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Profile: John Farmer
John Farmer was a participant or observer in the following events:
The ‘white jet’ seen circling above the White House and Capitol. [Source: Discovery Channel]Several television networks interrupt their coverage of events in New York to report that a mysterious white aircraft is circling over the White House and the Capitol.
At 9:41 a.m., Peter Jennings of ABC News reports that “there is a plane circling the White House at the moment. And they’re clearing the grounds there.… And this plane circling the White House adds to the trauma that people are feeling today, but we have no idea precisely what the means.” [ABC News, 9/11/2001]
At 9:52 a.m., CNN correspondent John King, who is standing about 200 yards from the White House, says: “About 10 minutes ago, there was a white jet circling overhead. Now, you generally don’t see planes in the area over the White House. That is restricted air space. No reason to believe that this jet was there for any nefarious purposes, but the Secret Service was very concerned, pointing up at the jet in the sky. It is out of sight now, best we can tell.” [CNN, 9/11/2001] Another CNN correspondent, Kate Snow, also reports seeing a plane at around this time, “circling over the Capitol.” She says: “Now whether that may have been an Air Force plane, it’s unclear. But that seemed to be the reason, according to security guards that I talked with, towards the evacuation of the Capitol.” [CNN, 9/11/2001] (The Capitol is reportedly evacuated at 9:48 a.m. (see 9:48 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Fox News, 9/11/2003] )
At 9:55 a.m., NBC News turns to a live report from its correspondent Bob Kur, who recalls: “And in the most surreal of this morning’s scenes here at the White House, a white plane, a very big jet, was flying an unusual pattern near the White House over Lafayette Park, very slowly. It made one circle and then we have not seen it since. There was a lot of concern about what that plane might be. But, again, it’s only speculation, but most people say that since flights have been cleared from US air space, and it was a totally white plane, looked unusual to all of us, that it was a government plane of some kind.” [NBC 4, 9/11/2001]
A CNN comparison between video footage of this plane and an official Air Force photograph will suggest it is an E-4B. This is a militarized version of a Boeing 747 that is used as a flying command post. An E-4B has in fact just been launched from Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC (see (9:27 a.m.) September 11, 2001), so this could plausibly be the same plane as is witnessed by the reporters. Two government sources familiar with the incident will later tell CNN the plane was a military aircraft, but that its details are classified. Even by 2007, the Pentagon, FAA, and Secret Service will have offered no public explanation for this plane over the White House. [Verton, 2003, pp. 143-144; CNN, 9/12/2007] In 2009, John Farmer, the former senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, will claim that this “mystery plane” is an E-4B with the call sign “Venus 77” that takes off from Andrews Air Force Base at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Farmer, 2009, pp. 206-207, 372]
An E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, with the call sign “Venus 77,” takes off from Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, DC, in response to the attack on the Pentagon. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; Farmer, 2009, pp. 206] The E-4B is a highly modified Boeing 747, fitted with sophisticated communications equipment, which can serve as a flying military command post during a national emergency. The US military has four of these planes. [Federation of American Scientists, 4/23/2000; Dayton Daily News, 9/12/2001; Verton, 2003, pp. 143] Venus 77 takes off at 9:43 a.m., according to John Farmer, who will be senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission. [Farmer, 2009, pp. 206] But the flight tracking strip from Andrews Air Force Base will record it as having taken off at 9:45 a.m. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004] The plane is initially directed toward Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. But shortly after taking off, its pilot tells air traffic control that he wants to fly to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. [Farmer, 2009, pp. 206] Wright-Patterson is one of the few designated bases for the E-4B. Another E-4B has actually been on the ground there and takes off around this time (see Shortly After 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Dayton Daily News, 9/12/2001] The pilot of Venus 77 is cleared to head to Wright-Patterson and so he turns west. But he then says he wants to turn back east and hold south of Washington. He will be cleared to do so at 9:47 a.m. and his plane will eventually settle into a holding pattern over Richmond, Virginia. [Farmer, 2009, pp. 206-207] Farmer will claim that Venus 77 is the “mystery plane”—an unidentified white aircraft—seen over Washington around this time (see (9:41 a.m.-9:42 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Farmer, 2009, pp. 372] However, that plane was reported to be “circling the White House” at 9:41 a.m., before Venus 77 takes off. [ABC News, 9/11/2001] Another E-4B, with the call sign “Word 31,” took off from Andrews Air Force Base at around 9:27 a.m. (see (9:27 a.m.) September 11, 2001), so that aircraft might be the “mystery plane” seen flying over Washington. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/11/2001 ; Verton, 2003, pp. 143-144; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004]
Having taken off after returning from a training mission, a pilot with the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG) flies two loops up the Potomac River, reversing course near Georgetown and the Pentagon, but is unable to locate a suspicious approaching aircraft, and heads back to base less than 10 minutes after launching. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ; Spencer, 2008, pp. 219-221]
