The Bunker
George Szamuely

Scrambled Messages

Original Link: 
http://www.nypress.com/14/50/taki/bunker.cfm

There remains one question to ask about Sept. 11. What happened? We know the story. Terrorists hijacked four passenger jets. At 8:45 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston smashes into the World Trade Center’s north tower. At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston smashes into the south tower. At 9:40 a.m., AA Flight 77 from Dulles hits the Pentagon. At 10:10 a.m., United Flight 93 from Newark crashes in Shanksville, PA.

Yet the most amazing feature of the U.S. government’s response to these events was the almost complete absence of it. Jared Israel on his website www.tenc.net has blazed a trail with fascinating and meticulous research.

Initial reports suggested that no aircraft were scrambled to intercept or shoot down the hijacked jets. Two days later Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "When it became clear what the threat was, we did scramble fighter aircraft, AWACs, radar aircraft and tanker aircraft to begin to establish orbits in case other aircraft showed up in the FAA system that were hijacked... That order, to the best of my knowledge, was after the Pentagon was struck." Marine Corps Maj. Mike Snyder, a spokesman for NORAD, echoed Myers in a Sept. 15 Boston Globe story, which stated: "[T]he command did not immediately scramble any fighters even though it was alerted to a hijacking 10 minutes before the first plane…slammed into the first World Trade Center tower... The spokesman said the fighters remained on the ground until after the Pentagon was hit..." U.S. inaction was all the more astonishing because the same story had Snyder admitting that "fighters routinely intercept aircraft."

So why were no fighters dispatched to intercept planes on an extraordinary day like Sept. 11? Within days the story changed and it turned out that two F-15 fighters had in fact been scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, MA. Whether this took place before or after the first tower was struck is not clear. In any case it was too late to make a difference. When the second tower was hit the fighters were still 70 miles from Manhattan. We also learned that two F-16 fighters had been scrambled from Langley Air Force Base to try to intercept Flight 77, but they also arrived too late. In fact, they only took off from Langley two minutes before the Boeing 757 smashed into the Pentagon.

There are a number of problems with this story. In the first place, 45 minutes had elapsed from the time the air traffic controllers lost contact with Flight 77 and its crash into the Pentagon. On Sept. 15 The New York Times reported: "Flight 77…would have been visible on the F.A.A.’s radar system as it reversed course in the Midwest…to fly back to Washington. The radars would have observed it even though its tracking beacon had been turned off."

There is an even more troubling question. Why were the fighters dispatched from Langley, more than 130 miles from the Pentagon, rather than Andrews Air Force Base–a mere 10 miles away? Early media reports suggested that there were no available aircraft at Andrews that day.

This is bizarre to say the least. First, if there were no fighter aircraft available that day at Andrews, how did they miraculously make their appearance over the DC sky after the Pentagon was struck? Yet this is what NBC reported on Sept. 11, as did other news outlets. Moreover, Andrews AFB is responsible for air defense around Washington. The DC Air National Guard is based there, which is equipped with F-16s. The 113th Wing is based there. According to the Andrews website: "Training for air combat and operational airlift for national defense is the 113th’s primary mission. However, as part of its dual mission, the 113th provides capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency." You can’t get more emergency than Sept. 11!

Then there is the mystery of United Flight 93. In the Seattle Times of Sept. 16, Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, director of the Air National Guard, is quoted as saying that "[n]o Air National Guard or other military planes were scrambled to chase the fourth hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 93." No military planes were scrambled! Remember, this plane came crashing down in Pennsylvania almost an hour and a half after the first tower was struck.

Damage control was once again in operation. The Boston Herald of Sept. 15 had Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz announcing "that the Air Force was tracking the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on Tuesday after other airliners slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center and had been in a position to bring it down if necessary." So why was it not brought down? Or at the very least intercepted? Three key buildings had been attacked. And there is still no emergency!

Happily, the war against the Taliban managed to push these questions out of the papers. For now.
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