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Context of 'May-August 2003: 9/11 Commission Has Difficulty Gaining Access to Recording of Air Threat Conference'

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Around this time, according to his own account, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke reaches the Secure Video Conferencing Center just off the main floor of the Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House. From there, he directs the response to the 9/11 attacks and stays in contact with other top officials through video links. Clarke claims that on video he can see Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson (filling in for the traveling Attorney General John Ashcroft), Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (filling in for the traveling Secretary of State Colin Powell), and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers (filling in for the traveling Chairman Henry Shelton). National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is with Clarke, but she lets him run the crisis response, deferring to his longer experience on terrorism matters. Clarke is also told by an aide, “We’re on the line with NORAD, on an air threat conference call.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 2-4; Australian, 3/27/2004] According to the 9/11 Commission, logs indicate that Clarke’s video teleconference only begins at 9:25 a.m. (see 9:25 a.m. September 11, 2001), which is later than Clarke suggests, and CIA and FAA representatives only join it at 9:40 a.m. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 36 and 462] Other accounts claim that, rather than being involved in Clarke’s teleconference at this time, Donald Rumsfeld is still in his office waiting for his intelligence briefing (see (Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001), and Richard Myers is in a meeting on Capitol Hill (see (Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Armed Forces Radio And Television Service, 10/17/2001; Clarke, 2006, pp. 218-219] The 9/11 Commission claims that, “While important,” Clarke’s conference has “no immediate effect on the emergency defense efforts.” [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] Yet, as the Washington Post puts it, “everyone seems to agree” Clarke is the chief crisis manager on 9/11. [Washington Post, 3/28/2004] Even Clarke’s later opponent, National Security Adviser Rice, calls him 9/11’s “crisis management guy.” [United Press International, 4/9/2004] The conference is where the government’s emergency defense efforts are concentrated.

Entity Tags: Larry D. Thompson, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Richard B. Myers, Richard Armitage, John Ashcroft, Robert S. Mueller III, Richard A. Clarke, Henry Hugh Shelton, Jane Garvey, Donald Rumsfeld, 9/11 Commission, George J. Tenet, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Members of the 9/11 Commission are informed that the air threat conference call, initiated by the military in response to the attacks on September 11, was recorded. This call reportedly began at around 9:37 a.m. on 9/11. Throughout the day, numerous key officials had participated in it, including the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, plus senior officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Despite more than 18 months having passed since the attacks, Pentagon officials say they have not yet transcribed the tapes of the conference call. After the 9/11 Commission makes repeated requests, the Pentagon finally creates a classified transcript. On August 6, this is forwarded to the White House for an “executive-privilege review,” which is supposedly required because of Vice President Cheney’s participation in the call. The commission is then promised access to the 200-page transcript. However, the fact that it is not time coded may hinder the commission’s ability to outline an exact sequence of events, and commissioners say they may need to obtain the actual tapes recordings. Whether they are eventually allowed full or partial access to the tapes is unclear: The 9/11 Commission Report, released in 2004, will make numerous references to the “[Defense Department] transcript, Air Threat Conference Call.” It will only make one reference to “the tape… of the air threat conference call,” which it says was used to help reconstruct events in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC). The report will state that all the times it gives for the air threat conference call are estimates, believed to be accurate within a three-minute margin of error. This would suggest it did not have full access to the tape recordings. [US News and World Report, 8/31/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 37 and 463-465] The recording of the air threat conference call is of particular significance, because the National Military Command Center (NMCC), which initiated the call, is—according to military instructions—the “focal point within Department of Defense for providing assistance” in response to hijackings in US airspace. [US Department of Defense, 6/1/2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: White House, US Department of Defense, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Several months into its investigation, the 9/11 Commission is already dissatisfied with the Department of Defense (see July 7, 2003).
Recorded Conversations Not Provided to Commission - When its staff take a tour of a Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) facility in Rome, New York, which helped coordinate the air defense on the day of 9/11, the staff enter the operations room, which has “more than 20 banks of operators: some weapons controllers and some flight controllers.” The staff find that the operators’ conversations are always tape-recorded, but the tapes for 9/11 have not yet been sent to the Commission. In addition, according to Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, “there were also discrepancies between things NORAD was telling [the Commission] about their performance on the morning of September 11—things that the agency had stated publicly after 9/11—and the story told by the limited tapes and documents the Commission had received.”
'Egregious' Failure - Upon learning of the existence of the tapes, team leader John Farmer immediately suspends the tour and the interviews and flies to meet Kean in New Jersey. [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 85-88] Farmer will say that the failure to produce the tapes was “egregious,” as, “Those tapes told the story of the air defense better than anything else that anyone could have given us.”
Subpoena Demanded - Farmer demands that a subpoena be issued to the Pentagon for the tapes. He tells Kean: “Listen, we have to subpoena this stuff. We may not get it, but if we don’t try to get it, how can you explain to the public that we have done our job?” Farmer is aware that it will be difficult to get a subpoena on the Pentagon—“When you’re talking about subpoenaing the DOD, the room goes quiet”—but he decides privately: “I would have quit if we didn’t. I felt we were becoming a laughingstock.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 204]
Lost Time - Despite opposition from its Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton (see (Late October-Early November 2003)) and, allegedly, its Executive Director Philip Zelikow (see November 5, 2003), the Commission will subpoena NORAD for the tapes (see November 6, 2003). However, according to Kean and Hamilton, this means that “the staff had lost so much time that our hearing on the 9/11 story in the skies was postponed for months. Indeed, the delays from NORAD and the FAA made it highly unlikely that the team could complete its work as scheduled.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 85-88] Chapter 1 of the Commission’s final report will draw heavily on the tapes. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 1-46]
Contrast with Other Aspects of Investigation - However, the Commission does not make the same effort with all day of 9/11 recordings. For example, it does not even find out which person(s) from the Department of Defense participated in a White House video conference chaired by counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke during the attacks (see (9:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 36]

Entity Tags: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission, John Farmer, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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