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Context of '(8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Flight 77 Takes Off 10 Minutes Late'

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The FBI conducts a training exercise based on the scenario of an aircraft hijacking at Washington Dulles International Airport, the airport from which American Airlines Flight 77—the third plane to be hijacked—will take off on 9/11 (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). The FBI exercise is based around a “traditional” hijacking that involves hostages being taken by the hijackers, according to Dana Pitts, an airport operations manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Members of the Dulles Airport staff provide some “operational support” during the exercise. Further details, including the date when the exercise is held, are unstated. (9/11 Commission 10/16/2003 pdf file) The FBI is the agency that has jurisdiction if a hijacking or hostage-taking incident occurs on an aircraft that is still on the ground. (Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority 5/6/2000 pdf file; NPR 9/20/2001)

An image from a Dulles Airport surveillance video.An image from a Dulles Airport surveillance video. [Source: FBI]Security cameras at Washington’s Dulles International Airport capture the alleged hijackers of Flight 77 checking in at the airport and passing through a security screening checkpoint. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/19/2001; 9/11 Commission 4/6/2004 pdf file) A surveillance camera located above the British Airways ticket counter points toward the American Airlines ticket counter, and therefore records alleged hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Salem Alhazmi when they check in at the airport (see 7:29 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/25/2001) Another surveillance camera located by the British Airways ticket counter also points toward the American Airlines ticket counter, and records alleged hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Majed Moqed when they check in (see 7:15 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/19/2001; Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/19/2001) All five of the alleged hijackers of Flight 77 are recorded on video as they go through a security checkpoint at the airport (see 7:18 a.m. September 11, 2001, (Shortly Before 7:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001, and 7:36 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 3; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 27) Dulles Airport is the only one of the three airports used by the hijackers this morning that has videotaping equipment in use at its security checkpoints. Consequently, William Johnstone, a member of the 9/11 Commission staff, will later note, “the most specific information that exists about the processing of the 9/11 hijackers is information about American Airlines Flight 77,” which will take off from Dulles Airport this morning (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 1/27/2004) In 2004, news organizations will receive a copy of a surveillance video apparently showing the alleged hijackers passing through a security checkpoint at Dulles Airport before boarding Flight 77. The Associated Press will describe the video as “grainy” and report that details are “difficult to distinguish.” It will note that “[n]o knives or other sharp objects are visible” on the video. (Associated Press 7/22/2004)

Flight 77 departs Dulles International Airport near Washington, ten minutes after its 8:10 scheduled departure time. (Washington Post 9/12/2001; CNN 9/17/2001; Ellison 10/17/2001; Associated Press 8/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 6/17/2004)

John Fulton.John Fulton. [Source: NLESI]A training exercise is scheduled to begin at a US intelligence agency located just over 20 miles from the Pentagon, based around the scenario of a small corporate jet plane experiencing a mechanical failure and crashing into a tower building there. The exercise, which has been planned for several months, is to take place at the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in Chantilly, Virginia, four miles away from Washington Dulles International Airport and 24 miles from the Pentagon. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; Hess 8/22/2002) Its purpose is to test the agency’s employees’ ability to respond to a small aircraft crash. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/14/2003)
Simulated Plane Crash - The exercise is set to commence at 9:00 a.m., when its observers meet to be briefed. The observers and exercise role players are to move to their positions for the exercise 10 to 15 minutes later. The plane in the exercise scenario is a Learjet 35A with two pilots and four passengers on board, which takes off at 9:30 a.m. from Dulles Airport. (9/11 Commission 7/14/2003) This is the airport Flight 77, which crashes into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., took off from earlier in the morning (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8-10) A minute after taking off, the Learjet is supposed to experience a mechanical failure. It then goes out of control, leading it to crash into one of the four towers at the NRO’s headquarters at around 9:32 a.m. (see 9:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). No real plane is going to be used in the exercise, but some stairwells and exits at the NRO headquarters are to be closed off in order to simulate the damage from the crash, forcing employees to find other ways to evacuate the building. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/14/2003)
Scenario Created by War Gaming Division - The exercise scenario was imagined by the NRO’s internal war gaming division. (Hess 8/22/2002) The exercise is being run by John Fulton, the chief of this division, and his team at the CIA. (National Law Enforcement and Security Institute 8/4/2002; National Law Enforcement and Security Institute 8/6/2002 pdf file)
Highly Secretive Agency - The NRO is an agency of the US Department of Defense. Its mission is “to ensure that the US has the technology and spaceborne and airborne assets needed to acquire intelligence worldwide.” (US Department of Defense 9/18/1992) It operates many of the nation’s spy satellites. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002) According to the New York Times, “It designs, builds, and operates spy satellites that photograph and overhear what other countries are up to.” (New York Times 8/10/1994) The NRO employs some 3,000 people. These employees are drawn from the CIA and the military. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002) The New York Times has called the NRO “probably the most secretive of the intelligence agencies.” Until 1992, its existence was not even officially disclosed. (New York Times 8/10/1994)
Exercise Canceled - According to NRO spokesman Art Haubold, the exercise will be called off “as soon as real world events began to unfold.” However, he does not give a specific time. All but the NRO’s most essential employees will then be sent home. (Hess 8/22/2002) Haubold will later comment, “It was just an incredible coincidence” that the exercise scenario “happened to involve an aircraft crashing into our facility.” (Lumpkin 8/21/2002)

