"The real story is
actually better than the one we told," a NORAD general admitted
to 9/11-commission staffers when confronted with evidence from
the tapes that contradicted his original testimony. And so it
Subpoenaed by the
commission during its investigation, the recordings have never
been played publicly beyond a handful of sound bites presented
during the commission's hearings. Last September, as part of my
research for the film United 93, on which I was an associate
producer, I requested copies from the Pentagon. I was played
snippets, but told my chances of hearing the
full recordings were
nonexistent. So it was a surprise, to say the least, when a
military public-affairs officer e-mailed me, a full seven months
later, saying she'd been cleared, finally, to provide them.
"The signing of the
Declaration of Independence took less coordination," she wrote.
I would ultimately
get three CDs with huge digital "wav file" recordings of the
various channels in each section of the operations floor,
30-some hours of material in full, covering six and a half hours
of real time. The first disc, which arrived by mail, was
decorated with blue sky and fluffy white clouds and was labeled,
in the playful Apple Chancery font, "Northeast Air Defense
Sector—DAT Audio Files—11 Sep 2001."
"This is not an
At 8:14 a.m., as an Egyptian and four Saudis commandeered the
cockpit on American 11, the plane that would hit the north tower
of the World Trade Center, only a handful of troops were on the
NEADS "ops" floor. That's the facility's war room: a dimly lit
den arrayed with long rows of radarscopes and communications
equipment facing a series of 15-foot screens lining the front
wall. The rest of the crew, about 30 Americans and five or six
Canadians, were checking e-mails or milling around the hall. A
briefing on the morning's training exercise was wrapping up in
the Battle Cab, the glassed-in command area overlooking the ops
On the Dictaphone
decks, an automated voice on each channel ticked off, in
Greenwich Mean Time, the last few moments of life in pre-9/11
America: "12 hours, 26 minutes, 20 seconds"—just before 8:30
a.m. eastern daylight time.
The first human
voices captured on tape that morning are those of the "ID
techs"—Senior Airman Stacia Rountree, 23 at the time, Tech
Sergeant Shelley Watson, 40, and their boss, Master Sergeant
Maureen "Mo" Dooley, 40. They are stationed in the back right
corner of the ops floor at a console with several phones and a
radarscope. Their job in a crisis is to facilitate
communications between NEADS, the civilian F.A.A., and other
military commands, gathering whatever information they can and
sending it up the chain. Dooley—her personality at once motherly
and aggressive—generally stands behind the other two, who are
The tapes catch them
discussing strategy of an entirely domestic order:
O.K., a couch, an ottoman, a love seat, and what else … ? Was it
on sale … ? Holy smokes! What color is it?
In the background,
however, you can make out the sound of Jeremy Powell, then 31, a
burly, amiable technical sergeant, fielding the phone call that
will be the military's first notification that something is
wrong. On the line is Boston Center, the civilian
air-traffic-control facility that handles that region's
BOSTON CENTER: Hi. Boston Center T.M.U. [Traffic Management
Unit], we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft
headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need
someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us
POWELL: Is this real-world or exercise?
BOSTON CENTER: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
PLAY | STOP
question—"Is this real-world or exercise?"—is heard nearly
verbatim over and over on the tapes as troops funnel onto the
ops floor and are briefed about the hijacking. Powell, like
almost everyone in the room, first assumes the phone call is
from the simulations team on hand to send "inputs"—simulated
scenarios—into play for the day's training exercise.
Boston's request for
fighter jets is not as prescient as it might seem. Standard
hijack protocol calls for fighters to be
launched—"scrambled"—merely to establish a presence in the air.
The pilots are trained to trail the hijacked plane at a distance
of about five miles, out of sight, following it until,
presumably, it lands. If necessary, they can show themselves,
flying up close to establish visual contact, and, if the
situation demands, maneuver to force the plane to land.
At this point,
certainly, the notion of actually firing anything at a passenger
jet hasn't crossed anyone's mind.
In the ID section,
the women overhear the word "hijack" and react, innocently
enough, as anyone might with news of something exciting going on
WATSON: What was that?
ROUNTREE: Is that real-world?
DOOLEY: Real-world hijack.
PLAY | STOP
For the first time
in their careers, they'll get to put their training to full use.
simultaneously, a P.A. announcement goes out for Major Nasypany,
who's taking his morning constitutional.
P.A.: Major Nasypany, you're needed in ops pronto. P.A.: Major
Nasypany, you're needed in ops pronto.
[Recorded phone line:]
SERGEANT MCCAIN: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Sergeant McCain,
can I help you?
SERGEANT KELLY: Yeah, Sergeant Kelly from Otis, how you doing
SERGEANT MCCAIN: Yeah, go ahead.
SERGEANT KELLY: The—I'm gettin' reports from my TRACON [local
civilian air traffic] that there might be a possible hijacking.
SERGEANT MCCAIN: I was just hearing the same thing. We're
workin' it right now.
SERGEANT KELLY: O.K., thanks.
PLAY | STOP
"When they told me
there was a hijack, my first reaction was 'Somebody started the
exercise early,'" Nasypany later told me. The day's exercise was
designed to run a range of scenarios, including a "traditional"
simulated hijack in which politically motivated perpetrators
commandeer an aircraft, land on a Cuba-like island, and seek
asylum. "I actually said out loud, 'The hijack's not supposed to
be for another hour,'" Nasypany recalled. (The fact that there
was an exercise planned for the same day as the attack factors
into several conspiracy theories, though the 9/11 commission
dismisses this as coincidence. After plodding through dozens of
hours of recordings, so do I.)
On tape, one hears
as Nasypany, following standard hijack protocol, prepares to
launch two fighters from Otis Air National Guard Base, on Cape
Cod, to look for American 11, which is now off course and headed
south. He orders his Weapons Team—the group on the ops floor
that controls the fighters—to put the Otis planes on "battle
stations." This means that at the air base the designated
"alert" pilots—two in this case—are jolted into action by a
piercing "battle horn." They run to their jets, climb up, strap
in, and do everything they need to do to get ready to fly short
of starting the engines.
communications team at NEADS—the ID techs Dooley, Rountree, and
Watson—are trying to find out, as fast as possible, everything
they can about the hijacked plane: the airline, the flight
number, the tail number (to help fighter pilots identify it in
the air), its flight plan, the number of passengers ("souls on
board" in military parlance), and, most important, where it is,
so Nasypany can launch the fighters. All the ID section knows is
that the plane is American Airlines, Flight No. 11, Boston to
Los Angeles, currently somewhere north of John F. Kennedy
International Airport—the point of reference used by civilian
ID tech Watson
places a call to the management desk at Boston Center, which
first alerted NEADS to the hijack, and gets distressing news.
WATSON: It's the inbound to J.F.K.?
BOSTON CENTER: We—we don't know.
WATSON: You don't know where he is at all?
