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Context of '8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001: FAA Hijack Coordinator Responsible for Contacting Military is Out of Contact'

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Imagery of bin Laden’s Tarnak Farms compound prepared for the aborted operation.Imagery of bin Laden’s Tarnak Farms compound prepared for the aborted operation. [Source: CBC]In 1997 and early 1998, the US develops a plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. A CIA-owned aircraft is stationed in a nearby country, ready to land on a remote landing strip long enough to pick him up. However, problems with having to hold bin Laden too long in Afghanistan make the operation unlikely. The plan morphs into using a team of Afghan informants to kidnap bin Laden from inside his heavily defended Tarnak Farm complex. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, calls the plan “the perfect operation.” Gary Schroen, the lead CIA officer in the field, agrees, and gives it about a 40 percent chance of succeeding. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-221; Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] The Pentagon also reviews the plan, finding it well crafted. In addition, there is “plausible denialability,” as the US could easily distance itself from the raid. Scheuer will comment, “It was the perfect capture operation becauase even if it went completely wrong and people got killed, there was no evidence of a US hand.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] However, higher-ups at the CIA are skeptical of the plan and worry that innocent civilians might die. The plan is given to CIA Director George Tenet for approval, but he rejects it without showing it to President Clinton. He considers it unlikely to succeed and decides the Afghan allies are too unreliable. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-221; Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Additionally, earlier in May 1998, the Saudis promised to try to bribe the Taliban and try bin Laden themselves, and apparently Tenet preferred this plan (see May 1998). Scheuer is furious. After 9/11 he will complain, “We had more intelligence against this man and organization than we ever had on any other group we ever called a terrorist group, and definitive and widely varied [intelligence] across all the ends, and I could not understand why they didn’t take the chance.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] There will be later speculation that the airstrip used for these purposes is occupied and will be used as a base of operations early in the post-9/11 Afghan war. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, Alec Station

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

US Army Lieutenant General Michael A. Canavan is appointed associate administrator for civil aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a position that includes being the “hijack coordinator” (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 11/2000] In early 1998, Canavan participated in reviewing a CIA plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees the military’s counterterrorism operations and covert missions. He objected to the plan, saying it was too complicated for the CIA and “out of their league.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 113] The plan was later canceled (see 1997-May 29, 1998). It is not known if Canavan’s appointment at the FAA is related to his prior involvement in counterterrorism or to any intelligence that al-Qaeda might target civil aviation. He will leave the post in October 2001, after only 10 months, reportedly after clashing with other FAA officials. [Los Angeles Times, 10/13/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Mike Canavan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The FAA practices for scenarios similar to the attacks that take place on 9/11 as part of at least one training exercise this month, according to a liaison officer with the agency. John Hawley, who works for the FAA’s intelligence division as a liaison to the State Department, will later recall that during an exercise, or exercises, this month, some scenarios are practiced that are “pretty damn close to [the] 9/11 plot.” He will tell the 9/11 Commission that “one of the scenarios may have had something to do with a chartered flight out of Ohio that had turned the transponder off,” and comment that the scenarios “really forced you to think outside the box.” According to Hawley, Mike Canavan—the recently-appointed associate administrator for civil aviation security at the FAA (see December 4, 2000)—is “definitely in charge” of running these scenarios. [9/11 Commission, 10/8/2003 pdf file] Apparently referring to one of these scenarios, the 9/11 Commission will ask Canavan if he recalls a tabletop exercise conducted by the FAA this month, involving a FedEx plane “being commandeered by a suicide hijacker.” Canavan will respond that he “did not recall such an exercise, and shared that it must have been at a pretty low level, since he didn’t recall” it. He will say he never participates in any tabletop exercises while at the FAA. [9/11 Commission, 11/4/2003 pdf file] During one of the 9/11 Commission’s public hearings, Canavan will similarly say he does not remember “any publication or any training exercise where a commercial airliner was used as a weapon.” [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003]

