NORAD Tapes Reveal Sept. 11 Chaos On Sept. 11, 2001, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) recorded the voices of military airspace controllers after planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Those tapes, previously withheld from the public, show an air traffic control system in disarray.
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NORAD Tapes Reveal Sept. 11 Chaos

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NORAD Tapes Reveal Sept. 11 Chaos

NORAD Tapes Reveal Sept. 11 Chaos

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

What was the military doing on 9-11? That question has been asked over and over again. We know now they were unprepared. Journalist Michael Bronner of Vanity Fair magazine obtained audio tapes covering more than six hours inside NORAD's Northeast control center in upstate New York. NORAD is responsible for protecting the nation's airspace from attack.

The 9-11 Commission listened to those recordings, but most of the material has not been heard until now. Bronner got the tapes from the Pentagon after working on the film United 93. He says they paint a minute-by-minute picture of what unfolded that day.

Mr. MICHAEL BRONNER (Writer): Well, it's interesting. You can hear on the tapes just a couple of people chatting on the operations floor. And then in the background you can hear a call come in from civilian control center in Boston where they say that they have a real world hijack. Not an exercise, not a test, an actual hijack headed their way.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Woman #1: What?

Unidentified Woman#2: Whoa!

Unidentified Woman #1: What was that?

Unidentified Woman #3: Is that real-world?

Unidentified Woman#2: Real-world hijack.

Unidentified Woman #1: Cool!

Mr. BRONNER: So they called everyone into the operations floor. You can hear that. They get some pilots in the planes at Otis Air Force Base. And they start looking for the hijacked plane.

BRAND: And do they find it?

Mr. BRONNER: No. What happened is, by the time they get the call the hijackers had turned the electronic beacon off in the plane. The people in the civilian center were able to track it using radar. So they were continuing to see it, but the military had a very hard time finding it on their scopes because the military is seeing, you know, a thousand green dots and they're trying to get information from the civilian FAA as to which one of those dots is the hijacked plane. That's the problem that plagued them all day.

(Soundbite of NORAD tapes)

Unidentified Woman #4: You don't know where he is at all?

Unidentified Man #1: He's being hijacked. The pilot's having a hard time talking to the - I mean, we don't know. We don't know where he's going. He's heading towards Kennedy. He's 35 miles north of Kennedy now at 367 knots.

Unidentified Woman #4: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: We have no idea where he's going or what his intentions are.

Unidentified Woman #4: If you could please give us a call and let us know, you know, any information that would be great.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay.

BRAND: And then, as we hear on the tapes, neither agency - NORAD nor FAA - realize that the World Trade Center has been hit. They learn about it from watching CNN.

Mr. BRONNER: Well, there's a lot of confusion. I think that they didn't ever anticipate that a hijacked plane - at least at the ground level, the controllers who are actually working these planes - didn't put two and two together. They knew that they had a hijack, but they never expected A) the hijackers to fly the plane or B) anyone to fly directly into a building.

So they get news that something's hit the World Trade Center. They don't know what. They also think that they're still dealing with a hijack. Then the pictures on CNN where they saw the massive hole on the side of the building was the first clue to anyone tracking these planes that, wow, maybe this is our hijacked plane. They got a lot of information from CNN that day.

(Soundbite of NORAD tapes)

Unidentified Woman #5: Yes, ma'am. Did you just hear the information regarding the World Trade Center?

Unidentified Woman #6: No.

Unidentified Woman #5: Being hit by an aircraft?

Unidentified Woman #6: I'm sorry?

Unidentified Woman #5: Being hit by an aircraft.

Unidentified Woman #6: You're kidding.

Unidentified Woman #5: It's on the world news.

BRAND: So then the key - as you say in your story - is that the NORAD techs never get information that the plane that they were initially following - this was American Airlines Flight 11 - was actually the one that crashed into the World Trade Center. And they still think that that plane is aloft somewhere.

(Soundbite of NORAD tape)

Unidentified Man #2: Okay. American Airlines is still airborne - 11, the first guy? He's heading towards Washington. Okay.

BRAND: Why is that they don't know what happened to American Airlines Flight 11?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, there was a lot of information and misinformation, in particular, sizzling through the FAA and the military at that point. Initially, they did believe it was American 11 that hit the tower, but in one of the FAA big teleconference calls someone's trying to confirm with American Airlines as to whether it was in fact American 11 and the story was told to me that American wouldn't confirm it at that point.

The civilian controllers conclude that it's still flying and they call the military and say it was someone else that hit the tower, American 11's still up. It's headed towards Washington. You'd better get someone after it.

