Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Is This The New Lie About 9/11?

My sister, who is a devoted Michael Moore fan, sent me an email with this amazing claim:
"Where was our Air Force on Sept 11, 2001?"

Normally deployed whenever any private or commercial plane goes off course or is not responding, there will typically be a half dozen US Air Force fighter jets escorting an errant plane in less than 5 minutes. Yet none even left the ground in the 40 minutes between the two airliners flew into the twin towers, and still none in the many long minutes before the 3rd plane hit the pentagon and the 4th went down in PA.

Make you wonder?
Typically the government sends airplanes out for suspected drug smugglers, unidentified planes, or planes that are off course. Unfortunately, none of these planes were unidentified, and there was nothing about the behavior of the planes until they turned off their transponders to make them suspicious. Where do you get this claim that there will be fighters escorting an errant plane in less than five minutes? Remember that unlike the Cold War, we didn't keep a big chunk of the fleet airborne. It takes five minutes for a pilot to get his helmet on, into his plane, engines started, and off the runway. Even with afterburners on, a fighter plane covers about 30 miles a minute. Even if a plane was already in the air when it was ordered to intercept, a five minute intercept means that you have to be within 150 miles of the target to get there.

The first collision into the WTC was at first believed to be an accident (there have been similar accidents in New York City in the past--a bomber flew into the Empire State Building during World War II). It was not until the second plane collided that it became apparent that this was no accident. Between 9:03 AM (when the second plane collision confirmed that this was no accident), and 10:10 AM (when the last plane crashed), is one hour and seven minutes. During this time, it was unclear how widespread the problem was.

If you are suggesting that the Bush Administration intentionally allowed this to take place, I am just flabbergasted. This would have been CLEARLY not in his interests. The economic destruction 9/11 caused ($27.2 billion dollars in direct costs, and tens of billions in medium-term indirect costs), and the loss of 2.5 million jobs that came from it, meant that until quite recently, it was still up in the air whether Bush would be able to get re-elected or not. The cost of the war has been a major drag on economic growth, and caused enormous problems for the Bush Administration's foreign policy--which before 9/11, was to disengage as much as possible from foreign military intervention. At the beginning of 2001, Bush had managed to upset a lot of Europeans because he had expressed considerable skepticism that the U.S. needed to be involved in the problems of Africa, and the Balkans. (The Balkans and Somalia interventions had been expensive in lives and money.) The events following upon 9/11 forced a complete reversal of his foreign policy. Even on Iraq, Bush and Blair had been discussing replacing the broad economic sanctions against Iraq with "targeted" sanctions, partly because it was clearly not working.

There are some questions as to whether Bush and his team had adequately prepared for al-Qaeda attacks. It appears that like the Clinton Administration, they perceived al-Qaeda as primarily a hazard to U.S. interests overseas. This is not as silly as it sounds. I can remember reading serious work about 15 years ago about terrorists that made the point that the U.S. had been safe from most of the Middle Eastern problems because of something called the 12 hour rule. Apparently, psychologists studying the behavior of terrorists had noticed that nearly all terrorist acts took place within 12 hours travel time from home to target. Apparently, the more the terrorist's familiar environment changed, the more likely he was to chicken out of an attack that might get him killed. (There is some reason to suspect that Iraqi involvement in the WTC bombings of 1993 may have been ignored because it made it simpler to prove a criminal conspiracy against the participants:
What incentive would the US government have had to overlook these changes, stipulate that Abdul Basit and Yousef were the same person, and turn away from any suggestion that Saddam was behind the first WTC attack? One can only speculate.

But by arguing that the 1993 WTC bombing and a separate, FBI-thwarted plot to bomb New York tunnels and buildings were connected as parts of a common conspiracy, prosecutors made convicting the participants, under the very broad seditious conspiracy law, far simpler. As for the Clinton administration itself, there would be less need to confront Saddam and perhaps less need to make hard choices, if it didn't finger him as being behind the WTC bombing.
A number of other factors certainly played a part in this tragedy. There was an existing FAA rule that prohibited airlines from searching more than two Arab passengers per flight. It might not have done any good, because Logan Airport security was so lax, but there were may failures that compounded on this.

