9/11 panel's air-defense probe grapples with many mysteries

North Jersey | December 5, 2003
By Mike Kelly

As two hijacked jetliners bore down on New York City's World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two Air Force F-16 jet fighters were practicing bombing runs over an empty stretch of the Pine Barrens near Atlantic City.

The F-16 pilots had no idea of the impending tragedy in Manhattan, just eight minutes away in their supersonic jets.

Why? Why weren't they alerted? And even if they had been told about the hijackings, what could they have done?

The jets weren't armed to shoot down another plane. Their mission was bombing drills. Why?

Those questions and others loom at the heart of an even larger mystery: How could America's elaborate air defense system of satellites, radar, and supersonic fighters be caught so off-guard on Sept. 11? The mystery is now at the center of one of the most secret - and politically explosive - investigations being conducted by the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.

Led by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is analyzing almost every corner of the Sept. 11 tragedy, from skyscraper escape procedures to what the White House knew about terrorist threats and how well the FBI and CIA cooperated. On Monday, the commission plans to hold another public hearing in Washington, this one focusing on homeland security and personal liberty.

But one investigation that has not drawn much attention involves air defenses. This is especially important to New Jersey.

For almost a half-century, the state Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing, based at Atlantic City International Airport in Pomona, had been a key part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. The command runs radar sites and monitors fighter squadrons assigned to protect the United States and Canada from attack, and from unauthorized flights by drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants. Under NORAD procedures that date to the Cold War, two F-16 fighters from the 177th were parked around the clock on the Atlantic City runway. Pilots waited in a nearby building, ready to scramble.

But the 177th's jets were not on alert Sept. 11. A series of Pentagon cutbacks, beginning in 1998, changed the wing's mission from scramble-ready status to dropping bombs on enemy positions. In 2000, after two years of training, the 177th was even sent to Saudi Arabia to fly patrols over southern Iraq as part of Operation Southern Watch.

By Sept. 11, the unit was back in New Jersey - but still training to bomb enemy targets overseas.

A spokeswoman for the 177th confirmed that two of its F-16s were flying unarmed bombing runs that morning over a section of the Pine Barrens designated for military drills. But the F-16 pilots, she said, were unaware that America's air defense system needed them desperately.

"Isn't that something?" asked Lt. Luz Aponte, the 177th's public affairs officer, pointing out the irony of having jet fighters so near to the tragedy but with a mission so far afield.

Soon after two hijacked commercial jetliners slammed into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, Aponte said, the two F-16s landed and were refitted with air-to-air missiles, then sent aloft. But that happened more than an hour after the trade center attacks.

Such irony - and tragedy - is not lost on the commission.

"We want to know why the jets at Pomona were decommissioned," said John Farmer, a former New Jersey attorney general now on the commission's Manhattan staff.

An even larger concern is why fighters at other Air Force bases were not scrambled fast enough to protect New York City after the Federal Aviation Administration learned about the hijackings.

"That's a big question," Kean said in a recent interview.

Overshadowed in recent weeks by the much publicized - and also highly political - battle between the commission and the White House over access to intelligence data, the investigation of air-defense flaws could nonetheless become stormy next year, with accusations that the Clinton administration cut too deeply into Pentagon budgets during the 1990s or that the Bush administration reacted too slowly to the looming threat of terrorism.

The commission has rescheduled a hearing to delve into air defense questions, from mid-January to early March, so investigators can have more time to go through records and other information recently received from NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration in special subpoenas.

NORAD has turned over more than 1,000 documents, some of which contain more than 150 pages, said Lt. Col. Rob Garza, a spokesman.

Garza said the information comes from "bases around the nation" and includes transcripts of radio transmissions between pilots. He would not confirm what information - if any - NORAD provided from the New Jersey's 177th Fighter Wing.

Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg also declined to comment on what - if any - conclusions might be drawn from the information pouring into commission offices in Washington and New York. He said commission staffers were still assessing what they had received from NORAD - and what its effect might be on the overall investigation of air defenses.

But interviews with commission staffers, NORAD officials, and others, as well as checks of some records made public, already point to some intriguing revelations.

NORAD confirmed it had only eight fighters on the East Coast for emergency scrambles on Sept. 11. Throughout Canada and the United States, including Alaska, NORAD had 20 fighters on alert - armed, fueled up, and ready to fly in minutes. Four years earlier, NORAD could count on having 175 jets ready to scramble, including two on the tarmac at Atlantic City's airport.

With the New Jersey Air National Guard's 17 F-16s out of the picture on Sept. 11, the commission is trying to assess why the Pentagon left what seems to be a yawning gap in the midsection of its air defenses on the East Coast - a gap with New York City at the center. Since Sept. 11, the 177th has been back on alert status, with its pilots logging hundreds of hours of patrols above New York City and along the East Coast.

NORAD also has confirmed it was running two mock drills on Sept. 11 at various radar sites and command centers in the United States and Canada, including Air Force bases in upstate New York, Florida, Washington, and Alaska. One drill, Operation Vigilant Guardian, began a week before Sept. 11 and reflected a Cold War mind-set: Participants practiced for an attack across the North Pole by Russian forces.

A NORAD spokesman noted, however, that the drills might have helped the command gear up quickly to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks because its command posts were already staffed.

"It was quite fortuitous," said Maj. Douglas Martin of the Canadian Army and spokesman at NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"The toughest thing for anyone is that we're using Sept. 12 eyes to dissect Sept. 11," he added. "No one is using Sept. 11 eyes."

Investigators at the Sept. 11 commission confirm they are investigating whether NORAD's attention was drawn in one direction - toward the North Pole - while the hijackings came from an entirely different direction.

"We are pursing this area very, very diligently," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor who is one of 10 members of Kean's bipartisan commission.

NORAD is not the only target, however.

The commission is also looking into why it took about 20 minutes for civilian air traffic controllers to notify NORAD of the hijackings.

"We are in the process of interviewing pilots," a commission staffer said.

Even after learning of the hijackings, it took six minutes for NORAD to order F-15 fighters into the sky from Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod - the "alert" base nearest to New York. After that, it took another six minutes for the jets to roar down the runway.

Then it took the jets 19 minutes to reach New York, raising this question: Did they fly at full throttle? At a top speed of almost 1,200 mph, an F-15 can reach Manhattan from Cape Cod in less than 12 minutes, NORAD says. Why did it take 19 minutes? By then, it was too late.