BOSTON CENTER: He's being hijacked. The pilot's having a hard
time talking to the—I mean, we don't know. We don't know where
he's goin'. He's heading towards Kennedy. He's—like I said, he's
like 35 miles north of Kennedy now at 367 knots. We have no idea
where he's goin' or what his intentions are.
WATSON: If you could please give us a call and let us know—you
know any information, that'd be great.
BOSTON CENTER: Okay. Right now, I guess we're trying to work
on—I guess there's been some threats in the cockpit. The pilot—
WATSON: There's been what?! I'm sorry.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Threat to the … ?
BOSTON CENTER: We'll call you right back as soon as we know more
Dooley is standing
over Watson, shouting whatever pertinent information she hears
to Nasypany, who's now in position in the center of the floor.
DOOLEY: O.K., he said threat to the cockpit!
PLAY | STOP
This last bit
ratchets the tension in the room up considerably.
At Otis Air National
Guard Base, the pilots are in their jets, straining at the
reins. ("When the horn goes off, it definitely gets your heart,"
F-15 pilot Major Dan Nash later told me, thumping his chest with
his hand.) But at NEADS, Nasypany's "tracker techs" in the
Surveillance section still can't find American 11 on their
scopes. As it turns out, this is just as the hijackers intended.
Radar is the NEADS
controllers' most vital piece of equipment, but by 9/11 the
scopes were so old, among other factors, that controllers were
ultimately unable to find any of the hijacked planes in enough
time to react. Known collectively as the Green Eye for the glow
the radar rings give off, the scopes looked like something out
of Dr. Strangelove and were strikingly anachronistic compared
with the equipment at civilian air-traffic sites. (After 9/11,
NEADS was equipped with state-of-the-art equipment.)
In order to find a
hijacked airliner—or any airplane—military controllers need
either the plane's beacon code (broadcast from an electronic
transponder on board) or the plane's exact coordinates. When the
hijackers on American 11 turned the beacon off, intentionally
losing themselves in the dense sea of airplanes already flying
over the U.S. that morning (a tactic that would be repeated,
with some variations, on all the hijacked flights), the NEADS
controllers were at a loss.
"You would see
thousands of green blips on your scope," Nasypany told me, "and
now you have to pick and choose. Which is the bad guy out there?
Which is the hijacked aircraft? And without that information
from F.A.A., it's a needle in a haystack."
At this point in the
morning, more than 3,000 jetliners are already in the air over
the continental United States, and the Boston controller's
direction—"35 miles north of Kennedy"—doesn't help the NEADS
controllers at all.
On tape, amid the
confusion, one hears Major James Fox, then 32, the leader of the
Weapons Team, whose composure will stand out throughout the
attack, make an observation that, so far, ranks as the
understatement of the morning.
FOX: I've never seen so much real-world stuff happen during an
PLAY | STOP
Less than two
minutes later, frustrated that the controllers still can't
pinpoint American 11 on radar, Nasypany orders Fox to launch the
Otis fighters anyway.
FOX: M.C.C. [Mission Crew Commander], I don't know where I'm
scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination—
NASYPANY: O.K., I'm gonna give you the Z point [coordinate].
It's just north of—New York City.
FOX: I got this lat long, 41-15, 74-36, or 73-46.
NASYPANY: Head 'em in that direction.
FOX: Copy that.
PLAY | STOP
Having them up,
Nasypany figures, is better than having them on the ground,
assuming NEADS will ultimately pin down American 11's position.
His job is to be proactive—to try to gain leverage over the
situation as fast as possible. His backstop is Colonel Marr, the
battle commander and Nasypany's superior up in the Battle Cab,
whose role is more strategic, calculating the implications of
each move several hours down the line.
Marr, 48 at the time
(and since retired), is a well-liked leader. Most of his
conversations on 9/11 are unrecorded: he speaks over a secure
phone with his superior, Major General Larry Arnold, stationed
at NORAD's command center at Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida,
or over an intercom with Nasypany. In the latter case, only
Nasypany's side of the conversations is recorded.
In the last lines of
his first briefing to Marr, Nasypany unwittingly, in his last
line, trumps Fox in the realm of understatement.
NASYPANY: Hi, sir. O.K., what—what we're doing, we're tryin' to
locate this guy. We can't find him via I.F.F. [the
Identification Friend or Foe system]. What we're gonna do, we're
gonna hit up every track within a 25-mile radius of this Z-point
[coordinate] that we put on the scope. Twenty-nine thousand
[feet] heading 1-9-0 [east]. We're just gonna do—we're gonna try
to find this guy. They can't find him. There's supposedly been
threats to the cockpit. So we're just doing the thing … [off-mic
conversation] True. And probably right now with what's going on
in the cockpit it's probably really crazy. So, it probably needs
to—that will simmer down and we'll probably get some better
PLAY | STOP
American 11 slammed
into the north tower of the World Trade Center four seconds into
More than 150 miles
from Manhattan, within the same minute as American 11 hits the
tower, the stoplight in the Alert Barn at Otis Air National
Guard Base on Cape Cod turns from red to green, Colonel Marr and
General Arnold having approved Nasypany's order to scramble the
fighters. The pilots taxi out and fire the afterburners as the
planes swing onto the runway. NEADS has no indication yet that
American 11 has crashed.
Five minutes later,
Rountree, at the ID station, gets the first report of the crash
from Boston Center (as her colleagues Watson and Dooley
ROUNTREE: A plane just hit the World Trade Center.
ROUNTREE: Was it a 737?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (background): Hit what?
WATSON: The World Trade Center—
DOOLEY: Who are you talking to? [Gasps.]
DOOLEY: Get—pass—pass it to them—
WATSON: Oh my God. Oh God. Oh my God.
ROUNTREE: Saw it on the news. It's—a plane just crashed into the
World Trade Center.
DOOLEY: Update New York! See if they lost altitude on that plane
Watson places a call
to civilian controllers at New York Center.
WATSON: Yes, ma'am.
Did you just hear the information regarding the World Trade
NEW YORK CENTER: No.
WATSON: Being hit by an aircraft?
NEW YORK CENTER: I'm sorry?!
WATSON: Being hit by an aircraft.
NEW YORK CENTER: You're kidding.
WATSON: It's on the world news.
PLAY | STOP
In light of this
news, someone asks Nasypany what to do with the fighters—the two
F-15s from Otis Air National Guard Base—which have now just
blasted off for New York at full afterburner to find American
11. (The flying time at full speed from Cape Cod to New York is
about 10 minutes.) Pumped with adrenaline, Nasypany doesn't miss
NASYPANY: Send 'em to New York City still. Continue! Go!
NASYPANY: This is what I got. Possible news that a 737 just hit
the World Trade Center. This is a real-world. And we're trying
to confirm this. Okay. Continue taking the fighters down to the
New York City area, J.F.K. area, if you can. Make sure that the
F.A.A. clears it— your route all the way through. Do what we
gotta do, okay? Let's press with this. It looks like this guy
could have hit the World Trade Center.
