Press Picks Up on AWOL Chain of Command on 9/11


On the morning of September 11, Secretary Rumsfeld was having breakfast at the Pentagon with a group of members of Congress. He then returned to his office for his daily intelligence briefing. The Secretary  was informed of the second strike in New York during the briefing; he resumed the briefing while awaiting more information. After the Pentagon was struck, Secretary Rumsfeld went to the parking lot to assist  with rescue efforts…

At 9:44, NORAD briefed the conference on the possible hijacking of Delta 1989. Two minutes later, staff reported that they were still trying to locate Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice Chairman Myers  [acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on that day]. The Vice Chairman joined the conference shortly before 10:00; the Secretary, shortly before 10:30. The Chairman [Gen. Hugh Shelton] was out of the country.

— The 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 37-38

NEW YORK, Aug. 14, 2004 —

The official investigation of the September 11th events has failed to explain or even to ask why the top officials in the U.S. military chain of command were missing in action during the attacks, AWOL.

Long a subject for 9/11 researchers, the riddle of the absent leadership was highlighted in new articles by author Gail Sheehy in this month’s Mother Jones and last Saturday’s Los Angeles Times.

George W. Bush was moved to present a renewed defense of his actions on Sept. 11 in an interview published in last Thursday’s WashingtonPost.

Some background…

The first of the 9/11 flights was diverted and set on a course for Manhattan at about 8:13 a.m. The fourth and final flight crashed in Pennsylvania at either 10:03 or 10:06. Who acted as the commander of the U.S. military on Sept. 11th during the 110 minutes of the attacks? What explains the failure to follow standard air-defense response procedures, under which fighter jets should have been dispatched in a timely fashion to survey each situation and be in place for additional action if required?

True, the Kean Commission’s credo, “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame,”(The 9/11 Commission Report, p. xvi), sounds admirable. Does it mean that public officials should not be held accountable for their decisions or omissions?

What the principals say

Bush has said he thought the first crash at the World Trade Center (8:46 a.m.) was an accident. After hearing of the second crash (9:05 a.m.), he says he didn’t rush to take command of the situation because it might have upset second graders who were reading to him from “The Pet Goat.”

In his office at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld received word as each plane hit the Twin Towers, but apparently continued his scheduled lecture to a Congressional delegation on the subject of national preparedness against surprise attacks. After the opposite side of the Pentagon was hit (at 9:37 a.m. according to the report), he disappeared for 30 minutes while his generals tried to locate him and bring him to the war room.

Richard Myers, acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sept. 11, says he thought the first crash was an accident. He went ahead with a meeting at the offices of Sen. Max Cleland, with whom he discussed the subject of national preparedness. Myers heard about the second crash (which happened at 9:03 a.m.) on leaving the meeting. Moments later, he was told the Pentagon had been hit.

The 9/11 Commission Report does not omit so much as obscure these failures to take charge, presenting them as items of human interest during wartime and repeating short justifications from each of the  principals.

The report neglects to mention anything about the whereabouts on Sept. 11 of Gen. Montague Winfield, the director of the National Military Command Center or “war room” located in the Pentagon itself.

Sheehy on Rumsfeld

In exposing Rumsfeld, Sheehy goes easy on the Kean Commission. The lead sentence of her LAT editorial implicitly endorses its recommendation of a National Intelligence Director:

Donald Rumsfeld, one of the chief opponents of investing real power over purse and personnel in a new national intelligence chief, told the 9/11 commission that an intelligence czar would do the nation “a great disservice.” It is fair to ask what kind of service Rumsfeld provided on the day the nation was under catastrophic attack.

“Two planes hitting the twin towers did not rise to the level of Rumsfeld’s leaving his office and going to the War Room? How can that be?” asked Mindy Kleinberg, one of the widows known as the Jersey Girls,  whose efforts helped create and guide the 9/11 commission. The fact that the final report failed to offer an explanation is one of the infuriating holes in an otherwise praiseworthy accounting.

Rumsfeld was missing in action that morning ? “out of the loop” by his own admission. The lead military officer that day, Brig. Gen. Montague Winfield, told the commission that the Pentagon’s command center had been essentially leaderless: “For 30 minutes we couldn’t find Rumsfeld.

Sheehy is hasty in characterizing the situation at the NMCC as leaderless. If anything, the quote she cites suggests Winfield was “in the loop” during the time that Rumsfeld was missing. If that was the case, Winfield held the authority to lead.

