by George Szamuely
Research & documentation by Illarion Bykov and Jared Israel
[Posted 9 January 2002]
On the morning of September 11, the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B. Myers, was having a routine meeting on Capitol Hill with Senator Max Cleland. Just before the meeting began,
“While in an outer office, he said, he saw a television report that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. ‘They thought it was a small plane or something like that,’ Myers said. So the two men went ahead with the office call.”
–‘American Forces Press Service‘ 23 October 2001 (1)
The meeting went on for some time. While the two men chatted away, a second hijacked jet plowed into the World Trade Center’s south tower and a third one into the Pentagon. And still they went on with their meeting.
“Meanwhile, the second World Trade Center tower was hit by another jet. ‘Nobody informed us of that,’ Myers said. ‘But when we came out, that was obvious. Then, right at that time, somebody said the Pentagon had been hit.’
“Somebody thrust a cell phone in Myers’ hand. Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of U.S. Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command was on the other end of the line ‘talking about what was happening and the actions he was going to take.’
–‘American Forces Press Service‘ 23 October 2001 (1)
Meanwhile, in Florida, it is clear from the public record that by the time President Bush left his hotel he knew about the attack on the first WTC tower. John Cochran, who was covering the President’s trip to Sarasota told, told Peter Jennings on ABC TV:
“He [the President] got out of his hotel suite this morning, was about to leave, reporters saw the White House chief of staff, Andy Card, whisper into his ear. The reporter said to the president, ‘Do you know what’s going on in New York?’ He said he did, and he said he will have something about it later.”
–‘ABC News‘ Special Report 11 September 2001 (2)
And then he went to an elementary school in Sarasota to read to children for half an hour.
No urgency. Why should there be? Who could possibly have realized then the calamitous nature of the events of September 11? Besides in one of the planes,the hijackers had switched the transponders off. So how could anyone know what was going on? Yet September 11 was not so unprecedented. Passenger jet hijackings have happened before, and the US government has prepared detailed plans to handle them. On September 11 these plans were ignored in their entirety.
According to the ‘New York Times,’ air traffic controllers knew at 8:20 a.m.:
“that American Airlines Flight 11, bound from Boston to Los Angeles, had probably been hijacked. When the first news report was made at 8:45 a.m. that a plane might have hit the World Trade Center, they knew it was Flight 11.” (3)
There was little ambiguity on the matter. The pilot had pushed a button on the aircraft yoke that allowed controllers to hear the hijacker giving orders.
Here are the FAA regulations concerning hijackings:
“The FAA hijack coordinator…on duty at Washington headquarters will request the military to provide an escort aircraft for a confirmed hijacked aircraft…The escort service will be requested by the FAA hijack coordinator by direct contact with the National Military Command Center (NMCC).” (4)
Here are the instructions issued by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on June 1, 2001:
“In the event of a hijacking, the NMCC will be notified by the most expeditious means by the FAA. The NMCC will…forward requests for DOD assistance to the Secretary of Defense for approval.” (5)
In addition, Vice President Cheney told Meet the Press on Sept. 16 that only the president has the authority to order the shooting down of a civilian airliner. “And you have to ask yourself,” Cheney said, “‘If we had had combat air patrol up over New York and we’d had the opportunity to take out the two aircraft that hit the World Trade Center, would we have been justified in doing that?’ I think absolutely we would have…. It’s a presidential-level decision, and the president made, I think, exactly the right call in this case, to say, ‘I wished we’d had combat air patrol up over New York.’” (6)
The U.S. is supposed to scramble military aircraft the moment a hijacking is confirmed. Yet Myers continues to chat on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld works undisturbed in his Pentagon office and the president reads to schoolchildren. Myers’ first statementto the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 13, that no fighter planes had been launched until after the Pentagon was hit, was therefore scarcely surprising. Senators were a little incredulous. And the day before, Dan Rather asked on CBS News:
“These hijacked aircraft were in the air for quite a while…Why doesn’t the Pentagon have the kind of protection that they can get a fighter-interceptor aircraft up, and if someone is going to plow an aircraft into the Pentagon, that we have at least some…line of defense?” (7)
Good question. Clearly another, more comforting, story was needed and on the evening of Friday September 14 CBS launched it:
“CBS News has learned the FAA alerted US Air defense units of a possible hijacking at 8:38 Tuesday morning, and six minutes later, at 8:44, two F-15s received a scramble order at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. But two minutes later, at 8:46, American Airlines Flight 11, the first hijacked jet, slammed into the World Trade Center. Six minutes later, at 8:52, the F-15s were airborne and began racing towards New York City, but the fighters were still 70 miles away when the second hijacked jet, United Airlines Flight 175, hit the second Trade Center tower. Shortly after that blast, the F-15s reached Manhattan and began flying air cover missions over the city.
“But to the south, a new danger and a new response. At 9:30, three F-16s were launched out of Langley Air Force base in Virginia, 150 miles south of Washington. But just seven minutes later, at 9:37, American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. The F-16s arrived in Washington just before 10:00 and began flying cover over the nation’s capital.” (8)
This story, which has now, with slight modifications, become the “official” NORAD version, raises more questions than it answers.
According to CBS, three F-16s scrambled from Langley at 9:30 and arrived in Washington at 10:00. The distance from Langley Air Force Base to the Pentagon is 129 miles – not 150, as CBS stated. If these F-16s took half an hour to get to Washington they were flying at 4.4 miles per minute, 258 mph. That’s less than half their cruising speed. It’s a fifth of the maximum speed for these F-16s, 1500-mph.
Talk about a lack of urgency!
And since Washington, D.C. is little more than 200 miles from New York, the two F-15 fighters from Otis would have had time to get to DC, intercept Flight 77 and grab a breakfast on the way.
And then of course, there is the small matter of Andrews Air Force Base. It is, after all, but ten miles from the Pentagon. As Matthew Wald wrote in the New York Times on September 15th:
“During the hour or so that American Airlines Flight 77 was under the control of hijackers, up to the moment it struck the west side of the Pentagon, military officials in a command center on the east side of the building were urgently talking to law enforcement and air traffic control officials about what to do.” (11)