As you would imagine, we have learned a great deal about the security failures leading up to and on 9/11 during the past decade. You are never going to have the full story on national security failures immediately after the event, nor even after the first investigation is completed. A great deal of the information requested by such investigations becomes available to late for their inquiry and reports – or has to be forced out over time. The media has chosen to revisit only the trauma of 9/11 on its anniversary dates, rather than to delve back into the causes and failures. Given the lack of media attention I’ve decided to post a couple of small excerpts from Surprise Attack which may give a feel for what we now know, and what is addressed in the book. Of course excerpts are never written to stand alone so you just have to jump into them realizing that there is much context and detail before and after…with that said, here is the first which addresses certain failures in preparedness.
“Irrespective of certain public statements immediately following 9/11, the concept of using hijacked aircraft as weapons was not something that had never really occurred to anyone. In 1997, the highly popular action-adventure writer Tom Clancy opened his newest novel, Executive Orders, with a hijacked airliner being flown by a terrorist into the United States Capital building during a Joint Session of Congress. The crash killed the president, virtually all of his cabinet and Congress as well as majority of the Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs of Staff in one stroke. In point of fact, Clancy’s book had been so widely read that a great number of people immediately thought of his book even in the earliest hours of the 9/11 attacks. Clancy was interviewed on CNN that day—in regard to his apparent prediction of terrorists using hijacked airliners as weapons. While the concept was no surprise to him, he stated he would simply never have thought of simultaneous attacks.
There was strategic warning of terror attacks against targets inside the continental United States, and both counterterrorism professionals and the American military had conducted simulations and exercises in line with private and commercial aviation attacks. In 1998 a White House counterterror exercise included a scenario in which terrorists loaded a Learjet with explosives and “took off on a suicide mission to Washington.” More significantly, in terms of actual interdiction of such an attack, NORAD actually exercised against the threat of hijacked airliners being used as weapons in a variety of ways—including being crashed into buildings. Such exercises were performed from 1998 to 2001, and according to the exercise summaries, FAA representatives had participated. While none of the exercises were an exact match for the attack of 9/11, several were quite similar and involved the necessity of shooting down commercial aircraft during an attack.
NORAD exercised in defending against a wide variety of aerial terror attacks, some exceedingly similar in detail to those that occurred on 9/11. It is difficult to imagine that such exercises did not surface the same basic issues—loss of tracking due to transponder shutdown, low-altitude evasive maneuvers and time-critical authority for military action against a threatening aircraft. Those were the same concerns that Richard Clarke [National Counter-terrorism Coordinator] relates were discussed in 1996, during counter terror planning for the Atlanta Olympics. In his session with the 9/11 Commission, NORAD commander Ralph Eberhart commented on the general lack of interest within the FAA of participating in NORAD exercises but provided no details on the actual level of FAA participation or the individuals involved. He made no mention of any standing concerns relating to radar tracking threatening aircraft, or of the lack of pre-designated rules for engaging or shooting down commercial airliners.
Based on Eberhart’s remarks, it appears that the NORAD exercises had not sufficiently surfaced some very fundamental real-world issues. He stated that all the attacks simulated by NORAD assumed that even after being hijacked, the aircraft crew would be in control, that the aircraft’s transponders would be on and “squawking” and that there would be a “substantial” period to pursue the rules of engagement with National Command Authority. The 9/11 Commission appears not to have pursued questions of lessons learned from the NORAD exercises or of “after-action” assessments. However, based on the events of 2001, it appears that the exercises must not have fully tested real-world elements of air defense coordination and command, coordination with the FAA and involvement of the full chain of command up to National Command Authority. The exercises also appear not to have surfaced the need for pre-designated detailed Rules of Engagement and guidance for military action against commercial aircraft.
During the first hours of the 9/11 attacks there seems to have been a critical element missing from the air defense—beyond issues of inability to track aircraft without live transponders. It constantly shows up in the dialog at NEADS and in their communications with combat control at CONR. They needed rules of engagement, and they needed instructions on what they could do in using force to engage passenger-carrying hijacked airliners. Either such rules (ROE) did not exist or had not been communicated to the front-line NORAD air defense. In his interview with the 9/11 Commission, NORAD commander Eberhart notes that he spent time after 9/11 developing new, formalized rules of engagement for such circumstances.
Given all the exercises that NORAD and the FAA conducted over the previous three years, it seems that after-action debriefings should have made it quite clear what would be needed if hijackers did seize an aircraft and move to use it as a weapon—regardless of whether that be as a delivery system for chemicals or explosives or with the fueled aircraft as a single gigantic bomb. With the history of the NORAD preparations, it must have been frustrating for those involved in the exercises to hear a post-attack remark such as that from the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers: “You hate to admit it, but we hadn’t thought about this”.
In 1996 Richard Clarke had chaired a counter-terror working-group discussion, with a team that included FBI and FAA advisers. The threat of aerial terror attacks proved to be one of the most challenging addressed by the team. Clarke asked whose job it was to prevent such attacks—and got no answer. After much head-shaking and in considerable frustration he asked the group what could be done; the only answer he received was from the FBI representative: “Don’t let them hijack an airliner in the first place.” Clarke described no comment from the FAA representative, whose agency represented the final line of defense against a hijacking.”