Entity Tags: Mike Canavan, Federal Aviation Administration, John Hawley

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FAA Command Center, the center of daily management of the US air traffic system. On 9/11 it is managed by Ben Sliney (not pictured here).The FAA Command Center, the center of daily management of the US air traffic system. On 9/11 it is managed by Ben Sliney (not pictured here). [Source: CNN]The FAA’s Boston Center calls the FAA Command Center and says it believes Flight 11 has been hijacked and is heading toward the New York Center’s airspace. The Command Center immediately establishes a teleconference between the Boston, New York, and Cleveland air traffic control centers, so Boston can help the other centers understand what is happening, in case Flight 11 should enter their airspace. Minutes later, in line with the standard hijacking protocol, the Command Center will pass on word of the suspected hijacking to the FAA’s Washington headquarters (see 8:32 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 19; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 11; Spencer, 2008, pp. 21]
National Operations Manager Learns of Hijacking - A supervisor at the Command Center promptly passes on the news of the possible hijacking to Ben Sliney, who is on his first day as the national operations manager there. The supervisor says the plane in question is “American Flight 11—a 767 out of Boston for Los Angeles.” According to author Lynn Spencer, “Sliney flashes back to the routine for dealing with hijackings from the days when they were more common.” The procedure is to “[k]eep other aircraft away from the errant plane. Give the pilots what they need. The plane will land somewhere, passengers will be traded for fuel, and difficult negotiations with authorities will begin. The incident should resolve itself peacefully, although the ones in the Middle East, he recalls, often had a more violent outcome.” Apparently not expecting anything worse to happen, Sliney continues to the conference room for the daily 8:30 staff meeting there (see 8:30 a.m.-8:40 a.m. September 11, 2001).
Command Center a 'Communications Powerhouse' - The FAA Command Center is located in Herndon, Virginia, 25 miles from Washington, DC. According to Spencer, it “is a communications powerhouse, modeled after NASA’s Mission Control. The operations floor is 50 feet wide and 120 feet long, packed with tiered rows of computer stations, and at the front, seven enormous display screens show flight trajectories and weather patterns.” The center has nearly 50 specialists working around the clock, planning and monitoring the flow of air traffic over the United States. These specialists work with airlines and air traffic control facilities to fix congestion problems and deal with weather systems. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 1 and 19-20]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Ben Sliney, New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Mike Canavan testifying before the 9/11 Commission.Mike Canavan testifying before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: C-SPAN]Protocols in place on 9/11 state that if the FAA requests the military to go after an airplane, “the escort service will be requested by the FAA hijack coordinator by direct contact with the National Military Command Center (NMCC).” [Federal Aviation Administration, 11/3/1998] Acting FAA Deputy Administrator Monte Belger states essentially the same thing to the 9/11 Commission, “The official protocol on that day was for the FAA headquarters, primarily through the hijack coordinator… to request assistance from the NMCC if there was a need for [Defense Department] assistance.” [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] However, the hijack coordinator, FAA Office of Civil Aviation Security Director Mike Canavan, is in Puerto Rico and claims to have missed out on “everything that transpired that day.” The 9/11 Commission fails to ask him if he had delegated that task to anyone else while he was gone. [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17] Monte Belger will later say simply that “an FAA security person” runs the “hijack net” open communication system during 9/11. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004]

Entity Tags: Mike Canavan, National Military Command Center, Monte Belger

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FAA headquarters in Washington, DC.FAA headquarters in Washington, DC. [Source: FAA]Four minutes after it is informed of the suspected hijacking of Flight 11 (see 8:28 a.m. September 11, 2001), the FAA Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, passes on word of the hijacking to the operations center at FAA headquarters in Washington, DC. The headquarters is apparently already aware of the hijacking, as the duty officer who speaks with the Command Center responds that security personnel at the headquarters have just been discussing it on a conference call with the FAA’s New England regional office. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 19; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 11] According to the 9/11 Commission, “FAA headquarters is ultimately responsible for the management of the national airspace system,” and the operations center there “receives notifications of incidents, including accidents and hijackings.” FAA headquarters has a hijack coordinator, who is “the director of the FAA Office of Civil Aviation Security or his or her designate.” Procedures require that, if a hijacking is confirmed, the hijack coordinator on duty is “to contact the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) and to ask for a military escort aircraft to follow the flight, report anything unusual, and aid search and rescue in the event of an emergency.” Yet, the Commission will state, although “FAA headquarters began to follow the hijack protocol,” it does “not contact the NMCC to request a fighter escort.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 16-19] Mike Canavan, who would normally be the FAA’s hijack coordinator, is away in Puerto Rico this morning, and it is unclear who—if anyone—is standing in for him in this critical role (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 5/23/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 17]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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