I can tell you that security at many airports before 9/11 was really, really bad. I walked through Salt Lake City security in 2000 with a lockback knife in my pocket--I completely forgot it. The guard looked at it, and let me get on the plane with it! I have at least one friend in California who told me that he had passed through security a few years back with a .22 pistol in his carry-on bag--he completely forgot about it, and it wasn't caught. An additional issue may be that there is an Iraqi immigrant--a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard--who has been of interest for his links to the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995 (he resembles John Doe #2 that the FBI searched for briefly)--and he was working for security at Logan Airport at some point in the late 1990s. I really don't know meaningful any of this, but Senator Spector of Pennsylvania was QUITE concerned about these connections earlier this year.

The rule prohibiting the counterterrorism division of the FBI from sharing information with the criminal investigation division was also a problem. One of the members of the 9/11 Commission, Jamie Gorelick, actually wrote that rule, and was explicit that it was above and beyond what the law actually required. Certainly that rule made sense, from a civil liberties standpoint, but the consequence was that an FBI agent in Minnesota who tried to alert the Washington HQ about Zacharias Moussaoui's peculiar flight training was unable to get the information to people that might have been able to use it. An FBI agent in Phoenix who was noticing some odd patterns of Arabs taking flight training was also stymied by his efforts to raise concerns. The CIA and FBI were not communicating, a combination of a long tradition of CIA contempt for the FBI, as well as an intentionally created separation of their spheres of action based on understandable, but it turns out, destructive efforts to keep foreign intrigue "out there."

The FBI was also prohibited for a very long time from attending any political or religious group meeting--or even searching the Internet--to gather intelligence until such time as they had evidence that criminal acts were involved, or likely to be involved. This meant that for many years, there were Americans warning of fierce anti-American rhetoric being preached in some mosques in the U.S.--but they could not even go in and listen. This rule made a certain amount of sense, considering the abuses during the Vietnam War era by various state and federal law enforcement agencies, but it also meant that the FBI was pretty well blind to a lot of these threats.

One problem now with trying to understand what happened is that significant parts of the bureaucracy have an interest in protecting themselves from accusations of incompetence. This is no surprise, and it may not even been intentionally deceptive. People have a wonderful capacity for persuading themselves that the decisions that they made five years ago were right then, and right now. For example, the Czech Republic's intelligence service the day after 9/11 realized that they had seen Mohammed Atta before--in April, meeting in Prague with the Iraqi intelligence service officer assigned to the Czech capital. Additional information has come up in the last few days that seems to confirm that this was probably Mohammed Atta who had the meeting. But the FBI steadfastly denies that this could be true, because they have no record of Atta leaving the U.S. during this period. Like Atta couldn't have traveled on a passport using another name?

There are times when war is the ONLY solution to a problem. We are engaged in a deathmatch with al-Qaeda. They will not compromise or bend. The only way to them to stop is either:

1. Withdraw support from Israel; exterminate all Jews; and become Islamic--and that would be the Taliban form of Islam, with burkhas for the women; no education for women; and no divorce (except at the man's whim). They have stated that a fully Islamic world is the only alternative they consider acceptable.

2. Utterly destroy al-Qaeda.

We could, I suppose, take a third course: establish a "national security state" that would allow them to keep trying to hurt us, but making it impossible. But that would mean surveillance cameras everywhere; racial profiling; extraordinary measures at the borders to keep out WMDs and terrorists. The sarin-filled shell that exploded on Saturday, for example, is 155mm in diameter, or about 6 inches. It contained about three liters of unmixed sarin, which would weigh about three kilograms (maybe a bit more--I don't know the exact density of sarin). (It is a good thing that the terrorists didn't realize what they had--it makes you wonder how many more like it are still sitting out there, or like the mustard shell that was also found about two weeks ago in Iraq.) The 100% lethal dose of sarin is about 40 milligrams per minute per cubic meter of air. Released over a minute (say, at the intake to a public auditorium), three kilograms of sarin provides enough to make lethal 75,000 liters of air. This quantity of sarin is something that can fit in a briefcase. (However, it turns out that 75,000 liters of air isn't that big of a room.)

UPDATE: I'm told by pilots that being way off course--or even having our transponder not working--would not even get you any air traffic control attention, much less fighter intercepts.

A numer of people have pointed out to me that even governments with extraordinarily strong traditions of surveillance and control have trouble stopping terrorists. Look at Russia with the Chechens.

It turns out that the Air Force did scramble jets pretty quickly--but this ABC News coverage indicates why it didn't do any good:
"I picked up the line and identified myself to the Boston Center controller," said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dawne Deskins, the mission crew chief for the exercise. "He said, 'Uh, we have a hijacked aircraft and I need you to get some sort of fighters out here to help us out."

