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9/11 Ten Years Later: Part Three

by on September 30, 2011

In 2001 the FAA and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) were focused on external threats and traditional hijackings.  The government report tells us that “the FAA was mandated by law to regulate the safety and security of civil aviation.”  The Air Traffic Control System Command Center was different from the FAA Operations Center, which was in charge of incidents, “including accidents and hijackings.”

“On 9/11, the four hijacked aircraft were monitored mainly by the [control] centers in Boston, New York, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.  Each center thus had part of the knowledge of what was going on across the system.  What Boston knew was not necessarily known by [the other] centers, or for that matter by the Command Center in [Virginia] or by FAA headquarters in Washington.”

Controllers track aircraft by data emitted from transponders on planes.  All planes over 10,000 feet are required  to have their transponder on, each of which is unique.  On 9/11, three of the four planes that were hijacked had the transponder turned off.  The airlines could be tracked by radar, but would not be recognized as a unique plane.  Not surprisingly, “the simultaneous loss of radio and transponder signal would be a rare and alarming occurrence, which would normally indicate a catastrophic system failure or an aircraft crash.  In all of these instances, the job of the controller was to reach out to the aircraft, the parent company of the aircraft, and other planes in the vicinity in an attempt to reestablish communications and set the aircraft back on course.  Alarm bells would not start ringing until these efforts – which could take five minutes or more – were tried and had failed.”  In those five minutes, a plane could easily go fifty miles.

Like so many bureaucratic relics, NORAD was a reactionary system designed to detain Russian Communism.  A partnership with Canada to protect the North American airspace, NORAD was created to”defend the airspace and protect the continent.  That mission does not distinguish between internal and external threats; but because NORAD was created to counter the Soviet threat, it came to define its job as defending against external attacks.”

The Cold War is long over; “members of the air defense community advocated the importance of air sovereignty against emerging ‘asymmetric threats’ to the United States…NORAD perceived the dominant threat to be from cruise missiles.  Other threats were identified during the late 1990s, including terrorists’ use of aircraft as weapons.  Exercises were conducted to counter this threat, but they were not based on actual intelligence.  In most instances, the main concern was the use of such aircraft to deliver weapons of mass destruction.”

Before 9/11, “it was understood that an order to shoot down a commercial aircraft would have to be issued by the National Command Authority (a phrase used to describe the president and secretary of defense).  Exercise planners also assumed that the aircraft would originate from outside the United States, allowing time to identify the target and scramble interceptors.  The threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airlines within the United States – and using them as guided missiles – was not recognized by NORAD before 9/11.”

Despite what seems like a bureaucratic mess, the FAA and NORAD worked together before 9/11, and there were probably several other agencies who did their job properly, or even stepped beyond mere formality.

The FAA and NORAD had developed protocols for working together in the event of a hijacking.  As they existed on 9/11, the protocols for the FAA to attain military assistance from NORAD required multiple levels of notification and approval at the highest levels of government.

FAA guidance to controllers on hijack procedures assumed that the aircraft pilot would notify the controller via radio or by “squawking” a transponder code of “7500” – the universal code for a hijack in progress.  Controllers would notify their supervisors, who in turn would inform management all the way up to FAA headquarters in Washington.  Headquarters had a hijack coordinator, who was the director of the FAA Office of Civil Aviation Authority or his or her designate.

If a hijack was confirmed, procedures called for the hijack coordinator on duty to contact the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) and to ask for a military escort aircraft to follow the flight, report anything unusual, and aid search and rescue in the event of an emergency.  The NMCC would then seek approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to provide military assistance.  If the approval was given, the orders would be transmitted down NORAD’s chain of command.

The NMCC would keep the FAA hijack coordinator up to date and help the FAA centers coordinate directly with the military.  NORAD would receive tracking information for the hijacked aircraft either from joint use radar or from the relevant FAA air traffic control facility.  Every attempt would be made to have the hijacked aircraft squawk 7500 to help NORAD track it.

The protocols did not contemplate an intercept.  They assumed the fighter escort would be discreet, “vectored to a position five miles directly behind the hijacked aircraft,” where it could perform its mission to monitor the aircraft’s flight path.

In sum, the protocols in place on 9/11 for the FAA and NORAD to respond to a hijacking presumed that

  • the hijacked aircraft would be readily identifiable and would not attempt to disappear;
  • there would be time to address the problem through the appropriate FAA and NORAD chains of command; and
  • the hijacking would take the traditional form: that is, it would not be a suicide hijacking designed to convert the aircraft into a guided missile

We can all agree with the government report, which informs us that “on the morning of 9/11, the existing protocol was unsuited in every respect for what was about to happen.” As the saying goes, hindsight is 20-20.

What does 20-20 hindsight tell us about the death of Nick Berg?  We last took the work of an author who chose to remain anonymous – perhaps for good reason – and allowed his speculation that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi probably was not actually responsible for the death of Nick Berg.  Our anonymous author blames the Mossad – Israel’s intelligence agency – for the death.  Some of the fourteen suspicious parts of the videotaped execution, pointed out by our author, include:

  • Why does a man who wears a scarf to hide his identity announce his name to the public?
  • Why is the Muslim executioner’s face covered with a scarf when tradition suggests that Muslim executioners do not wear facial coverings?
  • Why would five Muslim executioners be dressed in all-black commando style outfits(except for the clean white sneakers), when you rarely see terrorists in uniform in other videos and news clips?
  • Why would there be a general consensus that the dialect spoken by the terrorist in the video was not the same as that of the terrorist identified by the CIA, Al-Zarqawi?(Interestingly, the US Army had reported Al-Zarqawi killed by the bombing of Falluja, a month earlier.) Even more interesting, their Arabic is heavily accented(Russian, Jordanian, Egyptian). An aside comment in the video – in Russian – has been translated as “do it quickly”. The Russian presence becomes an increasingly important factor as this story emerges. It is not insignificant.
  • How does it happen that the white chair shown in the execution video is the same style and color of the chairs shown in videos of Abu Ghraib prison, and the painted wall and floor boards the same color as that of Abu Ghraib? (Interestingly,subsequent news revelations by U.S. General Karpansky about the prison have identified “secret” holding sites, which allowed Israeli interrogators to keep prisoners out of public site.)
  • Why would the Iraqi Police deny holding Berg as a prisoner when the FBI claimed he was an Iraqi Police prisoner?
  • Why would the US Military deny holding Berg as a prisoner, when the FBI had notified his parents, after investigating, that Berg was a prisoner of the US military
  • Why would firearms experts state that the AK-47 carried by one of the purported terrorists in the video was actually a “Galil” – an Israeli made, enhanced AK-47. It is very expensive and generally unavailable to Muslim “terrorists.”

These many facts may not be enough to convince that al-Zarqawi didn’t do it. But, just as it shouldn’t be taken for granted that an anonymous author claims al-Zarqawi didn’t do it, and that the Mossad did it, nor should it be taken for granted that al-Zarqawi was responsible.  We’ll never know; much like a court of law in which the defendant is dead, we’ll have to go based on probable cause and circumstantial evidence.  “There are just too many coincidences and inconsistencies to be ignored. (Web sites on the Internet list as many as fifty such discrepancies, but these appear to be the most pertinent.) Together, they suggest that someone pretended to be Al Qaeda or Musab al-Zarqawi, and did a relatively poor job at it.”

This is Part Three of a many part series, synthesizing the stories of 9/11, its aftermath, and our future.

From → 9/11

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