Recognising the threat
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The story...

General Ralph E Eberhart told the 9/11 Commission that "the threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airlines within the United States--and using them as guided missiles--was not recognised by NORAD before 9/11". 

However, there is considerable evidence to show this claim is not credible.

Our take...

There are at least three different views you can take on this particular claim.

The first is that Eberhart was speaking the truth. Perhaps NORAD should have recognised the potential threat, but then attacks like this hadn’t been seen before, and only limited criticisms are justified.

The next step up might be to claim that Eberhart is covering up what NORAD knew, not as part of an “inside job” conspiracy, but simply to pass the buck onto someone else (those responsible for gathering intelligence, say). In this scenario he knows NORAD should have done more, but is seeking to hide their incompetence, and so protect the organisation (and himself).

In his book “The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions”, David Ray Griffin appears to take a third, even tougher view:

...In a memo to Rumsfeld shortly after 9/11, Wolfowitz commented on the 1995 Manila air plot, which envisaged crashing an explosives-laden plane into CIA headquarters. In light of the fact that US authorities knew about this plot, Wolfowitz blamed a “failure of imagination” for the fact that little thought had been devoted to the potential threat from suicide hijackers. The Commission adopted and developed this notion. In so doing, it was leveling a criticism of sorts at the defense establishment.

But that criticism... is not very serious compared with the charge of complicity. Military officials are probably not terribly bothered by this criticism, given that it is made for the sake of precluding the more serious charge. A mere charge of incompetence does not bring with it a threat of prosecution for, among other things, mass murder.
Page 263
The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions
David Ray Griffin

In this part of the book Dr Griffin claims that an “incompetence” defence may not be plausible, in which case from this we’d take “complicity” as his more likely option. But what, actually, does this mean? 

Let’s suppose, for instance, that Dr Griffin is able to show that a sober review of intelligence from the period shows that the US should have recognised a suicide hijacker threat. How can that support a charge of “complicity” over “incompetence”, no matter how obvious the threat may appear now? Especially as many of the intelligence examples we’ll be discussing later date back to the mid 1990’s and the middle of the Clinton era. Can particular decisions taken in 1996, say, really be used to indicate complicity in the 9/11 attacks of 5 years later?

We would say that to provide any support for a complicity charge requires much more than trying to prove that “they should have known”, because in itself that can only demonstrate incompetence. To show complicity we suspect you’d need to make a case that NORAD did recognise the threat from suicide hijackers, that procedures were put in place to handle it, but they failed most suspiciously on 9/11. This is, to be sure, a big task. How close can we get to that? Let’s see.

1. The Commission Case

Unusually, much of the case Dr Griffin makes here is based on quotes taken directly from the 9/11 Commission Report. For this reason we’d recommend you start by reading the relevant section, pages 344-348. We’ve also cached the pages here

2. Testing the No Recognition Claim

David Ray Griffin has a problem with the 9/11 Commission Report claims that NORAD didn’t recognise the threat from suicide hijackings: he says they’re simply not credible. Read how he proposes to demonstrate this here.

3. The Nine 9/11 Commission Report Examples

David Ray Griffin tells us that “nine examples provided in the Kean-Zelikow Report... either clearly do, or at least may, contradict the Report’s endorsement of Eberhart’s ‘no recognition’ claims”. We examine the details on these pages.

4. Six Additional Examples

Just in case the first nine examples aren’t enough, Dr Griffin provides six additional reports from various media sources. We check them out here.

5. Conclusion

David Ray Griffin suggests that General Eberhart’s “no recognition” claim, regarding the threat of 9/11-type attacks, can be undermined if reports can be unearthed that both (1) involved the hijacking of commercial airliners within the United States, and (2) then used those airliners as guided missiles. He then told us that his examples “either clearly do, or at least may, contradict the endorsement of Eberhart’s claim”. To measure Griffin’s success, then, we should examine how well each of his examples support these points. 

First, let’s itemise four elements that should be a part of each report according to the NORAD statement :

(a) they should involve hijacking
(b) this should be of a commercial airliner
(c) the flight should originate within the United States
(d) the hijacking should be planned to end by using the plane as a guided missile

Now let’s see how all fifteen examples fare in each case. In the following table, green means an element is covered, yellow means it could be, red means it is not. (Note that red doesn’t mean an element is ruled out, just not explicitly specified, so for instance a message “bin Ladin will attack tomorrow” scores a red for hijacking, element A, as it doesn’t mention it, even though in theory that could be one form of attack.)