PLAY | STOP
"I'm not gonna stop
what I initially started with scrambling Otis—getting Otis over
New York City," Nasypany recalled when I played him this section
of his tape. "If this is a false report, I still have my
fighters where I want them to be."
is building on the ops floor over whether the plane that hit the
tower really was American 11. Rumors that it was a small Cessna
have started to circulate through the civilian air-traffic
system. ID tech Rountree is on the phone with Boston Center's
military liaison, Colin Scoggins, a civilian manager, who at
first seems to confirm that it was American 11 that went into
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Yeah, he crashed into the World Trade
ROUNTREE: That is the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Yup. Disregard the—disregard the tail
number [given earlier for American 11].
ROUNTREE: Disregard the tail number? He did crash into the World
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): That's—that's what we believe, yes.
PLAY | STOP
But an unidentified
male trooper at NEADS overhears the exchange and raises a red
MALE NEADS TECH: I never heard them say American Airlines Flight
11 hit the World Trade Center. I heard it was a civilian
Dooley, the ID
desk's master sergeant, takes the phone from Rountree to confirm
for herself, and the story veers off course …
DOOLEY (to Boston):
Master Sergeant Dooley here. We need to have—are you giving
confirmation that American 11 was the one—
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): No, we're not gonna confirm that at
this time. We just know an aircraft crashed in and …
DOOLEY: You—are you—can you say—is anyone up there tracking
primary on this guy still?
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): No. The last [radar sighting] we have
was about 15 miles east of J.F.K., or eight miles east of J.F.K.
was our last primary hit. He did slow down in speed. The primary
that we had, it slowed down below—around to 300 knots.
DOOLEY: And then you lost 'em?
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Yeah, and then we lost 'em.
PLAY | STOP
Scoggins told me later, was that American Airlines refused to
confirm for several hours that its plane had hit the tower. This
lack of confirmation caused uncertainty that would be compounded
in a very big way as the attack continued. (Though airlines have
their own means of monitoring the location of their planes and
communicating with their pilots, they routinely go into
information lockdown in a crisis.)
Amid the chaos,
Nasypany notices that some of his people are beginning to panic,
so he makes a joke to relieve the tension.
NASYPANY: Think we put the exercise on the hold. What do you
Just at that moment,
in one of the dark, U-shaped air-traffic-control areas at New
York Center, on Long Island, a half-dozen civilian controllers
are watching a second plane that's turned off course: United
175, also scheduled from Boston to Los Angeles. As the
controllers try to hail the pilots, a manager comes running in
and confirms that the plane that hit the first tower was,
indeed, a commercial airliner, rather than a small Cessna. It's
just at that moment that United 175, 38 minutes into its flight
and now near Allentown, Pennsylvania, moving southwest farther
and farther off course, makes a sudden swing northeast toward
Manhattan. Suddenly—instinctively—the civilian controllers know:
it's another hijacking, and it's not going to land.
start speculating what the hijacker is aiming at—one guesses the
Statue of Liberty—and the room erupts in profanity and horror.
One controller is looking at his scope, calling out the rate of
descent every 12 seconds as he watches the radar refresh. It is
not until the last second, literally, that anyone from New York
Center thinks to update NEADS. ID tech Rountree fields the call.
ROUNTREE: They have a second possible hijack!
PLAY | STOP
simultaneously, United 175 slams into the south tower of the
World Trade Center, something several NEADS personnel witness
live on CNN, including Colonel Marr, the commanding officer.
(Dooley told me she remembers looking up toward the Battle Cab
and, for a long moment, seeing Marr's jaw drop and everyone
around him frozen.)
On the ops floor,
there is considerable confusion as to whether the second
hijacking New York Center just called in is the same plane that
hit the second tower, or whether there are now three missing
NASYPANY (to Marr): Sir, we got—we've got unconfirmed second hit
from another aircraft. Fighters are south of—just south of Long
Island, sir. Right now. Fighters are south of Long Island.
enough commotion in the Battle Cab that Nasypany needs to
clarify: "Our fighters … " The two F-15s, scrambled from Otis,
are now approaching the city.
In the background,
several troops can be heard trying to make sense of what's
—Is this explosion part of that that we're lookin' at now on TV?
—And there's a possible second hijack also—a United Airlines …
—Get the fuck out …
—I think this is a damn input, to be honest.
PLAY | STOP
The last line—"I
think this is a damn input"—is a reference to the exercise,
meaning a simulations input. It's either gallows humor or
wishful thinking. From the tape, it's hard to tell.
"We've already had
two. Why not more?"
Meanwhile, flying southwest over the ocean, the two fighters
from Otis Air National Guard Base are streaking toward
Manhattan. The pilots are startled, to say the least, when they
see billowing smoke appear on the horizon; no one's briefed them
about what's going on. They were scrambled simply to intercept
and escort American 11—a possible hijacking—and that is all they
"From 100 miles away
at least, we could see the fire and the smoke blowing," Major
Dan Nash, one of the F-15 pilots, told me. "Obviously, anybody
watching CNN had a better idea of what was going on. We were not
told anything. It was to the point where we were flying
supersonic towards New York and the controller came on and said,
'A second airplane has hit the World Trade Center.' … My first
thought was 'What happened to American 11?'"
With both towers now
in flames, Nasypany wants the fighters over Manhattan
immediately, but the weapons techs get "pushback" from civilian
F.A.A. controllers, who have final authority over the fighters
as long as they are in civilian airspace. The F.A.A. controllers
are afraid of fast-moving fighters colliding with a passenger
plane, of which there are hundreds in the area, still flying
normal routes—the morning's unprecedented order to ground all
civilian aircraft has not yet been given. To Nasypany, the fact
that so many planes are still in the sky is all the more reason
to get the fighters close. ("We've already had two," he told me,
referring to the hijackings. "Why not more?")
The fighters are
initially directed to a holding area just off the coast, near
happy, and he makes sure that's duly noted for posterity as he
calls out to Major Fox, the leader of the Weapons Team.
NASYPANY: Okay, Foxy. Plug in. I want to make sure this is on
tape.… This is what—this is what I foresee that we probably need
to do. We need to talk to F.A.A. We need to tell 'em if this
stuff's gonna keep on going, we need to take those fighters on
and then put 'em over Manhattan, O.K.? That's the best thing.
That's the best play right now. So, coordinate with the F.A.A.
Tell 'em if there's more out there, which we don't know, let's
get 'em over Manhattan. At least we got some kinda play.
PLAY | STOP
He tells the Battle
Cab he wants Fox to launch two more fighters from Langley Air
Force Base, in Virginia, to establish a greater presence over
New York, but the request is refused. The order from the Battle
Cab is to put the Langley jets on battle stations only—to be
ready, but not to launch.
"The problem there
would have been I'd have all my fighters in the air at the same
time, which means they'd all run out of gas at the same time,"
Marr later explained.