No Rules of Engagement - Major Billy Hutchison, a pilot with the 121st Fighter Squadron of the DCANG, had landed back at Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles from Washington, but was ordered to take off again immediately (see (10:38 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002] His plane has no missiles, and only training ammunition, and he has been given no specific rules of engagement other than being told to identify an aircraft that is coming down the river. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; 9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ; Vogel, 2007, pp. 446] Because the DCANG is not in the communication and command loops of NORAD or its Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), Hutchison is unaware that three fighter jets NEADS ordered into the air from Langley Air Force Base (see 9:24 a.m. September 11, 2001) are also flying over Washington, albeit at a much higher altitude than he is. [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; 9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004]
Controller Directs Hutchison - Hutchison calls the Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. He says, “Bully 1 [his call sign] is looking for a contact.” Victor Padgett, the operations supervisor at the TRACON, replies, “We have an intercept for you northwest of here and coming down the Potomac.” [Spencer, 2008, pp. 219] Hutchison knows he is meant to be searching for a civilian aircraft, and will later recall that he is told it is coming from Pennsylvania. [9/11 Commission, 2/27/2004] In order to conserve fuel and gain airspeed, he flies low over the White House and Georgetown, reportedly staying between 500 and 1,000 feet above ground level. [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 219] After Padgett gives him details of the approaching aircraft’s location, Hutchison spots it on his jet’s radar screen, but it quickly disappears. The aircraft reappears a minute later, but then both Hutchison and Padgett lose sight of it.
Aircraft Claimed to Be Flight 93 - Some accounts will suggest the approaching aircraft is thought to be Flight 93 (see (10:30 a.m.-10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001), even though that plane has already crashed (see (10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 4/8/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 219-221] Hutchison will later recall that the TRACON at Reagan Airport is “frantic with what they seem to think are aircraft coming their way.… There is another aircraft, and it’s United Flight 93. They… apparently have been given information that it’s coming their way.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 81] Major David McNulty, the senior intelligence officer of the DCANG, will recall, “[I]t wasn’t until later that they realized the plane [coming down the river] might be UAL 93.” [9/11 Commission, 3/11/2004 ] However, John Farmer, John Azzarello, and Miles Kara, who are all staff members of the 9/11 Commission, subsequently rebut this claim. They will write: “[R]adar records of the day [of 9/11] indicate that Major Hutchison did not take off until more than a half-hour after United 93 had crashed near Shanksville, PA, and a good 20 minutes after the wreckage had been located. He could not have seen United 93 on his scope, and could not have intercepted it.” [New York Times, 9/13/2008]
Told to Investigate Other Aircraft - After the aircraft disappears off Hutchison’s radar screen, Dan Creedon, an air traffic controller at the TRACON at Reagan Airport, is concerned about planes and helicopters that are taking off and landing across Washington, and tells Hutchison, “We have more contacts!” Hutchison confirms that he will investigate the targets Creedon alerts him to, but he keeps losing them among the ground clutter on his radar screen. According to author Lynn Spencer, “The flights are too close to the surface and, from what he can see, appear to be mostly helicopters flying medevac from the Pentagon.”
Flies over the Pentagon - Hutchison, who’d noticed the burning Pentagon before he landed at Andrews Air Force Base (see (9:50 a.m.) September 11, 2001), then decides he should investigate it. He descends and flies a steep turn over the Pentagon. [Spencer, 2008, pp. 234-235] He will later recall: “I circled at a couple of hundred feet at the most just to, one, investigate, and two, give the people on the ground some semblance of security of an American fighter coming by. And apparently it changed the mood for a lot of people when they saw that” (see (10:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Running out of Fuel - By now, Hutchison is almost out of fuel. He will recall, “After that point, I’m emergency fuel, the lowest I’ve ever been in an F-16, and tell [the FAA’s] Washington Center I must leave, and they say I’m cleared to return to base and that two more aircraft are coming out of Andrews.” [Filson, 2003, pp. 81-82] Hutchison will land at Andrews at 10:47 a.m. (see 10:47 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/17/2004]
Entity Tags: Victor Padgett, Dan Creedon, Billy Hutchison, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Pentagon, 121st Fighter Squadron, John Farmer, Miles Kara, David McNulty, John Azzarello, District of Columbia Air National Guard
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
The US military’s defense readiness condition is raised from Defcon 5, the lowest possible level, to Defcon 3, an intermediate level that requires a heightened alert status for US armed forces worldwide, and which is the highest the defense readiness condition has been for 28 years. [Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 7/18/2002 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 326, 554; Goldberg et al., 2007, pp. 131; Rumsfeld, 2011, pp. 338]
Rumsfeld Recommends Raising Defcon - The decision to go to Defcon 3 is reportedly made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. [US Department of Defense, 8/12/2002] Rumsfeld will later recall that after he arrives at the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) (see (10:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001), he talks with General Richard Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and “[w]e discussed and I recommended raising the defense condition level from five to three.” [9/11 Commission, 3/23/2004]
Teleconference Participants Told to 'Hold Off' on Defcon 3 - Rumsfeld directs that the US military go to Defcon 3. At 10:43 a.m., it is announced on the air threat conference call that the secretary of defense “has directed that we go to Defcon 3 and be prepared to go to [Defcon] 2.” However, a minute later, Rumsfeld talks to Vice President Dick Cheney on the conference call, and Cheney says he will have to run the decision to go to Defcon 3 by the president, “and let him make the call.” Therefore, at 10:45 a.m., those on the conference call are told to “hold off on Defcon 3.”