9 examples from the 9/11 Commission Report





a1. Crashing into the Eiffel Tower





a2. Bojinka: flying a plane into CIA HQ





a3. Libyans crashing a plane into the WTC





a4. Clarke’s 1998 Learjet exercise





a5. Clarke’s CSG meeting on airplane hijacking





a6. FAA on bin Ladin and suicide hijacking





a7. CIA report on imminent suicide attacks





a8. Antiaircraft batteries at Genoa





a9. The August 6 2001 Presidential Brief










6 additional reports from elsewhere





b1. The Pentagon 1993 Terror 2000 study





b2. Sam Nunn and the radio-controlled plane





b3. National Intelligence Council report





b4. October 2000 Pentagon crash exercise





b5. NORAD had drills of jets as weapons





b6. The 9/11 NRO exercise





(Please note that simplifying reports in this way involves a degree of interpretation, and your view on this may not agree with ours. Don’t accept this as a summary of the examples, unless you’ve read each one, and our response, and decided that the chart is accurate.)

What’s immediately interesting here is how few of the examples score four or even three greens. And this is without introducing highly relevant factors like “credibility”. 

The “crashing into the Eiffel Tower” report, for instance, scores three greens here, but it’s also not clear that the Algerian hijackers ever intended to do this. Nor does the score reflect the fact that this was a conventional hijacking, where the plane’s own pilots were the only ones flying it, a significant difference to 9/11. Example a6, “FAA on bin Ladin and suicide hijacking”, mentioned suicide hijacking as a possible form of attack, but thought thought it was unlikely. And b3, the National Intelligence Council report, again mentioned using planes as missiles as one option, but decided others were more plausible.

It’s apparent, then, that the number of credible reports about using hijacked US planes as weapons is actually very small, especially as these 15 are taken from a period of over 7 years. The official position remains that this was an error, a “failure of imagination”, the military and intelligence community should have figured it out, and we wouldn’t disagree with that conclusion. But is it really true that these 15 reports prove anything more, that NORAD must have known, and therefore a charge of complicity is more appropriate than incompetence? We would say no: look at the details here, and most of these reports aren’t compelling at all.

We can hear the rebuttals already, of course. “No, you don’t understand. The individual reports may not be up to much, but if you look at all of them, see the big picture, then everything becomes clear.” That’s an argument we hear a great deal, and it doesn’t become any more impressive with repetition. You can’t build a strong case from weak points, no matter how many of them you bring together.

What’s more, the reality is that Dr Griffin’s list doesn’t represent “the big picture” in the slightest. The real big picture would show you exactly what the analysts were seeing, and as Richard Clarke pointed out, that wasn’t just these 15 examples:

MR. BEN-VENISTE: Given the fact that there was a body of information with respect to the use of planes as weapons within the intelligence community's knowledge, had you received information about Moussaoui training to fly a commercial airplane? Would that have had some impact on the kinds of efforts which might be made to protect commercial aviation?

MR. CLARKE: I don't know. The information to which you refer, information in the intelligence community's knowledge about al Qaeda having thought of using aircraft of weapons -- that information was old, relatively speaking -- five years, six years old -- hadn't recurred to my knowledge during those five or six years, and has to be placed -- to give the intelligence community a break -- it has to be placed in the context of the other intelligence reports. The volume of intelligence reports on this kind of thing, on al Qaeda threats and other terrorist threats, was in the tens of thousands -- probably hundreds of thousands over the course of five or six years. Now in retrospect to go back and find the report six years earlier that said perhaps they were going to use aircraft as weapons is easy to do now. But I think the intelligence community analysts can be forgiven for not thinking about it, given the fact that they hadn't seen a lot in the five or six years intervening about it, and that here were so many reports about so many other things.

Probably “hundreds of thousands” of intelligence reports over five or six years, on al Qaeda and other terrorist threats is the real “big picture”. What Dr Griffin offers instead is the small picture, driven by hindsight and an ”inside job” agenda, picking the individual reports that suits his needs, and leaving out relevant information where it might hurt his case. This may lead you to many things, but the truth isn’t one of them.

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