Air Force Col. Robert Marr, who along with Deskins was at the National Guard's Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, N.Y. — also known as NEADS — got permission from Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold to scramble jets from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, and they would be in the air headed toward New York by 8:52 a.m. ET.

But as American Airlines Flight 11 was crossing from Massachusetts to New York, it turned off its satellite transponder. That meant the 767 jet plane no longer was signaling its identity, altitude or speed, and therefore was lost amid more than 2,500 planes in the air over the Northeast.


At 9:03 a.m. ET, with television stations on the air live, a plane hit the World Trade Center's south tower.


The F-16 fighter jets that had been scrambled from Otis Air National Guard Base, whose pilots were code-named "Duff" and "Nasty," called in for an update.

"At that point, they said the second aircraft just hit the World Trade Center," Air National Guard Lt. Col. "Duff" said. "That was news to me. I thought we were still chasing American [Airlines Flight] 11.

"We're 60 miles out, and I could see the smoke from the towers," he said. "At that point, obviously, everything changed."

"When the second aircraft flew into the second tower, it was at that point that we realized that the seemingly unrelated hijackings that the FAA was dealing with were in fact a part of a coordinated terrorist attack on the United States," said Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, who was at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, and alerted the top brass there.
The plane to the Pentagon was also too close by the time fighters were in the air:
"Someone came in and said, 'Mr. Vice President, there's a plane out 50 miles,'" Mineta said.

Mineta conferred with Federal Aviation Administration Deputy Chief Monte Belger.

"I said … 'Monte, what do you have?'" Mineta said. "He said, 'Well, we're watching this target on the radar, but the transponder's been turned off, so we have no identification.'"

As the plane got closer, air officials had picked up enough information to believe the unidentified plane was headed toward Washington, perhaps toward Ronald Reagan National Airport, near the Pentagon.

At 9:30 a.m. ET, at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, F-16 fighter pilots scrambled into the air 105 miles — or 12 minutes — south of Washington.

"Our supervisor picked up our line to the White House," said Danielle O'Brien, an air traffic controller at an FAA facility near Washington's Dulles Airport, "and started relaying to them the information: 'We have an unidentified, very fast-moving aircraft inbound toward your vicinity, eight miles west, seven miles west.' And it went, '6, 5, 4.'"

"Pretty soon, he said, 'Uh oh, we just lost the bogey,' meaning the target went off the screen," Mineta said. "So I said, 'Well, where is it?' And he said, 'Well, we're not really sure.'"


High overhead, the jet fighters arrived just moments too late.

One of the pilots, Air National Guard Maj. Brad Derrig, recalled "looking down and actually seeing the Pentagon burning — you know, big black smoke billowing out of it," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'We're at war.'"


Up above, the Secret Service ordered the White House staff to evacuate.

"As soon as we were outside, Secret Service agents told us to run," said Jennifer Millerwise, press secretary to the vice president. "One of them yelled, you know, 'Women, take off your heels and run. Take off your heels and run.' And so I did."

At that point, dozens of fighters were buzzing in the sky, as more F-16s scrambled at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

"We were told to get airborne and protect the capital," Air Force Capt. Brandon Rasmussen said. "It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that one day I'd be orbiting over the Pentagon that had just been hit, looking for possible incoming aircraft."

‘You’re Going to Have to Shoot It Down’

In the Pentagon command center, there was a report of another hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, which apparently had switched off its transponder and turned toward Washington.

"We rapidly developed some rules of engagement for what our military aircraft might do in the event another aircraft appeared to be heading into some large civilian structure or population," Rumsfeld said.

"They said if we get … another one of these, you're going to have to shoot it down," recalled a fighter pilot code-named "Nasty," who was still airborne after responding to the first report of a hijacked plane.
Concerning United Airlines Flight 93, there were fighters that were close--but they weren't armed:
The closest fighters were two F-16 jets flown by pilots on a training mission from Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Detroit.

But there was a problem.

"The real scary part is that those guys are up there on a training mission [so] they don't have any weapons on board they can use," Marr said. "The first question that came from my mission crew commander — the individual that is in charge of the operations force — [was] 'Well, sir, what are they going to do?' I said, 'We're going to put them as close to that airplane as we could in view of the cockpit and convince that guy in the airplane that he needs to land.'"

If that didn't work, Marr suggested, the pilots might have to take the commercial plane down by crashing into it.

"As a military man, there are times that you have to make sacrifices that you have to make," Marr said.

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