But the record of the Commission proceedings suggests that, like Rumsfeld, Winfield did not hold a command function until after the attacks were over (see below). However, even in Winfield’s absence, the  next-ranking officer should have been charge.

Sheehy: For more than two hours after the Federal Aviation Administration became aware that the first plane had been violently overtaken by Middle Eastern men, the man whose job it was to order air cover over Washington [Rumsfeld] did not show up in the Pentagon’s command center.

This may be a veiled reference to a military administrative order of June 1, 2001, which formally included the Secretary of Defense in any decision to authorize the interception of errant civilian planes by military jets.

At least until then, interception of errant flights was a standard procedure, activated automatically once an air traffic controller determines a plane on instrument flight rules (IFR) is significantly off-course or has failed to respond to ground control. No formal authorization was required for the FAA to alert NORAD that an aircraft has deviated from its planned route, or for NORAD to scramble interceptors to reconnoiter and report. On the contrary, this was what was supposed to happen.

It is unclear whether the administrative order of June 1, by including Rumsfeld in these procedures, had any effect on practice. We do know that NORAD issued scramble orders to intercept errant flights within domestic airspace on 67 occasions prior to June 1, 2001. (Another fact mentioned nowhere in the Commission report.) And during the first minutes of their diversions, each of the 9/11 flights were simply errant  aircraft, not yet turned into missiles. Interceptors should have been dispatched in a timely and automatic fashion, at least under the old rules.

Did Rumsfeld’s absence from decision-making cause delays in scrambling interceptors? The 9/11 Commission Report does not ask.

Sheehy: It took [Rumsfeld] almost two hours to “gain situational awareness,” he told the commission. He didn’t speak to the vice president until 10:39 a.m., according to the report. Since that was more than 30 minutes after the last hijacked plane crashed, it would seem to be an admission of dereliction of duty.

[Archived at Gail Sheehy]

Sheehy writes that the report’s failure to scrutinize Rumsfeld’s “admission of dereliction of duty” is “one of the infuriating holes in an otherwise praiseworthy accounting.” True enough, it is one of the holes, and  Sheehy like any journalist likes to concentrate on one story at a time. Or perhaps she avoided criticism of the Commission as a way of placating the LAT editors. She goes further in Mother Jones, telling how she put Lee Hamilton, vice-chairman of the Kean Commission, on the spot with the question, “Where was Rumsfeld on 9/11?”:

“We investigated very carefully Mr. Rumsfeld’s actions,” said Hamilton. “He was having breakfast with Congressional leaders, and they hear a plane has hit the Pentagon, and he runs out.”

“He had to have been told before the Pentagon was hit that two trade centers were hit and the country was under attack,” I suggested.

Was the commission comfortable with the fact that the country’s Secretary of Defense was not in the chain of command or present in the Pentagon?s command center until all four suicide hijacked planes were down?

“I’m not going to answer that question,” said Hamilton, and turned away.
[Original at Archive at Archive.Org]

Montague Winfield

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are technically advisers to the executive and theater command, which under law “runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense; and from the Secretary of Defense to the commander of the combatant command.” As the theater of combat on Sept. 11 was domestic, the function of combatant command resided at the Pentagon in the NMCC.

The attacks made use of passenger transport, a realm supervised by the Federal Aviation Administration. Once it was clear that attacks were underway, the responsibility for aerial defense resided with the North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) under Gen. Ralph Eberhart.

Authority should have therefore run from Commander-in-Chief Bush to Secretary Rumsfeld to the NMCC under Winfield and NORAD under Eberhart, with Gen. Myers as the chief adviser.

Montague Winfield was originally scheduled to be at his command post on morning of Sept. 11. But on Sept. 10, he arranged for his deputy to relieve him the next morning at exactly 8:30 a.m. This turned out to be just eight minutes before the military was alerted to the diversion of the first flight (at 8:38 a.m. according to the timeline in The 9/11 Commission Report).

The report mentions Winfield by name only once, as a source in a footnote, without clarification (Ch. 1 fn 190, p. 463). His absence from the NMCC after 8:30 a.m. was first revealed to the Commission in a June 17, 2004 statement by his deputy, Capt. Charles J. Leidig (who was recently promoted to admiral).