Order to Raise Defcon Reinstated - But Rumsfeld believes raising the defense readiness condition is urgent. [US Department of Defense, 9/11/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 326, 554] There is therefore a “historical discussion about how the move to Defcon 3 went during previous crises, Cuba specifically [i.e. the Cuban missile crisis in 1962],” Captain Charles Leidig, who is also in the NMCC, will later recall. With their reference being “a book on the shelf,” according to Leidig, Myers is shown that he has “approval authority to go to Defcon 3.” [9/11 Commission, 4/29/2004 ] After consulting Defense Department directives, Rumsfeld concludes that he has the authority to issue the order to raise the defense readiness condition. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 554] Therefore, at 10:46 a.m., those on the air threat conference call are told: “Override last instructions. The vice chairman [i.e. Myers] is directing we go to Defcon 3.” A few minutes later, an announcement is made on the conference call, “Emergency action message released at 14:52 [Zulu time, i.e. 10:52 a.m. Eastern time], re: Defcon 3.” [US Department of Defense, 9/11/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 2004]
Raising Defcon Is a 'Huge Move' - Rumsfeld will later agree with an interviewer that raising the defense readiness condition is “a very serious step for the nation.” [US Department of Defense, 8/12/2002] It was last raised to Defcon 3 during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Rumsfeld had been the United States ambassador to NATO. Regarding the decision to raise it, Myers tells Rumsfeld, “It’s a huge move, but it’s appropriate.” [US Department of Defense, 1/9/2002; Wall Street Journal, 3/22/2004 ; Rumsfeld, 2011, pp. 338]
President Later Told of Decision - The decision to go to Defcon 3 will soon be communicated within NORAD (see 11:03 a.m.-11:12 a.m. September11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2003; 9/11 Commission, 2004; 9/11 Commission, 2/3/2004 ] Rumsfeld will brief President Bush on the decision (see (11:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 554; Bush, 2010, pp. 133] Apparently around the time the defense readiness condition is raised, Rumsfeld and/or Myers also decide to raise the force protection condition of US military installations (see (Between 10:10 a.m. and 10:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [US Department of Defense, 9/11/2001 ; 9/11 Commission, 3/23/2004; Myers, 2009, pp. 153]
Defcon 3 Intended for Cold War - Some individuals will later be critical of the decision to raise the defense readiness condition at this time. John Farmer, the senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, will write that Defcon 3 is in fact “a Cold War-era designation, devised to respond to a nuclear threat.” [Farmer, 2009, pp. 235] According to Farmer and other 9/11 Commission staffers, it is “suited more to a Cold War conflict than to al-Qaeda’s attack.” [Rutgers Law Review, 9/7/2011 ] General Ralph Eberhart, the commander of NORAD, will similarly say that Defcon 3 is “not intended for [events like] the attacks of 9/11 and thus could have complicated the response to the attacks.” He will say he does not think that raising the condition would have “done anything for us” within the continental United States. [9/11 Commission, 3/1/2004 ]
Defcons Are Phased Increases in Combat Readiness - The defense readiness condition is a “uniform system of progressive alert postures for use between the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of unified and specified commands, and for use by the [armed] services,” according to the Department of Defense. [US Department of Defense, 11/8/2011 ] Defcons are phased increases in combat readiness and are graduated to match situations of varying military severity. They are numbered, from Defcon 5, which means “normal peacetime readiness,” down to Defcon 1, which means “maximum force readiness.” The current level, Defcon 3, represents an “increase in force readiness above normal readiness.” [Federation of American Scientists, 4/29/1998] The defense readiness condition will remain at Defcon 3 until three days later, when it will be reduced one notch, to Defcon 4 (see September 14, 2001). [Washington Post, 1/30/2002]
At its first formal meeting, the 9/11 Commission decides it will not routinely issue subpoenas for the documents it wants from other agencies.