The telephone Ted Olson used when he spoke to his wife, who called him from Flight 77.The telephone Ted Olson used when he spoke to his wife, who called him from Flight 77. [Source: US Department of Justice]Barbara Olson, a passenger on Flight 77, talks over the phone with her husband, Ted Olson, the solicitor general of the United States, for a second time and is able to give him additional details of the hijacking of her plane before the call gets cut off. She has just called him at his office at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, and was able to say her plane had been hijacked and give him details of the hijacking before the call got disconnected (see (Between 9:15 a.m. and 9:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (CNN 9/14/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9) Since then, Ted Olson has called the Department of Justice command center and passed on the information she provided (see (Between 9:17 a.m. and 9:29 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 32)
Secretary Answers the Call - Shortly after making her first call to him, Barbara Olson calls Ted Olson again. (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9) The call is initially answered by Lori Keyton, a secretary in Ted Olson’s office. When Keyton picks up the phone, Barbara Olson says, “It’s Barbara.” Keyton says she will put her through to her husband. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001) Ted Olson is told his wife is on the phone again and the call is put through to him.
Barbara Olson Says Her Plane Has Been Circling Around - Barbara Olson then gives her husband additional information about the hijacking of Flight 77. She says the pilot announced that the plane had been hijacked. Ted Olson asks if she has any idea of her plane’s location. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; CNN 9/14/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 32) She says the plane was hijacked shortly after takeoff and has been circling around for a while. (CNN 9/14/2001; Fox News 9/14/2001) (However, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, Flight 77 was hijacked between around 8:51 a.m. and 8:54 a.m. (see 8:51 a.m.-8:54 a.m. September 11, 2001), more than 30 minutes after it took off (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8) ) She says it is currently flying over some houses. After consulting another person on the plane, she says she thinks they are heading northeast.
Barbara Olson Asks What She Should Tell the Pilot - Ted Olson says two aircraft, besides Flight 77, were hijacked this morning and these planes subsequently crashed into the World Trade Center. Barbara Olson “absorbed the information,” the solicitor general will later recall. The couple then try to reassure each other. Ted Olson says, “It’s going to come out okay” and Barbara Olson tells him the same thing. She then says, “I love you.” Before the call ends, the couple “segued back and forth between expressions of feeling for one another and this effort to exchange information,” Ted Olson will recall. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; CNN 9/14/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 32) “We exchanged the feelings that a husband and wife who are extraordinarily close—as we are—those kind of sentiments,” he will say. (Fox News 9/14/2001) The last thing Barbara Olson says is: “What shall I tell the pilot? What can I tell the pilot to do?” This implies that either the plane’s pilot or the co-pilot is at the back of the plane, where the hijackers moved the passengers, Ted Olson will note. (Fisher and Phillips 9/12/2001; CNN 9/14/2001)
Call Is Abruptly Cut Off - The call then ends abruptly, with the line suddenly going dead. It has lasted “two or three or four minutes,” Ted Olson will estimate. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; CNN 9/14/2001; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 32) Ted Olson will then return to watching the coverage of the attacks at the WTC on television. When he sees the reports about an attack at the Pentagon, he will immediately think his wife’s plane crashed there (see (Shortly After 9:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001; Fox News 9/14/2001)
Call Is Made Sometime between 9:20 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. - The exact time of Barbara Olson’s second call to her husband is unclear. A list compiled by the Department of Justice supposedly showing all of the calls made today from Flight 77 will include four “connected calls to unknown numbers” (see 9:15 a.m.-9:30 a.m. September 11, 2001) and the 9/11 Commission Report will determine that these include the two calls made by Barbara Olson. According to the information in the list, her second call must occur at 9:20 a.m., 9:25 a.m., or 9:30 a.m. and last for 4 minutes 34 seconds, 2 minutes 39 seconds, or 4 minutes 20 seconds. (9/11 Commission 5/20/2004; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 455; 9/11 Commission 8/26/2004, pp. 94)
Call Is Made Directly to Ted Olson's Office - It is also unclear whether Barbara Olson makes this call using a cell phone or an Airfone. Keyton’s phone has no caller identification feature and so she is unable to determine what kind of phone Barbara Olson uses. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001) But the Department of Justice will determine that all of the calls from Flight 77 were made using Airfones. (9/11 Commission 5/20/2004) Barbara Olson makes the call by dialing “0,” apparently in an attempt to reach an operator, according to an FBI report. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/20/2001) But Keyton will say that, unlike the first call, Barbara Olson’s second call to her husband is made directly to his office, rather than reaching it via an operator. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001) And Mercy Lorenzo, the operator who connected Barbara Olson’s first call to Ted Olson’s office (see (Between 9:15 a.m. and 9:25 a.m.) September 11, 2001), will apparently mention dealing with only one call, not two, from Barbara Olson when she is interviewed by the FBI. (Federal Bureau of Investigation 9/11/2001)