BRAND: So here they are chasing a phantom jet.

Mr. BRONNER: They are. When the military gets the call that American 11 is actually still flying and is not the one that crashed into the World Trade Center and is in fact headed towards Washington, that actually prompts them to launch their second two fighters. And that was completely omitted when they testified to the 9-11 Commission the first time.

BRAND: And we'll get to that in a moment. But first of all, let's paint the scene here. We have four fighter jets. That's it?

Mr. BRONNER: NORAD's primary mission was to protect the country against Russian bombers flying down and dropping atom bombs on North America. When that threat disappeared, they reduced drastically the amount of armed fighters that were standing by on alert. So this unit in upstate New York that was trying to protect against this terrorist attack had four armed fighters in the whole Northeast.

BRAND: Okay, so by now the World Trade Center has been hit twice. They are chasing a phantom plane. They think they're chasing American Airlines 11, but that's one of the planes that's already hit the World Trade Center, and then they're surprised - this is at 9:34 in the morning - that another plane has been hijacked, and let's hear that.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #3: We also lost American 77.

Unidentified Woman #7: American 77? Where does he propose to head, sir?

Unidentified Man #3: Excuse me?

Unidentified Woman #7: American 77.

Unidentified Woman #8: Where does he propose to head, sir?

Unidentified Man #3: Okay, he was going to L.A. also.

Unidentified Woman #7: He was also going to L.A.

Unidentified Woman #8: Somewhere, sir.

Unidentified Man #3: I think he was from Boston also.

Unidentified Woman #8: Boston to L.A.

BRAND: That is the Washington center of the FAA telling NORAD about American 77.

Mr. BRONNER: It's not a lot to go on, is it?

BRAND: It's not a lot to go on, and in fact erroneous information. Right? He says he's coming from Boston when in fact it took off from Dulles.

Mr. BRONNER: But this is indicative of what started happening all day. You've got the military entirely dependent on the FAA to tell them which planes are hijacked and then to tell them where they are. This wasn't even a call from the FAA to the military.

This was a call out, where one of the military techs was calling the civilian places trying to find any information she could about this American 11, which they thought was still hijacked and still headed towards Washington. And then this guy springs on her that, oh, by the way, Indianapolis civilian air traffic control lost this plane, you know, more than a half an hour ago.

BRAND: Meanwhile, here is number four. Here's a fourth hijacking. Let's hear that.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #4: We got a United 93 out here. Are you aware of that?

Unidentified Woman #9: We've got three more hijacked airborne.

Unidentified Man #4: That has a bomb on board.

Unidentified Woman #10: A bomb on board.

BRAND: That was United Flight 93. That was recorded at 10:07, a full four minutes after the plane crashed in Pennsylvania. It's clear that the techs at NORAD and at FAA have no idea that this plane has crashed. This is where the Pentagon's account differs substantially from what the 9-11 Commission found, and tell us about that.

Mr. BRONNER: Well, actually, the account differs, beginning with the call that American 11 hasn't crashed and is still headed towards Washington. They scrambled after a phantom plane, and they completely omitted that the first time they testified before the 9-11 Commission. They told the commission that they scrambled after American 77, which would ultimately hit the Pentagon, but they gave the wrong time and they didn't actually scramble after 77, they scrambled after the phantom plane.

They also told the commission that they had been tracking United 93 since 9:16 in the morning. Well, the plane hadn't been hijacked yet at 9:16 in the morning, and I think that the FAA was watching that plane for quite a while and no one told the military.

The lag time - if you look at all of these plane, the lag time just gets longer and longer as the confusion grows inside the FAA centers and in the military.

BRAND: What changes have been made at NORAD and at FAA since all this has been revealed to the 9-11 Commission?

Mr. BRONNER: Well, if you walk into the operations floor at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, the NORAD unit in upstate New York, all of their equipment has been completely modified. On the day of 9-11, they were using technology that was designed at the end of the 1970s. In the year 2001 they were using basically 1970s technology.

Now they have all state-of-the-art technology, much more similar to the stuff that they have at the FAA centers, which has always been upgraded. The channels of communications supposedly are much clearer. Who knows if something like this happens again. But they definitely have much more modern equipment and they're definitely much more alert to the possibility and, you know, they train for this a lot more specifically.

BRAND: Michael Bronner's article, 9-11 Live: The NORAD Tapes, is in the current issue of Vanity Fair. Thank you very much.

Mr. BRONNER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Did the military order pilots to shoot down civilian aircraft on 9-11? Go to for a link to Michael Bronner's article. And this is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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