Incredibly, Marr has
only four armed fighters at his disposal to defend about a
quarter of the continental United States. Massive cutbacks at
the close of the Cold War reduced NORAD's arsenal of fighters
from some 60 battle-ready jets to just 14 across the entire
country. (Under different commands, the military generally
maintains several hundred unarmed fighter jets for training in
the continental U.S.) Only four of NORAD's planes belong to
NEADS and are thus anywhere close to Manhattan—the two from
Otis, now circling above the ocean off Long Island, and the two
in Virginia at Langley.
walking up and down the floor, asking all his section heads and
weapons techs if they are prepared to shoot down a civilian
airliner if need be, but he's jumping the gun: he doesn't have
the authority to order a shootdown, nor does Marr or Arnold, or
Vice President Cheney, for that matter. The order will need to
come from President Bush, who has only just learned of the
attack at a photo op in Florida.
On the ops floor,
you hear Nasypany firmly pressing the issue. He briefs Marr on
the armaments on board the F-15s, and how he sees best to use
them "if need be":
NASYPANY: My recommendation, if we have to take anybody out,
large aircraft, we use AIM-9s in the face.… If need be.
PLAY | STOP
If there's another
hijacking and the jets can engage, Nasypany is telling Marr, a
missile fired into the nose of the plane will have the greatest
chance of bringing it down.
But the prospect
soon becomes real. Mo Dooley's voice erupts from the ID station
on the operations floor.
DOOLEY: Another hijack! It's headed towards Washington!
NASYPANY: Shit! Give me a location.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Okay. Third aircraft—hijacked—heading toward
PLAY | STOP
received from Colin Scoggins at Boston Center, will set off a
major escalation in the military response to the attack,
resulting in the launch of additional armed fighter jets. But 20
months later, when the military presents to the 9/11 commission
what is supposed to be a full accounting of the day, omitted
from the official time line is any mention of this reported
hijacking and the fevered chase it engenders.
It was the Friday
before Memorial Day weekend, 2003, and the hearing room in the
Hart Senate Office Building, in Washington, was half empty as
the group of mostly retired military brass arranged themselves
at the witness table before the 9/11 commission. The story the
NORAD officers had come to tell before the commission was a
relatively humbling one, a point underscored by the questions
commission chairman Thomas Kean introduced during his opening
remarks: How did the hijackers defeat the system, and why
couldn't we stop them? These were important questions. Nearly
two years after the attack, the Internet was rife with questions
and conspiracy theories about 9/11—in particular, where were the
fighters? Could they have physically gotten to any of the
hijacked planes? And did they shoot down the final flight,
United 93, which ended up in a Pennsylvania field?
On hand, dressed in
business suits (with the exception of Major General Craig
McKinley, whose two stars twinkled on either epaulet), were
Major General Larry Arnold (retired), who had been on the other
end of the secure line with NEADS's Colonel Marr throughout the
attack, and Colonel Alan Scott (retired), who had been with
Arnold at NORAD's continental command in Florida on 9/11 and who
worked closely with Marr in preparing the military's time line.
None of the military men were placed under oath.
Their story, in a
nutshell, was one of being caught off guard initially, then very
quickly ramping up to battle status—in position, and in
possession of enough situational awareness to defend the
country, and the capital in particular, before United 93, the
fourth hijacked plane, would have reached Washington.
Major General Arnold
explained to the commission that the military had been tracking
United 93 and the fighters were in position if United 93 had
threatened Washington. "It was our intent to intercept United
Flight 93," Arnold testified. "I was personally anxious to see
what 93 was going to do, and our intent was to intercept it."
Colonel Marr, the
commanding officer at NEADS on 9/11, had made similar comments
to ABC News for its one-year-anniversary special on the attacks,
saying that the pilots had been warned they might have to
intercept United 93, and stop it if necessary: "And we of course
passed that on to the pilots: United Airlines Flight 93 will not
be allowed to reach Washington, D.C."
When I interviewed
him recently, Marr recalled a conversation he had had with
Arnold in the heat of the attack. "I remember the words out of
General Arnold's mouth, or at least as I remember them, were 'We
will take lives in the air to save lives on the ground.'" In
actuality, they'd never get that chance.
In the chronology
presented to the 9/11 commission, Colonel Scott put the time
NORAD was first notified about United 93 at 9:16 a.m., from
which time, he said, commanders tracked the flight closely. (It
crashed at 10:03 a.m.) If it had indeed been necessary to "take
lives in the air" with United 93, or any incoming flight to
Washington, the two armed fighters from Langley Air Force Base
in Virginia would have been the ones called upon to carry out
the shootdown. In Colonel Scott's account, those jets were given
the order to launch at 9:24, within seconds of NEADS's receiving
the F.A.A.'s report of the possible hijacking of American 77,
the plane that would ultimately hit the Pentagon. This time line
suggests the system was starting to work: the F.A.A. reports a
hijacking, and the military reacts instantaneously. Launching
after the report of American 77 would, in theory, have put the
fighters in the air and in position over Washington in plenty of
time to react to United 93.
In testimony a few
minutes later, however, General Arnold added an unexpected
twist: "We launched the aircraft out of Langley to put them over
top of Washington, D.C., not in response to American Airlines
77, but really to put them in position in case United 93 were to
head that way."
How strange, John
Azzarello, a former prosecutor and one of the commission's staff
members, thought. "I remember being at the hearing in '03 and
wondering why they didn't seem to have their stories straight.
That struck me as odd."
The ears of another
staff member, Miles Kara, perked up as well. "I said to myself,
That's not right," the retired colonel, a former army
intelligence officer, told me. Kara had seen the radar
re-creations of the fighters' routes. "We knew something was
odd, but we didn't have enough specificity to know how odd."
As the tapes reveal
in stark detail, parts of Scott's and Arnold's testimony were
misleading, and others simply false. At 9:16 a.m., when Arnold
and Marr had supposedly begun their tracking of United 93, the
plane had not yet been hijacked. In fact, NEADS wouldn't get
word about United 93 for another 51 minutes. And while NORAD
commanders did, indeed, order the Langley fighters to scramble
at 9:24, as Scott and Arnold testified, it was not in response
to the hijacking of American 77 or United 93. Rather, they were
chasing a ghost. NEADS was entering the most chaotic period of
"Chase this guy
At 9:21 a.m., just before Dooley's alert about a third hijacked
plane headed for Washington, NEADS is in the eye of the storm—a
period of relative calm in which, for the moment, there are no
reports of additional hijackings.
The call that sets
off the latest alarm ("Another hijack! It's headed towards
Washington!") comes from Boston and is wholly confounding:
according to Scoggins, the Boston manager, American 11, the
plane they believed was the first one to hit the World Trade
Center, is actually still flying—still hijacked—and now heading
straight for D.C. Whatever hit the first tower, it wasn't
The chase is on for
what will turn out to be a phantom plane.