Washington’s Dulles International Airport, from where Flight 77 departed earlier this morning (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001), is locked down on the orders of the FAA. Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001) and within two hours, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other authorities lock down Dulles Airport. This means no one is allowed to enter or leave, according to investigative journalists Joseph Trento and Susan Trento. (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 36; Priska Neely 10/21/2010) However, the airport’s terminals are evacuated at around 10:00 a.m., according to Edward Cox, the airport security coordinator. The evacuation is coordinated by the FAA and airport operations. (9/11 Commission 10/16/2003 pdf file) The goal within the system is to get passengers out of the terminals as quickly as possible, according to Frank Dunn, deputy chief of police with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Once the terminals have been evacuated, they are closed. (9/11 Commission 9/29/2003 pdf file)

Steve Wragg.Steve Wragg. [Source: Steve Wragg]Investigators at Washington’s Dulles International Airport sternly refuse to let Steve Wragg, a manager, get involved with interviews of his employees, even just to help as a translator for workers with limited English-speaking skills. (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 128-129) Flight 77 took off from Dulles Airport at 8:20 a.m. (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8, 10) Wragg works as the district manager in charge of the airport for Argenbright Security, which handles the passenger security checkpoints, baggage, and other services there for American Airlines and United Airlines. (Atlanta Business Chronicle 10/12/2001; Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 125) Having just returned from a trip to Boston, he was away from work when the crashes at the World Trade Center took place. (Brighton Argus 9/26/2001) But after learning of the attacks, he headed to Dulles Airport to check on Ed Nelson, a security manager who works for him, and the airport’s screeners. He arrived at around 11:00 a.m. and found the place in chaos, filled with people dressed in suits who were wearing earpieces and carrying guns. He found Nelson and the two men headed to the airport’s security checkpoints where they saw personnel standing around, being interviewed by men in suits with clipboards.
Manager Is Told that the Investigation Is None of His Business - Wragg now heads to his office, where screeners are being questioned by investigators, and sees people who belong to numerous agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, airport police, the Department of Transportation, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. However, he is unable to find anyone who can tell him who is in charge, what is going on, or who he is meant to talk to. Instead, an agent orders him to get out. “Anybody I spoke to said, ‘We need you to stay out of this, we’re taking over, this is none of your business right now,’” he will later recall.
Manager's Offer of Help with Translation Is Rejected - Wragg calls Argenbright Security’s headquarters, and is told to “secure the records” and “make sure no one touches anything.” He explains to his bosses what the situation is like at the airport and asks what they want him to do. He is instructed to try and get involved if investigators are speaking to Argenbright employees. He then attempts to do this but the investigators refuse to let him participate. “You’re not going to be a part of this,” they tell him. Wragg thinks the investigators will need him to help translate, since many of his company’s employees are immigrants with limited English-speaking skills. Some of them are saying yes to investigators when they don’t know the answer to a question, just to pacify their interrogators, and some of the investigators are getting frustrated at the situation. Wragg wants to assist. “I’m not here for any other reason but to help,” he tells the investigators, but they still order him to “get out.” (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 128-129)

