16 – Artful incompetence

Despite regular drills, strict procedures, numerous precautions and back-up plans, detailed foreknowledge about the attacks and the forms they might take (see 7 – US foreknowledge) and having intercepted 67 errant or suspicious aircraft already that year and 129 the previous year, most of them within mere minutes, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and associated agencies failed to stop four planes in one day on 9/11.

The individual failures that contributed to this unprecedented bungle were numerous. The pilots of all four planes failed to key the standard distress code that would have alerted flight controllers to their plight. NORAD failed to scramble fighter jets in a timely manner from the bases closest to the trouble. And fighter pilots in jets with max speeds of 1500mph and above failed to reach their targets despite having more than enough time to do so.

The blame for all this was assigned to the FAA, who were accused of failing to communicate with NORAD in a timely manner. However, testimonies described how they were in contact almost immediately, and since military and secret service radar pick up exactly the same as FAA radar and routinely monitor the skies for threats, it is impossible to see why NORAD and others failed to act.

Apparently by sheer coincidence, several different terrorism drills were taking place on that day:

  • NORTHERN VIGILANCE transferred most of the combat-ready interceptors into northen Canada and Alaska between August and December to monitor a Russian airforce exercise. Part real-world and part simulation, this exercise involved the whole of NORAD and injected simulated aircraft onto military radar.
  • GLOBAL GUARDIAN was an annual military training exercise, simulating hijacked planes in the northeast – which usually took place in October or November, but was rescheduled sometime after March 2001 for reasons undisclosed. The exercise simulated an air attack on the US, with teams acting as attackers, and often involved computer network attacks.
  • VIGILANT GUARDIAN (and here) simulated attacks on America, including hijacked planes.
  • VIGILANT WARRIOR has been cited by military personnel as taking place on 9/11, but there is no public information about it.
  • Andrews Air Force Base near Washington had sent three F-16 fighter jets away from their usual post for a drill 200 miles away.

At the time of the real hi-jacking there were as many as 22 hijacked aircraft on radar screens; some ‘live fly’ aircraft – actual planes, likely flown by remote control – and some electronically added radar blips. And as well as the confusion caused by false radar information and exercises in progress, NORAD, NEADS and FAA controllers were delayed by false information from unknown sources, and telephones not working. A huge number of false reports of hijackings also took place during the morning.

Coincidentally, NORAD and the military were not the only ones running terrorism drills that morning. The NRO (National Reconnaissance Office, controlling surveillance satellites) was running a drill simulating a plane crashing into one of its buildings just four miles from the Pentagon. The NRO is the “eyes of the world”, with the majority of American spy satellites at its fingertips, and would have been a vital resource to the Air Force and NORAD throughout the attacks.  FBI and CIA anti-terrorist units were conducting a joint training exercise in California, which meant a lot of key personnel were the other side of the country and unable to respond as the attacks happened. The Department of Energy’s nuclear bomb squad was also away for an exercise, in Europe – their first foreign deployment since 1998. Many key senior members of the FAA were also not at their desks that morning.

Meanwhile, other amazing coincidences ensured a quicker response to casualties than usual: FEMA arrived in New York City on 10th September to set up a command post on Manhattan’s Pier 29 under the auspices of a ‘biowarfare exercise’ scheduled for September 12th, and at the Pentagon, Sgt Mark Rosenberg was getting his head round a brand new medical emergency disaster plan for the unlikely scenario of a plane crashing into the building and all the emergency medical equipment at the Pentagon was out of storage (and thus ready for use) that morning for inventory purposes.

Despite numerous claims after 9/11 that America was simpy not ready for an attack of this kind, the evidence is to the contrary:

Despite the massive failures that left America vulnerable that day, not one person or organisation has been reprimanded or held accountable, but key figures who were responsible for America’s safety and did not protect it were promoted. W Montague Winfield, the US Army Brigadier General who was Director of Operations at the National Military Command Center, asked newly-qualified junior officer Captain Charles Leidig to temporarily replace him starting 8:30am September 11th, and resumed control after the last airliner had crashed later that morning. Winfield was promoted to Major General, and Leidig was promoted to Rear Admiral and Director of Operations of the Naval Forces’ Sixth Fleet. David F Wherley Jr, US Air Force Brigadier General, was commander of Andrews Air Force Base, the closest to the Pentagon. He was promoted to Major General and Commanding General of the National Guard in the District of Columbia. Richard B Myers of the US Air Force, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was temporarily in charge of all US armed forces (the Chairman, Hugh Shelton, had left the country earlier that morning). He was promptly promoted to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“If our government had merely [done] nothing – and I say that as an old interceptor pilot; I know the drill, I know what it takes, I know how long it takes, I know what the procedures are, I know what they were and I know what they changed them to – if our government had merely done nothing and allowed normal procedures to happen on that morning of 9/11, the twin towers would still be standing and thousands of dead Americans would still be alive.” — Lt. Col. Robert ‘Bob’ Bowman, PhD, US Air Force. Director of Advanced Space Programs Development under Presidents Ford and Carter. Fighter pilot with over 100 combat missions. Former Head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering and Assistant Dean at the US Air Force Institute of Technology.

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