NASYPANY: O.K. American Airlines is still airborne—11, the first
guy. He's heading towards Washington. O.K., I think we need to
scramble Langley right now. And I'm—I'm gonna take the fighters
from Otis and try to chase this guy down if I can find him.
PLAY | STOP
Arnold and Marr
approve scrambling the two planes at Langley, along with a third
unarmed trainer, and Nasypany sets the launch in motion.
It's a mistake, of
course. American 11 was, indeed, the plane that hit the first
tower. The confusion will persist for hours, however. In Boston,
it is Colin Scoggins who has made the mistaken call.
"When we phoned
United [after the second tower was hit], they confirmed that
United 175 was down, and I think they confirmed that within two
or three minutes," Scoggins, the go-to guy at Boston Center for
all things military, later told me. "With American Airlines, we
could never confirm if it was down or not, so that left doubt in
conference call between F.A.A. centers had been established, and
Scoggins was monitoring it when the word came across—from whom
or where isn't clear—that American 11 was thought to be headed
for Washington. Scoggins told me he thinks that the problem
started with someone overheard trying to confirm from American
whether American 11 was down—that somewhere in the flurry of
information zipping back and forth during the conference call
this transmogrified into the idea that a different plane had hit
the tower, and that American 11 was still hijacked and still in
the air. The plane's course, had it continued south past New
York in the direction it was flying before it dipped below radar
coverage, would have had it headed on a straight course toward
D.C. This was all controllers were going on; they were never
tracking an actual plane on the radar after losing American 11
near Manhattan, but if it had been flying low enough, the plane
could have gone undetected. "After talking to a supervisor, I
made the call and said [American 11] is still in the air, and
it's probably somewhere over New Jersey or Delaware heading for
Washington, D.C.," Scoggins told me.
Over the next
quarter-hour, the fact that the fighters have been launched in
response to the phantom American 11—rather than American 77 or
United 93—is referred to six more times on Nasypany's channel
alone. How could Colonel Scott and General Arnold have missed it
in preparing for their 9/11-commission testimony? It's a
question Arnold would have to answer later, under oath.
In the middle of the
attack, however, the hijackers' sabotaging of the planes'
beacons has thrown such a wrench into efforts to track them that
it all seems plausible.
ANDERSON: They're probably not squawking anything [broadcasting
a beacon code] anyway. I mean, obviously these guys are in the
NASYPANY: These guys are smart.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, they knew exactly what they wanted to
PLAY | STOP
Another officer asks
Nasypany the obvious question.
MAJOR JAMES ANDERSON: Have you asked—have you asked the question
what you're gonna do if we actually find this guy? Are we gonna
shoot him down if they got passengers on board? Have they talked
PLAY | STOP
Approval for any
such order would have to come from the commander in chief. Just
after 9:30, however, the president was in his motorcade
preparing to leave the Emma Booker Elementary School, in
Sarasota, for the airport and the safety of Air Force One. The
9/11 commission determined that the president had not been aware
of any further possible hijackings and was not yet in touch with
But a clear
shootdown order wouldn't have made a difference. The Langley
fighters were headed the wrong way—due east, straight out to sea
into a military-training airspace called Whiskey 386, rather
than toward Washington, which NEADS believed was under attack.
According to the 9/11 commission, the Langley pilots were never
briefed by anyone at their base about why they were being
scrambled, so, despite having been given the order from NEADS to
fly to Washington, the pilots ended up following their normal
training flight plan out to sea—a flight plan dating from the
Cold War. As one pilot later told the commission, "I reverted to
the Russian threat—I'm thinking cruise-missile threat from the
At NEADS, a
28-year-old staff sergeant named William Huckabone, staring at
his Green Eye, is the first to notice that the Langley jets are
off course. His voice is a mix of stress and dread as he and the
controller next to him, Master Sergeant Steve Citino, order a
navy air-traffic controller who's handling the fighters to get
them turned around toward Baltimore to try to cut off the
phantom American 11. The navy air-traffic controller seems not
to understand the urgency of the situation.
NAVY A.T.C.: You've got [the fighters] moving east in airspace.
Now you want 'em to go to Baltimore?
HUCKABONE: Yes, sir. We're not gonna take 'em in Whiskey 386
[military training airspace over the ocean].
NAVY A.T.C.: O.K., once he goes to Baltimore, what are we
supposed to do?
HUCKABONE: Have him contact us on auxiliary frequency 2-3-4
decimal 6. Instead of taking handoffs to us and us handing 'em
back, just tell Center they've got to go to Baltimore.
NAVY A.T.C.: All right, man. Stand by. We'll get back to you.
CITINO: What do you mean, "We'll get back to you"? Just do it!
HUCKABONE: I'm gonna choke that guy!
CITINO: Be very professional, Huck.
CITINO: All right, Huck. Let's get our act together here.
PLAY | STOP
All hell is breaking
loose around them. Boston Center has called in with another
suspected hijacking—the controllers there don't know the call
sign yet—and ID tech Watson is speed-dialing everyone she can to
find a position on the resurrected American 11. In the course of
a call to Washington Center, the operations manager there has
sprung new information about yet another lost airplane: American
WASHINGTON CENTER: Now, let me tell you this. I—I'll—we've been
looking. We're—also lost American 77—
WATSON: American 77?
DOOLEY: American 77's lost—
WATSON: Where was it proposed to head, sir?
WASHINGTON CENTER: Okay, he was going to L.A. also—
WATSON: From where, sir?
WASHINGTON CENTER: I think he was from Boston also. Now let me
tell you this story here. Indianapolis Center was working this
WATSON: What guy?
WASHINGTON CENTER: American 77, at flight level 3-5-0 [35,000
feet]. However, they lost radar with him. They lost contact with
him. They lost everything. And they don't have any idea where he
is or what happened.
PLAY | STOP
This is a full 10
minutes later than the time Major General Arnold and Colonel
Scott would give in their testimony; reality was a lot messier.
Forty minutes prior, at 8:54 a.m., controllers at Indianapolis
Center had lost radar contact with American 77, flying from
Washington Dulles to LAX, and assumed the plane had crashed
because they weren't aware of the attack in New York. Though
they soon realized this was another hijacking and sent warnings
up the F.A.A. chain, no one called the military; it was only by
chance that NEADS's Watson got the information in her call to
As Watson takes in
the information from Washington Center, Rountree's phone is
ringing again. By this point, the other ID techs have taken to
calling Rountree "the bearer of death and destruction" because
it seems every time she picks up the phone there's another
hijacking. And so it is again. At Boston Center, Colin Scoggins
has spotted a low-flying airliner six miles southeast of the
ROUNTREE: Huntress [call sign for NEADS] ID, Rountree, can I
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Latest report, [low-flying] aircraft
six miles southeast of the White House.
ROUNTREE: Six miles southeast of the White House?
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Yup. East—he's moving away?
ROUNTREE: Southeast from the White House.
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Air—aircraft is moving away.
ROUNTREE: Moving away from the White House?
