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The 90-Minute Stand Down on 9/11: Why Was the Secret Service's Early Request for Fighter Jets Ignored?



911 Blogger
December 20, 2009

Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001, an officer at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC, was notified that the Secret Service wanted fighter jets launched over the nation's capital. It was now obvious the U.S. was under terrorist attack, and Washington would have been an obvious potential target. And yet the Secret Service's request came to nothing.

No fighters had taken off from Andrews by 9:37 a.m., when the Pentagon was hit. Nor had any launched by the time Flight 93 apparently crashed in Pennsylvania, shortly after 10:00 a.m., while flying toward Washington. In fact, fighters did not launch from Andrews until over 90 minutes after the second attack in New York. The first fully armed fighters did not launch from there until more than two hours after that attack. So why was the Secret Service's early request for help not acted upon? Why did fighter jets only take off from this massive Air Force base to defend the capital well after the morning's attacks had ended?

Secret Service Calls FAA Headquarters

The Secret Service agent who made the early request that fighter jets be launched appears to have been Nelson Garabito. Garabito was responsible for coordinating the president's movements, and was also the Secret Service's liaison to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He was in the Secret Service Joint Operations Center (JOC) at the White House that morning. Just after Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., Garabito called Terry Van Steenbergen, his counterpart at the FAA, who was at the FAA headquarters in Washington. According to the 9/11 Commission, shortly into the call, Van Steenburgen told Garabito "that there were more planes unaccounted for--possibly hijacked--in addition to the two that had already crashed."

Possibly in response to this information, Garabito appears to have asked Van Steenbergen to arrange for fighters to be launched over Washington. Van Steenbergen asked three of his colleagues at the FAA to call various air bases to see if they could get fighters into the air. One of these colleagues, Karen Pontius, had previously worked at Andrews Air Force Base, so she made the call to the FAA air traffic control tower there. [1] Garabito would have been unable to call the tower himself, because, according to a 9/11 Commission memorandum, the Secret Service "did not have a phone line to the Andrews tower."

FAA Headquarters Requests Fighters

Pontius spoke to Steve Marra, an air traffic controller in the Andrews tower. Marra has recalled that Pontius "told him to launch F-16s to cap the airspace over Washington." He relayed this information to the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG), which is based at Andrews, across the airfield from the control tower. [2] Marra appears to have done so when DCANG officer Major Daniel Caine phoned the tower and asked if any air traffic control measures were being implemented in response to the attacks. [3] Caine later recalled that the tower controller--i.e. Marra--told him "that they just received the scramble order." However, oddly, Caine told the 9/11 Commission that the Andrews tower "would not have been in the loop for any Secret Service orders to scramble aircraft." [4]

If the DC Air National Guard was notified of this early "scramble order," why was that order not acted upon? Pilots and others working for the DCANG at Andrews were already well aware of the crisis taking place. Upon learning of the second crash, someone at the unit reportedly yelled, "We're under a terrorist attack!" [5] And, seeing the television coverage of the burning WTC towers, an officer exclaimed, "Well, holy shit, if this is a terrorist attack, we need to get something in the air!"

Furthermore, a request from the Secret Service should have carried considerable weight. According to author Lynn Spencer, "Given that the Secret Service provides protection to the president--and that the president, and the vice president when the president is not available, is the ultimate commander in chief of the military--the Secret Service also has certain authority over the military and, in this case, the DC Guard." [6]

Caine Calls His Secret Service Contact

After his call to the control tower, Daniel Caine called his contact at the Secret Service, Kenneth Beauchamp, who was at the White House JOC. Caine later told the 9/11 Commission that, on reflection, he believed it was his hearing that the tower had received the "scramble order" that prompted him to call Beauchamp. [7]

And yet Beauchamp supposedly contradicted the Secret Service's request for fighters. Even though it was obvious that the U.S. was under attack, and it should have been clear that Washington was a likely target for any further attacks, he said the Secret Service did not require assistance from the DCANG. Caine had asked: "Do you have any additional information? Are you guys going to need some help?" and Beauchamp replied, "No, but I'll call you back if that changes." [8]

Caine has said that during this call, which he described as "a very quick, confusing conversation," Beauchamp told him that "things were happening and he'd call me back." [9] However, Beauchamp did not call Caine back. [10] (Another Secret Service agent, though, did subsequently call Caine, and asked about getting fighters launched. [11])

According to Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville, the acting operations group commander under the 113th Wing of the DCANG, at the time Caine spoke to Beauchamp, "we weren't thinking about defending anything. Our primary concern was what would happen to the air traffic system." [12] But when Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard, subsequently called the Secret Service JOC shortly after the Pentagon was hit and spoke to Beauchamp, Beauchamp implored him to launch jets to protect Washington. Beauchamp said: "We want you to put a CAP [combat air patrol] up over the city. We need some fighters now." [13]

DCANG Pilot 'Standing Back, Waiting'

Between the second WTC attack at 9:03 a.m. and the Pentagon attack at 9:37 a.m., the DCANG fighter pilots on duty at Andrews appear to have been waiting around and doing very little, when they should have been hurrying to get airborne.