Winfield was scheduled to testify before the Kean Commission in public on the same day as Leidig. As on Sept. 11, he was a no-show. Leidig spoke for him, saying under oath that on Sept. 11, “Right after we resolved what was going on with United 93, around that time General Winfield took over” command of the NMCC.
(Transcript of June 17 hearings at

Thus Gen. Winfield apparently exercised no operational authority until after the attacks were over. In the further absence of Bush and Rumsfeld, the man in charge of the U.S. military during the attacks was  apparently Capt. Leidig, a rookie in the job who, in his own words, first qualified in August 2001 “to stand watch as the Deputy Director for Operations in the NMCC.”

However, Winfield either forgot his own absence or attempted to gloss over it when he was filmed for a 2002 Discovery-Times documentary, “Attack on the Pentagon.” In that interview, he says that the “national leadership” was called to the NMCC “after the World Trade Center was struck.” He also describes on camera the process of “resolving” what happened to Flight 93, the final flight, as though he was present.

Was Winfield present at the NMCC at any time during the attacks? If not, why would he try to hide an absence for which no one would otherwise think to blame him, since it was arranged the night before? Where was he during the 90 minutes after 8:30 a.m.?

George W. Bush

Though it took three years, Bush is finally taking some heat for his suspect actions on Sept. 11, mainly thanks to the film Fahrenheit 9/11. It shows footage after the moment when he learned about the second crash. In a Florida classroom, with dozens of cameras running, the White House chief of staff steps up to the seated Bush and whispers into his ear for about three seconds. Supposedly he says, “A second plane has hit the Towers. America is under attack.” Bush does not ask for more information but remains seated for the next seven minutes, listening to the second-graders read.

Many have intrepreted this as an individual loss of nerve at a crucial moment. In fact, that conclusion obscures a far more disturbing reality.

On that day Bush was accompanied by the usual large entourage of White House staff, among them Secret Service and national security personnel. As of 8:46, the time of the first crash, Bush and entourage were still on their way to the school. The caravan could have driven straight to Air Force One or a secure command center. Bush says he heard about the first crash at 8:55. This is long after the military should have  informed the White House of the hijacking. How can he claim he thought it was an accident? And what about his staff? In the subsequent half-hour plus, as the whole world learned of the New York events, why did  the Secret Service feel so little urgency about the president as a potential target? Despite the risks, and despite the national emergency, the meaningless photo opportunity proceeded for the next 46 minutes. Worse, after the second crash, everyone stayed put in the school until at least 9:32, half an hour later, with most of the proceedings broadcast live on local and national TV. These are the periods of inaction that Bush and his staff must account for; and not just the “seven minutes” made famous by Michael Moore.

It gets worse. The famous Aug. 6 Presidential Daily Briefing, titled “BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN THE U.S.,” had warned of terrorist plans to hijack planes in the United States. Bush and members of his entourage should have easily recalled that during the G-8 Summit in July 2001, the Secret Service received warnings from multiple sources that Osama bin Laden wanted to crash an airplane into his hotel in Genoa, Italy.

As a result of these warnings, the Italians shut down the Genoa airport and airspace and installed anti-aircraft batteries to protect the summit (also see Newsday, Sept. 27, 2001). (See “Bush, Rice and the Genoa Warning: Documenting a demonstrable falsehood.“)

That and other high-level warnings of an imminent aerial terror attack in the weeks prior to Sept. 11 (once again: completely unmentioned in the Commission report) make the failure to act during the national emergency all the more maddening and inexcusable.

Sheehy is moved to consider darker motives, at least in her Mother Jones article. She returns to the Project for a New American Century, the policy initiative founded in 1997 that brought together Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and most of their direct associates in the Bush administration, as well as Jeb Bush. The PNAC manifesto of the year 2000 – an open call for the U.S. to establish a new order in the Middle East by force and dominate the world militarily – expresses a not-so-hidden wish for “a new Pearl Harbor” that would end what the authors decry as a dangerous trend to isolationism.

Sheehy’s exploration of this territory is an encouraging sign. We can only hope she and other reporters will take a closer look at the Kean Commission’s many other “infuriating holes.” As it turns out, the report’s omissions belie any pretense of “praiseworthy accounting.”And to many of those who have been paying attention to these issues since Sept. 11, the absence of a chain of command and of a credible U.S. air defense on Sept. 11 has always looked less like a “failure” than an intentional result of machinations behind the scenes.

(-Nicholas Levis)

(To be continued. For more on Bush, Myers, Clarke, Cheney and the issue of air defense on Sept. 11, see here and here.)

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