancient Greek [and Chinese, I might add] philosophers regarded the world as a battleground between the forces of order, producing cosmos, and those of disorder, which led to chaos.” Davies goes on to talk about chaos as a bridge between deterministic laws and the laws of chance. His implication is that the “Universe is genuinely creative and that the notion of free will is real.” Think about the passengers on United 93.

Gerald Bauer and Michael Klein edited A Chaotic Hierarchy, published in 1991. In their own included article, “Hierarchies of Dynamical Systems,” they say; “A widely accepted, yet only practical formulation defines chaos as a bounded steady-state behavior that is neither an equilibrium point, nor periodic nor quasi-periodic oscillation. Chaos is irregular. One of the main characteristics of chaos is sensitive dependence on initial conditions. ” People familiar with the popularization of chaos theory at the end of the last century will readily recall the ‘butterfly effect,’ the notion something small like the flap of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in the world can have significant effect on weather elsewhere in the world; or, perhaps not. Think about the lack of effect of the Phoenix Memorandum.

John E. Whiteford Boyle, The Indra Web, 1983, said this: “When the 20th century opened, man still believed as had his ancestors for 25 odd centuries, that a principle of order underlies his world. With the end of this, the Seminal Century, the belief in a fundamental order no longer prevails. Theories of quantum physics and relativity indicate that, instead of order, chaos grounds the universe.” In this context, think about the end of the Cold War and the ‘peace dividend.’

More practically, and directly relevant to the events of September 11, 2001, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,1976, provides this alternate definition of Chaos (L, fm Greek) “A state of utter confusion completely wanting in order, sequence, organization or predictable operation.” And it is in that context that we will later examine the boundaries of the day and the self-organizational nodes of the day as people and organizations attempted to deal with the want of order.