One of those pilots, Captain Brandon Rasmussen, was promptly informed of the second crash in New York after it occurred, and immediately realized its implications. He recalled: "I think everybody knew that this was a coordinated attack that was happening. We had no idea who it was by, but it was definitely intentional when you get two airplanes hitting both towers." And yet, he said: "At that point, we didn't know what we could possibly do; that's New York City way up the road. So … like everybody else in America, we're just standing by and watching the news."

This is extraordinary! An Air Force base just 10 miles from Washington had learned that the nation was under attack. And yet the immediate response of its pilots was to stand around watching television!

Rasmussen said it was only after the news broke about the Pentagon being hit that "we knew that we were going to be sticking around home and being quite busy," and "the squadron leadership went into action." [14] DCANG commander David Wherley only headed across the base from his office to the fighter squadron building, to assist his unit's response to the attacks, after a woman at his office saw on television that the Pentagon had been hit and started shrieking. [15]

But even after the Pentagon attack, the DCANG pilots were not immediately told to prepare for takeoff. Rasmussen recalled that at that point, "I'm just kind of standing back, waiting for somebody to task me with something." He added, "I was just waiting at the ops desk for someone to say, 'Okay, we've been cleared to take off and go.'" [16]

First Jet Launches at 10:38

The first DCANG jet to take off from Andrews Air Force Base was an F-16 that had just returned from a training mission over North Carolina. It had little fuel remaining, carried no missiles, and had only practice ammunition. It took off at 10:38 a.m., an hour after the attack on the Pentagon. [17] Two more F-16s took off at 10:42 a.m., but these were also armed with only practice ammunition and had no missiles. [18] At 11:11 a.m., Rasmussen and Daniel Caine took off in their F-16s, the first fighters to launch from Andrews armed with missiles as well as bullets. [19] By that time, the attacks were long over.

Rasmussen has expressed his and the other DCANG pilots' frustration at having to wait around before being allowed to get airborne. He said that when his unit finally received authorization for its jets to take off, "We were relieved to actually be given permission to go up and do something, instead of feeling totally helpless. I mean, we are fighter pilots, just like guard dogs chomping at the bit, ready to go." [20]

DCANG Provides 'Capable and Ready Response Forces'

Although the DC Air National Guard was not part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) air defense force, its mission at the time of the 9/11 attacks included providing "capable and ready response forces for the District of Columbia in the event of a natural disaster or civil emergency." Lieutenant Colonel Phil Thompson, the chief of safety for the DCANG, said, "We practice scrambles, we know how to do intercepts and other things." [21] The unit was in fact known as the "Capital Guardians," implying that it was responsible for protecting Washington, DC. [22]

The fact that, in spite of an early request for help from the Secret Service, it took the DC Air National Guard so long to put together a response to the attacks should be of concern to all Americans. The unit's disastrously slow emergency response needs to be thoroughly probed as part of a rigorous new investigation of the 9/11 attacks.


Notes

[1] "USSS Statements and Interview Reports." 9/11 Commission, July 28, 2003; 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Authorized Edition) . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, pp. 464-465; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Terry Van Steenbergen." 9/11 Commission, March 30, 2004.

[2] "Memorandum for the Record: Visit to Reagan National Airport Control Tower in Alexandria, VA and Andrews Air Force Base Control Tower." 9/11 Commission, July 28, 2003.

[3] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America: Sept. 11 Alters Face of Air Defense Mission. Tyndall Air Force Base, FL: 1st Air Force, 2003, p. 76.

[4] "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Major John Daniel Caine, USAF, Supervisor of Flying at 121st Squadron, 113th Wing, Andrews Air Force Base on September 11, 2001." 9/11 Commission, March 8, 2004.

[5] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital." Washington Post, April 8, 2002.

[6] Lynn Spencer, Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11. New York: Free Press, 2008, p. 123.

[7] "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Major John Daniel Caine."

[8] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 124.

[9] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 76.

[10] "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Major John Daniel Caine."

[11] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 78.

[12] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93." Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 9, 2002.

[13] "Memorandum for the Record: BG David Wherley, on September 11, 2001, Commander of the 113th Wing of the USAF Air National Guard, Andrews AFB." 9/11 Commission, August 28, 2003; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, pp. 184-185.

[14] Brandon Rasmussen, interviewed by Leslie Filson, September 18, 2003.

[15] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital"; Steve Vogel, The Pentagon: A History. New York: Random House, 2007, pp. 445-446; Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 184.

[16] Brandon Rasmussen, interviewed by Leslie Filson.

[17] Steve Vogel, "Flights of Vigilance Over the Capital"; William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; "UA93 and Andrews Timeline." 9/11 Commission, n.d.

[18] William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 82; Brandon Rasmussen, interviewed by Leslie Filson.

[19] Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 84; "Relevant Andrews Transmissions." 9/11 Commission, February 17-18, 2004.

[20] Brandon Rasmussen, interviewed by Leslie Filson.

[21] "Andrews Air Force Base: Partner Units." DCMilitary.com, Summer 2001; William B. Scott, "F-16 Pilots Considered Ramming Flight 93"; Leslie Filson, Air War Over America, p. 76.

[22] Lynn Spencer, Touching History, p. 122.

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