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Yeah.…
ROUNTREE: Deviating away. You don't have a type aircraft, you
don't know who he is—
BOSTON CENTER (Scoggins): Nothing, nothing. We're over here in
Boston so I have no clue. That—hopefully somebody in Washington
would have better—information for you.
PLAY | STOP
This will turn out
to be American 77, but since the hijackers turned the beacon off
on this plane as well, no one will realize that until later.
Depending on how you count, NEADS now has three reported
possible hijackings from Boston (the phantom American 11 and two
unidentified planes) as well as Washington Center's report that
American 77 is lost.
Of these four vague
and ultimately overlapping reports, the latest—word of a plane
six miles from the White House—is the most urgent. The news sets
off a frenzy.
NASYPANY: O.K., Foxy [Major Fox, the Weapons Team head]. I got a
aircraft six miles east of the White House! Get your fighters
there as soon as possible!
MALE VOICE: That came from Boston?
HUCKABONE: We're gonna turn and burn it—crank it up—
MALE TECH: Six miles!
HUCKABONE: All right, here we go. This is what we're gonna do—
NASYPANY: We've got an aircraft deviating eight [sic] miles east
of the White House right now.
FOX: Do you want us to declare A.F.I.O. [emergency military
control of the fighters] and run 'em straight in there?
NASYPANY: Take 'em and run 'em to the White House.
FOX: Go directly to Washington.
CITINO: We're going direct D.C. with my guys [Langley fighters]?
HUCKABONE: Ma'am, we are going A.F.I.O. right now with Quit 2-5
[the Langley fighters]. They are going direct Washington.
NAVY A.T.C.: Quit 2-5, we're handing 'em off to Center right
HUCKABONE: Ma'am, we need to expedite that right now. We've
gotta contact them on 2-3-4-6.
PLAY | STOP
"Six miles south, or
west, or east of the White House is—it's seconds [away],"
Nasypany told me later. "Airliners traveling at 400-plus knots,
it's nothing. It's seconds away from that location."
The White House,
then, is in immediate danger. Radar analysis in the following
weeks will show that the plane abruptly veers away and turns
toward the Pentagon, though the controllers at NEADS have no way
of knowing this in the moment. Looking in the general capital
area, one of the tracker techs thinks he spots the plane on
radar, then just as quickly loses it.
MALE TECH: Right here, right here, right here. I got him. I got
NASYPANY: We just lost track. Get a Z-point [coordinate] on
that.… O.K., we got guys lookin' at 'em. Hold on.… Where's
Langley at? Where are the fighters?
PLAY | STOP
The fighters have no
chance. They're about 150 miles away, according to radar
analysis done later. Even at top speed—and even if they know the
problem is suicide hijackings of commercial airliners rather
than Russian missiles—it will take them roughly 10 minutes to
get to the Pentagon.
NASYPANY: We need to get those back up there—I don't care how
many windows you break!… Goddammit! O.K. Push 'em back!
But the Pentagon is
already in flames, American 77 having plowed through the E-ring
of the west side of the building seconds before, at 9:37:46. The
Langley fighters will not be established over Washington for
another 20 minutes.
"You were just so
On the ops floor, everyone is staring at CNN on the overhead
screen. Seeing the first pictures of the Pentagon in flames is
gut-wrenching. Nasypany's voice can be heard cursing in
frustration: "Goddammit! I can't even protect my N.C.A.
[National Capital Area]." You hear troops prod one another to
watch our guys, Huck. Not the TV.
"The more it went
on, the more unbelievable it got, and then the one that did the
Pentagon," Dooley told me, "we just couldn't believe it. You
were just so mad that you couldn't stop these guys and so you're
looking for the next one. Where are they going next?"
It looks like
Washington again. Three minutes after the Pentagon is hit,
Scoggins, at Boston Center, is back on the phone. The Boston
controllers are now tracking Delta 1989—Boston to Las
Vegas—which fits the same profile as the other hijackings:
cross-country, out of Boston, lots of fuel, and possibly off
course. But this one's different from the others in one key
respect: the plane's beacon code is still working. In this
chase, NEADS will have a chance, as the excitement in Dooley's
last line reflects:
ROUNTREE: Delta 89, that's the hijack. They think it's possible
ROUNTREE: South of Cleveland. We have a code on him now.
DOOLEY: Good. Pick it up! Find it!
MALE TECH: Delta what?
ROUNTREE: Eight nine—a Boeing 767.
DOOLEY: Fuck, another one—
PLAY | STOP
They quickly find
the plane on radar—it's just south of Toledo—and begin alerting
other F.A.A. centers. They're not sure where the plane is
headed. If it's Chicago, they're in big trouble, because they
don't have any planes close enough to cut it off. Marr and
Nasypany order troops to call Air National Guard bases in that
area to see if anyone can launch fighters. A base in Selfridge,
Michigan, offers up two unarmed fighters that are already
flying, on their way back from a training mission.
SELFRIDGE FLIGHT OFFICER: Here—here's what we can do. At a
minimum, we can keep our guys airborne. I mean, they don't
have—they don't have any guns or missiles or anything on board.
NEADS TECH: It's a presence, though.
PLAY | STOP
But NEADS is victim
again to an increasingly long information lag. Even before
Rountree gets the urgent call that Delta 1989 is hijacked, a
civilian air-traffic controller in Cleveland in contact with the
pilot has determined that the flight is fine—that Delta 1989
isn't a hijacking after all.
NEADS has gotten a call from a NORAD unit in Canada with yet
another suspected hijacking headed south across the border
toward Washington. In the barrage of information and
misinformation, it becomes increasingly difficult for the
controllers to keep count of how many suspected hijackings are
pending. So far, it is known that three have hit buildings, but
given the uncertainty about the fates of American 11 and
American 77—no one knows yet that this is the plane that hit the
Pentagon—the sense at NEADS is that there are possibly three
hijacked jets still out there, and who knows how many more yet
to be reported. At this point, no one on the military side is
aware that United 93 has been hijacked.
Then, over a crackly
radio, one of the Langley fighter pilots, now in a combat air
patrol over Washington, is calling in urgently.
PILOT: Baltimore is saying something about an aircraft over the
White House. Any words?
CITINO: Negative. Stand by. Do you copy that, SD [Major Fox]?
Center said there's an aircraft over the White House. Any words?
FOX: M.C.C. [Nasypany], we've got an aircraft reported over the
PLAY | STOP
A fourth hijacking?
Nasypany, who's running full throttle, replies instinctively.
NASYPANY: Intercept and divert that aircraft away from there.
PLAY | STOP
On one channel, you
hear a weapons tech very dramatically hailing the fighters and
ordering the intercept.
CITINO: Quit 2-5
[Langley fighters], mission is intercept aircraft over White
House. Use F.A.A. for guidance.
FOX: Divert the aircraft away from the White House. Intercept
and divert it.
CITINO: Quit 2-5, divert the aircraft from the White House.