The FBI arrives at Washington’s Dulles International Airport and begins its investigation of the hijacking of Flight 77, which departed from the airport this morning. (9/11 Commission 9/29/2003 pdf file; Goldberg et al. 2007, pp. 161) Flight 77 took off from Dulles Airport at 8:20 a.m. (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001) and crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8, 10) The FBI’s Washington Field Office (WFO) was reportedly notified of the hijacking of Flight 77 at around 9:20 a.m. (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. C-45 pdf file) Dulles Airport has now been locked down, preventing people from entering or leaving it, and the terminals have been evacuated (see (Between 9:38 a.m. and 11:37 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 10/16/2003 pdf file; Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 36; Priska Neely 10/21/2010)
Fifty FBI Agents Arrive at Dulles Airport - The FBI is responsible for investigating the hijacking of Flight 77, and so Special Agent in Charge Arthur Eberhart has sent a team of 50 agents to the airport to look into it and provide additional security to prevent another hijacking. (US Department of Health and Human Services 7/2002, pp. A-23, C-45 pdf file) However, the agents only arrive there at around 12:40 p.m., according to a 9/11 Commission memorandum. (9/11 Commission 9/29/2003 pdf file) The first thing they do there is seize the security tape at the main terminal’s west checkpoint, according to Ed Nelson, a security manager at the airport. (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 36) They also interview ticket agents, security personnel, baggage and food handlers, and other personnel, and collect evidence. (Eberhart 1/15/2002; Goldberg et al. 2007, pp. 161) They order the confiscation of the 52 computer hard drives that record all electronic television and security information at the airport. The hard drives contain all of the video recorded by the airport’s surveillance cameras and all records of electronic badges used to gain access to secure areas. (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 34)
Agents Assess the Passengers on Grounded Planes - Airport officials have received no guidance regarding how passengers on planes that have been grounded in response to the terrorist attacks this morning should be processed. But the FBI agents at the airport now take the lead in reviewing the passengers who have deboarded from planes. (9/11 Commission 9/29/2003 pdf file) The FBI will set up a command post and a substantial operation at Dulles Airport to carry out its investigation of the hijacking of Flight 77. Van Harp, head of the WFO, will assume responsibility for its response at the airport. (Harp 12/12/2001)

Ed Nelson.Ed Nelson. [Source: DC Bureau]FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, from where Flight 77 departed earlier this morning (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001), are apparently uninterested in the alleged hijackers of Flight 77 when they interview airport personnel. (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 36) The FBI arrived at Dulles Airport at around 12:40 p.m. (see (12:40 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 9/29/2003 pdf file) FBI agents and INS agents then interview screeners there. However, nothing they are asking the screeners makes sense to Ed Nelson, a security manager at the airport, and he feels that “something [isn’t] adding up.” “They were not asking about the hijackers—they were focusing on what my screeners might have done wrong,” he will later comment. “It was as if they were working off a script,” he will add. FBI agents assigned to Dulles Airport will indicate that their actions are based on instructions they received from their superiors. One FBI supervisor will recall: “The orders came from headquarters through the local Washington-area FBI field offices and the Joint Task Force on Terrorism. The teams of agents were told to ‘get the screeners to admit they had violated FAA recommended procedures.’” (Trento and Trento 2006, pp. 36)


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