Different Opinions - There is some debate on the matter. Commissioner Jamie Gorelick argues that the Commission should issue subpoenas for all requests it makes to the administration for documents or other information, saying that a subpoena is simply evidence of the Commission’s determination to get what it needs. She also worries that if the Commission waits to issue subpoenas, the time limit on its activities will mean that a late subpoena could not be enforced. However, she is only supported by the other three ordinary Democratic commissioners, with the top Democrat on the Commission, Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, siding with the Republicans.
Decision Already Taken - Author Philip Shenon will write: “But [Chairman Tom] Kean and Hamilton had already made up their mind on this issue, too. There would be no routine subpoenas, they decreed; subpoenas would be seen as too confrontational, perhaps choking off cooperation from the Bush administration from the very start of the investigation.” The four Democratic commissioners cannot issue a subpoena by themselves, as it requires the approval of either six of the 10 commissioners, or both Kean and Hamilton. This is not the only occasion on which Hamilton’s Republican leanings become apparent (see March 2003-July 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 70-71]
Staffer Critical - John Farmer, leader of the Commission’s team investigating events on the day of the attacks, will be critical of the decision and will urge Kean and Hamilton to change their minds. If subpoenas are issued at the start, the Commission will have time to enforce them in court and the agencies “would know that they couldn’t run out the clock,” whereas if subpoenas were issued later, after non-compliance with document requests, the agencies could use such tactics. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 201]
Difficulties with Receiving Documents - As a result of this policy, the Commission will have trouble getting documents from the White House (see June 2003), Defense Department (see July 7, 2003), FAA (see November 6, 2003), and CIA (see October 2003), leading to delays in its investigation.
The 9/11 Commission holds a public hearing at which it takes testimony from military officials about the timeline of events on the day of 9/11. The key witness is retired Air Force General Larry Arnold, who commanded NORAD’s Continental US Region on the day of 9/11. Under questioning from commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, Arnold says, “I believe that to be a fact: that 9:24 was the first time that we had been advised of American 77 as a possible hijacked airplane.” However, the Commission will later conclude that the military was not notified of the hijacking at this time, although it had been mistakenly advised Flight 11 was inbound to Washington three minutes previously (see 9:21 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:24 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Arnold adds that if the military was slow in responding to Flight 77, it was because “our focus—you have got to remember that there’s a lot of other things going on simultaneously here—was on United 93.” However, Flight 93 was not hijacked until a few minutes after 9:24 (see (9:28 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Arnold adds: “It was our intent to intercept United Flight 93. And in fact, my own staff, we were orbiting now over Washington, DC, by this time, and I was personally anxious to see what 93 was going to do, and our intent was to intercept it.” However, the Commission will later conclude that the military did not learn that Flight 93 had been hijacked until around 10:00 a.m. (see 10:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). Prior to the hearing, the Commission’s staff had been concerned about the inaccuracy of timelines offered by the military. Author Philip Shenon will write: “It seemed all the more remarkable to [Commission staffer John Farmer] that the Pentagon could not establish a clear chronology of how it responded to an attack on the Pentagon building itself. Wouldn’t the generals and admirals want to know why their own offices—their own lives—had been put at risk that morning?” Therefore, Farmer thought that the hearing should clear things up, but, according to Shenon, he and his colleagues are “astonished” when they analyze what Arnold says, although he is not under oath on this day. Shenon will add, “It would later be determined that almost every one of those assertions by General Arnold in May 2003 was flat wrong.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 119-121]
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tells the 9/11 Commission it has already given the Commission all the documents it asked the FAA for. John Farmer, head of the Commission team investigating what happened on the day of 9/11, finds this hard to believe, as the boxes of material the FAA has provided do not contain many tapes or transcripts of FAA communications on the day of the attacks. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 201] Later interviews of FAA staff will reveal there is a mountain of evidence the FAA is withholding from the Commission (see September 2003).