PILOT: Divert the aircraft.…
PLAY | STOP
calls the Battle Cab. With a plane headed straight for the White
House, Nasypany needs an update on his rules of engagement—fast.
NASYPANY: Do you hear that? That aircraft over the White House.
What's the word? … Intercept and what else? … Aircraft over the
PLAY | STOP
The "what else?" is
the big question: do they have the authority to shoot? The
request skips up the chain to Arnold.
"I was in Vietnam,"
Arnold later told me. "When people are shooting at you, you
don't know when it's going to stop. And that same thought went
through my mind [on 9/11]. You begin to wonder, How can I get
control of this situation? When can we as a military get control
of this situation?"
Arnold, in turn,
passes the request for rules of engagement farther up the chain.
It is in the middle
of this, simultaneously, that the first call comes in about
United 93. ID tech Watson fields it.
CLEVELAND CENTER: We got a United 93 out here. Are you aware of
WATSON: United 93?
CLEVELAND CENTER: That has a bomb on board.
WATSON: A bomb on board?! And this is confirmed? You have a
[beacon code], sir?
CLEVELAND CENTER: No, we lost his transponder.
The information is
shouted out to Nasypany.
NASYPANY: Gimme the
call sign. Gimme the whole nine yards.… Let's get some info,
real quick. They got a bomb?
PLAY | STOP
But by the time
NEADS gets the report of a bomb on United 93, everyone on board
is already dead. Following the passengers' counterattack, the
plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania at 10:03 a.m., 4
minutes before Cleveland Center notified NEADS, and a full 35
minutes after a Cleveland Center controller, a veteran named
John Werth, first suspected something was wrong with the flight.
At 9:28, Werth actually heard the guttural sounds of the cockpit
struggle over the radio as the hijackers attacked the pilots.
about United 93 were passed quickly up the F.A.A.'s chain of
command, so how is it that no one from the agency alerted NEADS
for more than half an hour?
A former senior
executive at the F.A.A., speaking to me on the condition that I
not identify him by name, tried to explain. "Our whole
procedures prior to 9/11 were that you turned everything
[regarding a hijacking] over to the F.B.I.," he said,
reiterating that hijackers had never actually flown airplanes;
it was expected that they'd land and make demands. "There were
absolutely no shootdown protocols at all. The F.A.A. had nothing
to do with whether they were going to shoot anybody down. We had
no protocols or rules of engagement."
In his bunker under
the White House, Vice President Cheney was not notified about
United 93 until 10:02—only one minute before the airliner
impacted the ground. Yet it was with dark bravado that the vice
president and others in the Bush administration would later
recount sober deliberations about the prospect of shooting down
United 93. "Very, very tough decision, and the president
understood the magnitude of that decision," Bush's then chief of
staff, Andrew Card, told ABC News.
Cheney echoed, "The
significance of saying to a pilot that you are authorized to
shoot down a plane full of Americans is, a, you know, it's an
order that had never been given before." And it wasn't on 9/11,
President Bush would
finally grant commanders the authority to give that order at
10:18, which—though no one knew it at the time—was 15 minutes
after the attack was over.
But comments such as
those above were repeated by other administration and military
figures in the weeks and months following 9/11, forging the
notion that only the passengers' counterattack against their
hijackers prevented an inevitable shootdown of United 93 (and
convincing conspiracy theorists that the government did, indeed,
secretly shoot it down). The recordings tell a different story,
and not only because United 93 had crashed before anyone in the
military chain of command even knew it had been hijacked.
At what feels on the
tapes like the moment of truth, what comes back down the chain
of command, instead of clearance to fire, is a resounding sense
of caution. Despite the fact that NEADS believes there may be as
many as five suspected hijacked aircraft still in the air at
this point—one from Canada, the new one bearing down fast on
Washington, the phantom American 11, Delta 1989, and United
93—the answer to Nasypany's question about rules of engagement
comes back in no uncertain terms, as you hear him relay to the
NASYPANY (to floor): Negative. Negative clearance to shoot.…
FOX: I'm not really worried about code words at this point.
NASYPANY: Fuck the code words. That's perishable information.
Negative clearance to fire. ID. Type. Tail.
PLAY | STOP
The orders from
higher headquarters are to identify by aircraft type and tail
number, and nothing more. Those orders—and the fact that the
pilots have no clearance to shoot—are reiterated by NEADS
controllers as a dramatic chase towards the White House
continues. Two more problems emerge: the controllers can't find
the White House on their dated equipment, and they have trouble
communicating with the Langley fighters (which are referred to
by their call signs, Quit 2-5 and Quit 2-6).
CITINO: Quit 2-6,
Huntress. How far is the—suspect aircraft?
PILOT: Standby. Standby.… About 15 miles, Huntress.
CITINO: Huntress copies two-two miles.
PILOT: 15 miles, Huntress.
CITINO: 15 miles. One-five … noise level please … It's got to be
low. Quit 2-6, when able say altitude of the aircraft.… Did we
get a Z-track [coordinates] up for the White House?
HUCKABONE: They're workin' on it.
CITINO: Okay. Hey, what's this Bravo 0-0-5 [unidentified
FOX: We're trying to get the Z-point. We're trying to find it.
HUCKABONE: I don't even know where the White House is.
CITINO: Whatever it is, it's very low. It's probably a
MALE VOICE: It's probably the helicopter you're watching there.…
There's probably one flying over the [Pentagon].
MALE VOICE: It's probably the smoke. The building's smoked.
[They're seeing more pictures of the flaming Pentagon on CNN.]
HUCKABONE: Holy shit.… Holy shit …
CITINO: Yes. We saw that. O.K.—let's watch our guys, Huck. Not
the TV.… Quit 2-6, status? SD, they're too low. I can't talk to
'em. They're too low. I can't talk to 'em.
FOX: Negative clearance to fire.
CITINO: O.K. I told 'em mission is ID and that was it.
FOX: Do whatever you need to divert. They are not cleared to
PLAY | STOP
As it turns out,
it's just as well the pilots are not cleared to shoot. Delta
1989 and the Canadian scare turn out to be false alarms.
American 11 and United 93 are already down. And the fast-moving
target near the White House that the armed fighters are racing
to intercept turns out to be a friendly—a mistake by a civilian
controller who was unaware of the military's scrambles, as
weapons techs Huckabone and Citino, and their senior director,
Fox, suddenly realize.
HUCKABONE: It was
our guys [the fighters from Langley].
CITINO: Yup. It was our guys they saw. It was our guys they
FOX: New York did the same thing….
CITINO: O.K., Huck. That was cool. We intercepted our own guys.
PLAY | STOP
At that point in the
morning, Marr later told me, preventing an accidental shootdown
was a paramount concern. "What you don't want happening is a
pilot having to make that decision in the heat of the moment
where he is bearing all that burden as to whether I should shoot
something down or not," Marr said.
It is 12 minutes
after United 93 actually crashed when NEADS's Watson first hears
the word. Her voice is initially full of hope as she mistakenly
believes she is being told that United 93 has landed safely.
