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Profile: James D. Tollack
James D. Tollack was a participant or observer in the following events:
Technical Sergeant James Tollack, an officer from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, is tasked with transcribing tape recordings from September 11 of the operations floor at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York. [9/11 Commission, 3/22/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/29/2004; Farmer, 2009, pp. 274] On September 11, NEADS was responsible for coordinating the US military’s response to the hijackings. In a corner of its operations floor, four Dictaphone multi-channel tape recorders were recording every radio channel. [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006; Shenon, 2008, pp. 203-204] Tollack will later say that NEADS Technical Sergeant Jeremy Powell maybe tells him that personnel at NEADS have already listened to the tapes prior to his arrival there.
Digital Recording Expert Spends Two Weeks Working on Transcripts - Tollack is the resident expert in digital voice recording systems at McGuire Air Force Base and also has experience of doing transcription work. He arrives at NEADS on September 20 and stays there for 11 to 14 days, leaving on either October 1 or October 4. His first day at NEADS is spent on orientation, and so September 21 is his first full day of transcribing. Tollack will later recall that Colonel Robert Marr, the battle commander at NEADS, probably advises him to only transcribe the tapes from September 11 up to around 10:15 a.m., which is about 10 minutes after the fourth hijacked plane, Flight 93, crashed in Pennsylvania. For his first few days at NEADS, Tollack spends 14 to 16 hours per day working on the task. He works at a desk on the operations floor, drafting notes by hand and then typing them out with the assistance of two secretaries.
Transcripts Needed for Investigations - Tollack works directly for Marr, and also reports to Lieutenant Colonel Dawne Deskins, the assistant director of the Sector Operations Control Center. Marr tells Tollack that the transcripts of the tapes are required for investigation purposes. General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD, tells Tollack the information is needed for a Congressional report or hearing (see (Between September 23 and September 24, 2001)).
Tollack's Work Not Reviewed - While Tollack is at NEADS, no one there reviews his work as he goes through the tapes. [9/11 Commission, 3/22/2004] On September 21, one of the tapes is damaged during the transcription process, causing information on it to be lost (see September 21, 2001). [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/21/2001]
9/11 Commission Not Initially Made Aware of NEADS Tapes - During its investigation of the September 11 attacks, the 9/11 Commission will only learn of the existence of the recordings of the NEADS operations floor in late October 2003 (see Late October 2003), and it subsequently subpoenas NORAD for the tapes (see November 6, 2003). Despite the efforts of Tollack, according to journalist and author Philip Shenon, by the time the Commission receives the tapes, around December 2003, NORAD has still “not prepared transcripts itself” of the tapes’ contents. [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 86-88; Shenon, 2008, pp. 203-208]
During an attempt at transcribing tape recordings of communications at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) from September 11, a tape is damaged. [9/11 Commission, 10/28/2003 ; Farmer, 2009, pp. 274] In a corner of the NEADS operations floor, four Dictaphone multi-channel tape recorders recorded every radio channel on September 11. [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006] Technical Sergeant James Tollack, the resident expert in digital voice recording systems at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, arrived at NEADS on September 20, in order to transcribe the facility’s recordings from September 11 (see (September 20-October 4, 2001)).
Tape Reformatted during Rebooting - On the following day, one of the tapes Tollack is working from becomes damaged, causing much of the information on it to be lost. Interviewed by the 9/11 Commission in 2004, Tollack will explain what happens. He will say a civilian contractor assists him as they reboot the system, but this causes the tape to be re-formatted, and so the information on it is lost. [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission, 3/22/2004] Tollack has at least been able to transcribe a portion of the recording of the NEADS mission crew commander position on the tape before the malfunction occurs. [North American Aerospace Defense Command, 9/21/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/29/2004] Colonel Robert Marr, the battle commander at NEADS, is subsequently informed of what has happened, including the loss of information. [9/11 Commission, 3/22/2004]
Reason Tape Is Damaged Disputed - When members of the 9/11 Commission staff visit NEADS during their investigation of the September 11 attacks, they will be told that Tollack caused the tape to malfunction and reformat. However, Tollack will dispute this. He will deny having caused the tape to malfunction and profess ignorance as to why he was subsequently asked to stop listening to and transcribing the tapes.
Unclear if Tollack Continues Transcribing Tapes - The Commission staff members will also be told that after the tape is damaged, Tollack is instructed to stop transcribing the tapes because Department of Defense officials are concerned that they could be permanently lost. [9/11 Commission, 7/29/2004; Farmer, 2009, pp. 274] And according to journalist and author Philip Shenon, by the time the Commission gains possession of the tapes, around December 2003, NORAD has still “not prepared transcripts itself” of their contents. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 208] However, Tollack will remain at NEADS for at least another 10 days after the equipment malfunction occurs, until the first week of October. Furthermore, two or three days after the tape is damaged, General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD, visits NEADS and discusses with Tollack the importance of getting the information from the tapes (see (Between September 23 and September 24, 2001)). [9/11 Commission, 3/22/2004] It is therefore unclear when Tollack stops transcribing the tapes, and how much progress he has made before he stops.
Recordings Not Backed Up, Later Restored - The Dictaphone tape recorders that record the radio channels at NEADS are run by General Dynamics. [9/11 Commission, 10/28/2003 ] Richard Crane, General Dynamics’ technical representative to NEADS, will tell the 9/11 Commission that he believes, given the importance of 9/11, the NEADS tapes should have been copied immediately, but were not. Although General Dynamics lacks the capability to do this, Dictaphone could have made backups. And at some point after September 11, it is discovered that Dictaphone can transfer a digital audio tape to DVD for just $150. [9/11 Commission, 10/28/2003 ] However, most of the deleted information on the damaged tape is apparently later restored. In November 2003, it will be reported that Dictaphone “has recovered most of the tracks.” [US Department of Defense, 11/25/2003]
General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD, visits NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York, and emphasizes to an officer there the importance of promptly transcribing the recordings of the NEADS operations floor from September 11. Technical Sergeant James Tollack, the resident expert in digital voice recording systems at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, arrived at NEADS on September 20, in order to transcribe the facility’s tape recordings from September 11 (see (September 20-October 4, 2001)). Three or four days later, Eberhart comes to NEADS and sees Tollack personally. Eberhart stresses to Tollack the importance of getting the information from the tapes as quickly and as accurately as possible. He says the information is needed for a Congressional report or hearing. [9/11 Commission, 3/22/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/29/2004] Presumably Eberhart is referring to his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 25, in which he will put forward the military’s account of what happened on September 11. [US Congress. Senate, 10/25/2001; Farmer, 2009, pp. 248] When the 9/11 Commission interviews Tollack during its investigation of the terrorist attacks and asks him what order of priority his task of transcribing the tapes had been given, he will indicate that he knew it was a high-priority assignment when he was visited by Eberhart. [Farmer, 2009, pp. 274]
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