Investigators for the 9/11 Commission discover that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has withheld a large amount of documents from it about the day of the attacks and falsely claimed it had provided everything the Commission asked for (see August 2003). The discovery is made on a day when the Commission’s investigators begin interviewing air traffic controllers at centers on the East Coast and in the Midwest. John Farmer, the staffer who leads the Commission’s team dealing with this aspect of its work, is only a few minutes into interviews at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center when he realizes, in the words of author Philip Shenon, “just how much evidence the FAA had held back.” His interviewees tell him that there is “extensive information the Commission has not seen, including tape recordings of conversations between the individual air traffic controllers and the hijacked planes.” He also discovers that what the FAA has provided is merely the “accident package,” rather than the much larger “accident file.” Farmer is “furious” and contacts the Commission’s lawyer in Washington. Asked to explain the situation, the FAA rapidly admits there is other material and, within days, several boxes of new material, including the air traffic control tapes, arrive at the Commission’s offices. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 201-202] However, the Commission has lost confidence in the FAA and will issue it with a subpoena next month (see October 14, 2003).
The 9/11 Commission issues it first subpoena, to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Commission had initially decided not to issue subpoenas (see January 27, 2003), but found that the FAA had withheld documentation from it (see August 2003 and September 2003), prompting it to take this step.
Request from Team Leader - The subpoena’s issue is the result of a request from John Farmer, leader of the Commission’s team investigating the day of the attacks. After receiving permission from the Commission’s chairman and lawyer, Tom Kean and Daniel Marcus, to address the full Commission, Farmer tells them: “My team and I have lost confidence in the FAA. We do not believe we have time to take any more chances on the possibility that they will act on good faith.” This leaves them with “no choice other than a subpoena.”
Debate inside Commission - Some of the Democratic commissioners, such as Jamie Gorelick, then claim that this is a reason to subpoena all documents the Commission wants. However Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton are against this. Republican Slade Gorton proposes a compromise where the Commission subpoenas the FAA, but only issues a warning to other agencies that are not producing the documents the Commission wants. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 202-203] The Commission approves the subpoena unanimously. The Commission comments publicly, saying, “This disturbing development at one agency has led the Commission to reexamine its general policy of relying on document requests rather than subpoenas.” [Associated Press, 10/15/2003] It also warns other agencies that “document requests must be taken as seriously as a subpoena.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 203]
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]
Following the discovery that NORAD is withholding extremely important evidence from the 9/11 Commission (see Late October 2003), John Farmer, the leader of the Commission team investigating the day of 9/11, and the Commission’s Executive Director Philip Zelikow discuss subpoenaing the Pentagon. In the first meeting, Zelikow seems to support Farmer’s demand that a subpoena be issued, but is “hard to read” according to Farmer.
Charges that Zelikow is 'Undoing' Subpoena - Farmer then returns to New York, where he is based for his work on the Commission. According to Farmer, he receives an urgent phone call from Daniel Marcus, the Commission’s counsel, telling him Zelikow is trying to derail the subpoena and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is to meet with the commissioners to dissuade them. Such a meeting will actually be held one day before the Commission votes on the subpoena (see November 5, 2003). In Farmer’s account, Marcus says: “You’d better get down here. It’s all unraveling. Philip is undoing this.” Marcus will later say he does not recall this call, but will say that Zelikow, who was close to members of Rumsfeld’s staff, would even “flaunt” his good relations with Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone. Zelikow will later make a successful last-ditch bid to prevent a subpoena being issued on the White House (see February 2004).
Disagreement between Zelikow, Farmer - According to Farmer, he returns to Washington and together with Dana Hyde, one of his staffers, confronts Zelikow. Hyde complains, “We can’t do our job if you frustrate us.” Farmer adds: “I thought you were supporting this subpoena. Now I hear otherwise. What’s going on?” He demands he be allowed to address the commissioners on the subpoena, but Zelikow replies: “I represent the staff. I will represent your views.” According to author Philip Shenon, Zelikow’s face “turn[s] the crimson color that the staff in Washington ha[ve] seen before in moments of his most extreme rage.” Zelikow then says, “It’s beyond our pay grade at this point.” Farmer disagrees and storms out of Zelikow’s office.
Zelikow's Version - Zelikow will confirm that there was a difference of opinion with Farmer on the matter: “We did have concerns about timing and tactics. Tension was building to a breaking point.” However, Zelikow will say he did not necessarily oppose a subpoena, as he shared Farmer’s concerns about the Pentagon’s truthfulness. Marcus will back Zelikow, saying that he thinks Zelikow did not try to derail the subpoena because of his friendship with Cambone or for any other reason. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 205-207]
The 9/11 Commission votes to issue a subpoena on the Defense Department for documents withheld from it regarding the fighter response on the day of the attacks. The vote follows a demand from the Commission’s team investigating the air defense that it be issued, as the military has been withholding documents and making false statements (see Late October 2003), as well as the failure of last-ditch attempts to stop the subpoena’s issue (see (Late October-Early November 2003) and November 5, 2003).