WATSON: United nine three, have you got information on that yet?
WASHINGTON CENTER: Yeah, he's down.
WATSON: What—he's down?
WASHINGTON CENTER: Yes.
WATSON: When did he land? Because we have confirmation—
WASHINGTON CENTER: He did—he did—he did not land.
Here, on the tape,
you hear the air rush out of Watson's voice.
WATSON: Oh, he's
MALE VOICE: Yes. Yeah, somewhere up northeast of Camp David.
WATSON: Northeast of Camp David.
WASHINGTON CENTER: That's the—that's the last report. They don't
know exactly where.
PLAY | STOP
"I know what spin
On June 17, 2004, a year after the 9/11 commission's initial
public hearing, Major General Arnold and a more robust
contingent of NORAD and Pentagon brass arrived to testify before
the commission at its 12th and final public meeting. This time,
they would testify under oath.
The hearing began
with an elaborate multi-media presentation in which John Farmer
Jr., the commission's senior counsel, John Azzarello, and
another staff attorney, Dana Hyde, took turns illustrating, in
withering detail, the lag time between when the F.A.A. found out
about each of the hijacked aircraft and the time anyone from the
agency notified the military. Excerpts from the NEADS tapes and
parallel recordings from the F.A.A., which show the civilian
side in equal turmoil, were played in public for the first time.
(Both sets of recordings were provided to the commission only
after being subpoenaed.)
The focus of the
pointed questioning that followed wasn't on why the military
didn't do better, but rather on why the story Major General
Arnold and Colonel Scott had told at the first hearing was so
wrong, in particular with respect to the phantom American 11,
which the officers had never mentioned, and United 93, which
they claimed to have been tracking. Commissioner Richard
Ben-Veniste, who cut his teeth 30 years earlier working for the
Watergate special prosecutor, led off the questioning and came
"General, is it not
a fact that the failure to call our attention to the
miscommunication and the notion of a phantom Flight 11
continuing from New York City south in fact skewed the whole
reporting of 9/11?" he asked Arnold, who replied that he had not
been aware of those facts when he testified the year before.
"I've been in
government and I know what spin is," Farmer, the senior counsel,
told me. The military's story was "a whole different order of
magnitude than spin. It simply wasn't true." Farmer says he
doesn't understand why the military felt the need to spin at
all. "The information they got [from the F.A.A.] was bad
information, but they reacted in a way that you would have
wanted them to. The calls Marr and Nasypany made were the right
Both Marr and Arnold
bristled when I asked about the commission's suspicion that
there had been an effort to spin the story. "I can't think of
any incentive why we'd want to spin that," Marr said, his eyes
tensing for the first time in what had been friendly interviews.
"I'll be the first to admit that immediately after—in fact, for
a long time after—we were very confused with who was what and
where, what reports were coming in. I think with having 29
different reports of hijackings nationwide, for us it was next
to impossible to try and get back there and figure out the
fidelity [about the morning's chronology] that the 9/11
commission ended up being able to show."
and several other commission members I spoke to dismissed this
fog-of-war excuse and pointed out that not only had the military
already reviewed the tapes but that the false story it told at
the first hearing had a clear purpose. "How good would it have
looked for the government in general if we still couldn't have
stopped the fourth plane an hour and 35 minutes [into the
attack]?" Azzarello asked. "How good would it have looked if
there was a total breakdown in communication and nothing worked
If nothing else, it
might have given the public a more realistic sense of the
limitations, particularly in the face of suicide terrorism, of
what is, without doubt, the most powerful military in the world.
As one of its last
acts before disbanding, in July 2004, the 9/11 commission made
referrals to the inspector general's offices of both the
Department of Transportation (which includes the F.A.A.) and the
Defense Department to further investigate whether witnesses had
lied. "Commission staff believes that there is significant
evidence that the false statements made to the commission were
deliberately false," Farmer wrote to me in an e-mail summarizing
the commission's referral. "The false testimony served a
purpose: to obscure mistakes on the part of the F.A.A. and the
military, and to overstate the readiness of the military to
intercept and, if necessary, shoot down UAL 93." A spokesman for
the Transportation Department's inspector general's office told
me that the investigation had been completed, but he wasn't at
liberty to share the findings, because the report had not been
finalized. A spokesman at the Pentagon's inspector general's
office said its investigation had also been completed, but the
results are classified.
time-stamped transcripts that undercut the Pentagon's official
story, one is tempted to get caught up in a game of "gotcha."
For those on the operations floor in the thick of it that day,
however, the cold revelations of hindsight are a bitter pill to
Listening to the
tapes, you hear that inside NEADS there was no sense that the
attack was over with the crash of United 93; instead, the alarms
go on and on. False reports of hijackings, and real responses,
continue well into the afternoon, though civilian air-traffic
controllers had managed to clear the skies of all commercial and
private aircraft by just after 12 p.m. The fighter pilots over
New York and D.C. (and later Boston and Chicago) would spend
hours darting around their respective skylines intercepting
hundreds of aircraft they deemed suspicious. Meanwhile, Arnold,
Marr, and Nasypany were launching as many additional fighters as
they could, placing some 300 armed jets in protective orbits
over every major American city by the following morning. No one
at NEADS would go home until late on the night of the 11th, and
then only for a few hours of sleep.
Five years after the
attack, the controversy around United 93 clearly eats at Arnold,
Marr, Nasypany, and several other military people I spoke with,
who resent both conspiracy theories that accuse them of shooting
the flight down and the 9/11 commission's conclusion that they
were chasing ghosts and never stood a chance of intercepting any
of the real hijackings. "I don't know about time lines and stuff
like that," Nasypany, who is now a lieutenant colonel, said in
one of our last conversations. "I knew where 93 was. I don't
care what [the commission says]. I mean, I care, but—I made that
assessment to put my fighters over Washington. Ninety-three was
on its way in. I knew there was another one out there. I knew
there was somebody else coming in—whatever you want to call it.
And I knew what I was going to have to end up doing." When you
listen to the tapes, it couldn't feel more horrendously true.
When I asked
Nasypany about the conspiracy theories—the people who believe
that he, or someone like him, secretly ordered the shootdown of
United 93 and covered it up—the corners of his mouth began to
quiver. Then, I think to the surprise of both of us, he suddenly
put his head in his hands and cried. "Flight 93 was not shot
down," he said when he finally looked up. "The individuals on
that aircraft, the passengers, they actually took the aircraft
down. Because of what those people did, I didn't have to do
On the day, however,
there was no time for sentiment. Within 30 seconds of the report
that United 93 has crashed, killing everyone on board, once
again, the phone is ringing.
POWELL: Southeast just called. There's another possible hijack
in our area.…
NASYPANY: All right. Fuck …
Michael Bronner is a
former producer for 60 Minutes II. His article about military
recruiters appeared in the September 2005 issue of Vanity Fair.
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