Chairman Kean Has Decisive Vote - The four ordinary Democratic commissioners vote for the subpoena’s issue, but Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton votes against, together with three ordinary Republican commissioners. The fourth Republican commissioner, Slade Gorton, votes for the subpoena. This means that Tom Kean, the Commission’s Republican chairman, has the deciding vote, and he votes for the subpoena. He dislikes voting against Hamilton, but thinks NORAD is trying to hide something. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 207-208]
'Especially Dismayed' - In a statement issued after the vote, the Commission says it is “especially dismayed” by incomplete document production on the part of NORAD. The Commission explains, “In several cases we were assured that all requested records had been produced, but we then discovered, through investigation, that these assurances were mistaken.” [Associated Press, 11/7/2003]
Documents Expose Apparent False Statements by NORAD - When the documents arrive, according to author Philip Shenon, they show that “NORAD’s public statements about its actions on 9/11 had been wrong, almost certainly intentionally.” Based on interviews of 9/11 Commission staffers, Shenon will add: “This was not the fog of war. This was the military trying to come up with a story that made its performance during 9/11 look reasonably competent, when in fact the military had effectively left the nation’s skies undefended that morning.” In particular, tape recordings of communications at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) indicate that the military did not know of the hijacking of Flight 93 until it had crashed. 9/11 Commission team leader John Farmer will even say that it is “99 percent” certain that Pentagon officers knew they were lying when they made statements to the Commission, sometimes under oath. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 208]
After finding that FAA and US military officials have made a string of false statements to them about the air defense on the day of the attacks and have withheld key documents for months (see September 2003, Late October 2003, October 14, 2003, and November 6, 2003), the 9/11 Commission’s staff proposes a criminal investigation by the Justice Department into those officials.
Proposal Sent to Zelikow - The proposal is contained in a memo sent by the Commission team investigating the day of the attacks to Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director. However, nothing much is done with the memo for months. A similar proposal will then be submitted to the very last meeting of the 9/11 commissioners, who decide to refer the matter not to the Justice Department, but to the inspectors general of the Pentagon and FAA (see Shortly before July 22, 2004). Whereas the Justice Department could bring criminal charges for perjury, if it found they were warranted, the inspectors general cannot.
Dispute over Events - According to John Azzarello, a Commission staffer behind the proposal, Zelikow fails to act on the proposal for weeks. Azzarello will say that Zelikow, who has friends at the Pentagon (see (Late October-Early November 2003)), “just buried that memo.” Azzarello’s account will be backed by Commission team leader John Farmer. However, Zelikow will say that Azzarello was not party to all the discussions about what to do and that the memo was delayed by other Commission staffers, not him. Zelikow’s version will receive backing from the Commission’s lawyer, Daniel Marcus. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 209-210]
The 9/11 Commission’s staff team that is investigating the emergency response on 9/11 comes to the conclusion that New York City was, in author Philip Shenon’s words, “shockingly ill-prepared for the attacks.” It is clear to the investigators that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was largely responsible for what went wrong.
Two Major Problems - One problem was that New York’s emergency command center, based on the 23rd floor of World Trade Center 7, was knocked out early in the attacks, leaving the emergency response without a focal point, and the police and fire departments set up separate command posts (see (9:05 a.m.) September 11, 2001, (9:50 a.m.-10:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001, and (After 10:28 a.m.-12:00 pm.) September 11, 2001). The command center, sometimes referred to as “Rudy’s bunker,” was criticized when it was built precisely because this problem was foreseen (see June 8, 1999). In addition, the radios used by firefighters in the World Trade Center failed to work on 9/11. The same problem was encountered during the response to the 1993 WTC bombing (see February 26, 1993), but the solution that was implemented—a repeater to boost the radios’ signal—did not work on the day of the attacks. This problem was especially grave, as many firefighters were instructed to flee the about-to-collapse towers, but did not hear the instruction due to the poor radio system and died as a result (see (Between 9:59 a.m. and 10:28 a.m.) September 11, 2001).
Tempering Criticism - However, the team, led by former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer, is aware that Giuliani’s image as a global hero after the attacks could complicate matters. Shenon will describe their thinking: “But would the Commission be willing to take on the most popular political figure in the country—the president-in-waiting, it seemed?… [Giuliani] was a hero, the embodiment of everything Americans wanted to believe about themselves about 9/11.” Therefore, “Farmer and his team always qualif[y] their criticism of the former mayor.” Nevertheless, the Commission’s two staff statements issued during the hearings about this topic in New York will be extremely critical of Giuliani. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 347-350]
The 9/11 commissioners meet with John Farmer, head of the Commission’s team investigating the emergency response on 9/11, to discuss their strategy for hearings in New York on the next two days, when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s performance before the attacks will be discussed. Farmer and his team have worked up a list of pages and pages of questions (see Before May 17, 2004) about why Guiliani built his emergency response center next to a top terrorist target, about city radios that failed to work on 9/11, miscommunication between the police and the fire departments, and 911 telephone operators who told people trapped in the Word Trade Center to remain where they were, instead of trying to escape. However, Farmer is aware that tough questioning could be fraught with danger, given Giuliani’s hero status after the attacks. According to author Philip Shenon, he tells the commissioners that “they need[…] to be careful; they need[…] to remember where they [are],” because “[New York]‘s not Washington. It’s different here.” Shenon will add: “Farmer told the commissioner[s] that they should ask tough questions, but they should be careful not to give a platform to Giuliani and his loyalists to counterattack; John Ashcroft’s campaign against [commissioner] Jamie Gorelick (see April 13-April 29, 2004) would look like a ‘garden party’ by comparison. The city’s take-no-prisoners tabloid newspapers were Giuliani’s defenders, and they could be expected to weigh in to defend him if the Commission’s questioning of the former mayor became too fierce.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 350-351]
John Farmer. [Source: Publicity photo]The team of investigators on the 9/11 Commission that is investigating the events of the morning of September 11 comes to believe that a key part of Vice President Dick Cheney’s account is false. The team, led by John Farmer, is convinced that the decision to authorize the military to shoot down threatening aircraft on 9/11 was made by Cheney alone, not by President Bush. According to journalist and author Philip Shenon: “If Farmer’s team was right, the shootdown order was almost certainly unconstitutional, a violation of the military chain of command, which has no role for the vice president. In the absence of the president, military orders should have been issued by Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld, bypassing the vice president entirely.”
No Evidence - Other than Cheney’s own account of his actions that morning, and a subsequent attempt Bush made to confirm this account, the team has found no evidence that the president was involved in making the shootdown decision before Cheney issued the order, and much evidence that he was unaware of this decision. Shenon will describe: “Even in moments of crisis, the White House keeps extraordinary records of communications involving Bush and his senior staff; every phone call is logged, along with a detailed summary of what happened during the call.… But for 9/11, the logs offered no evidence of a call between Cheney and Bush in which Bush authorized a shootdown. And Farmer’s team reviewed more than just one set of communications logs. There were seven of them—one maintained by the White House telephone switchboard, one by the Secret Service, one by the Situation Room, and four separate logs maintained by military officers working in the White House.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 265-266]
Issued by Cheney - The Commission believes Cheney issued the shootdown order between around 10:10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. on 9/11, in response to reports of an aircraft heading toward Washington (see (Between 10:10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41]
No Notes - Yet deputy White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, who was with Cheney at the time, had reportedly “not heard any prior conversation on the subject [of shooting down aircraft] with the president.” As Newsweek describes: “Nor did the real-time notes taken by two others in the room, Cheney’s chief of staff, ‘Scooter’ Libby—who is known for his meticulous record-keeping—or Cheney’s wife, Lynne, reflect that such a phone call between Bush and Cheney occurred or that such a major decision as shooting down a US airliner was discussed.… National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and a military aide said they remembered a call, but gave few specifics.” [Newsweek, 6/20/2004] The notes of White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who had been on Air Force One with the president, show no reference to a shootdown order until several minutes after Cheney issued it (see 10:18 a.m.-10:20 a.m. September 11, 2001).
"Completely Understandable" - Daniel Marcus, the general counsel of the 9/11 Commission, will later say he thought: “[I]n many ways, it would have been completely understandable for Cheney to issue a shootdown order without authorization from Bush. Whatever the constitutional issues, it would have been difficult to second-guess Cheney about a decision to save the White House from destruction if a suicide hijacker was bearing down on the capital and there were only seconds to act.” Yet, as Marcus will recall, Cheney’s staff is “obsessed with showing that he didn’t give the order.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 266-267]
Cheney Angry - White House lawyers will subsequently lobby the 9/11 Commission to amend its treatment of the shootdown issue in one of its staff reports (see June 15, 2004). [Newsweek, 6/20/2004] And, on this same issue, an angry Cheney will try to get the 9/11 Commission Report changed just before it is released (see Shortly Before July 22, 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 411-412]
Towards the end of its tenure, the ten members of the 9/11 Commission secretly meet to discuss whether military and aviation officials deliberately misled them and the public. For over two years following 9/11, NORAD and the FAA had given information in testimony and media appearances later found to be incorrect. Authorities claimed that America’s air defenses reacted quickly on 9/11, with fighters launched in response to the last two hijackings and ready to shoot down Flight 93 if it threatened Washington, DC. Yet audiotapes from the FAA and NORAD obtained by the commission under subpoena showed that the military never had any of the hijacked airliners in its sights and only became aware of Flight 93 after it crashed. John Farmer, a senior counsel to the commission, says the military’s original story was “a whole different order of magnitude than spin. It simply wasn’t true.” The commissioners debate whether to refer the matter to the Justice Department for criminal investigation, but as a compromise they instead refer it to the inspectors general for the Pentagon and the Transportation Department (which includes the FAA). The Pentagon inspector general’s office will issue a secret report to Congress in May 2005, blaming the inaccuracies partly on “inadequate forensic capabilities,” including poor log keeping at the military air traffic control centers (see May 27, 2005). However, Farmer and other commission staff will later point out that the military had already reviewed the NORAD audiotapes before its officials gave their inaccurate testimonies. The 9/11 Commission’s concerns over whether it was deliberately misled will only come to light in news reports in August 2006. Thomas Kean, its former chairman, will say, “We to this day don’t know why NORAD told us what they told us. It was just so far from the truth.” [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006; Washington Post, 8/2/2006; New York Times, 8/5/2006] The Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office will issue its report in response to the commission’s referral in September 2006 (see September 1, 2006).
A report is secretly delivered to Congress by the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General, regarding the inaccuracy of statements made by Defense Department officials on the military’s response to the September 11 hijackings. The 9/11 Commission made a formal request in summer 2004 for the inspector general to investigate the matter, because military officials had given testimony that was later proved to have been false (see Shortly before July 22, 2004). For example, they claimed that NORAD had been tracking Flight 93 on 9/11 and was ready to shoot it down if it threatened Washington (see Shortly Before 9:36 a.m. September 11, 2001 and (9:36 a.m.-10:06 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Yet audiotapes obtained under subpoena showed NORAD was unaware of this flight until after it crashed. In its report, the inspector general’s office states that it found “the inaccuracies, in part, resulted because of inadequate forensic capabilities.” It says that commanders found it difficult to create an accurate timeline of the events of 9/11 due to the lack of a well-coordinated system in logging information about air defense operations. At the time, air defense watch centers had used handwritten logs, and these could be unreliable. Following the attacks, the report claims, commanders failed to press hard enough for an accurate timeline to be produced for the benefit of investigations, like the 9/11 Commission. Yet, as some of the Commission’s staff will later point out, the military had already reviewed the NORAD audiotapes chronicling the events of 9/11 prior to its officials giving their incorrect testimonies. In response to a freedom of information request by the New York Times, the inspector general’s report will be publicly released in August 2006, but the equivalent of several pages will be blacked out on national security grounds. [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006; Washington Post, 8/2/2006; New York Times, 8/5/2006; Reuters, 8/5/2006; US Department of Defense, 9/12/2006 ]
9/11 Staff Member Criticizes Report - In his 2009 book The Ground Truth, John Farmer, who served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, will criticize the inspector general’s report. Farmer says the report mischaracterizes the 9/11 Commission’s referral by saying the Commission had alleged officials knowingly made false statements, when instead it had simply “documented the facts concerning what occurred on 9/11, the disparity between those facts and what the government had been telling the public with total assurance since 9/11, and the relative ease with which anyone looking could have uncovered those facts.” He faults the inspector general for interpreting the issue narrowly, by focusing on statements made to the 9/11 Commission; ignoring the larger context in which the events of 9/11 were extremely significant and so it should have been extremely important for the military to understand the truth of what happened, in order to correct any problems, as well as to be able to present an accurate account to the White House and to the public; and failing to address the question of whether the false accounts had served anyone’s interests. The inspector general’s report affirms the claims of top NORAD commanders that, in Farmer’s words, they had been “simply too busy fixing the system and fighting the war on terror to concern themselves with piecing together the facts of 9/11.” Farmer will ask, “[H]ow… could the Department of Defense identify and correct operational weaknesses without knowing precisely what had occurred that morning?” He will question the report’s determination that the Defense Department lacked the forensic capabilities for maintaining logs, video and audio recordings, and storing radar information, and had not coordinated with the FAA on reconstructing the events of 9/11, as the Commission had documented evidence that the two agencies had indeed coordinated while developing their reconstructions of events. Farmer will write that “it is impossible to conclude honestly, from the two inspector general reports, that the official version of the events of 9/11 was the result of mere administrative incompetence; too many questions remain unanswered.” He will add, “History should record that whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.” [Farmer, 2009, pp. 283-289]
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