Failure of imagination

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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 are 9/11 researchers who argue this is evidently untrue. Here's David Ray Griffin:

One interesting point here is his mention of the “proposed readiness test for NORAD based on the idea of ‘a hijacked airliner coming from overseas and crashing into the Pentagon’ (346)”. The way Dr Griffin tells it, this would appear to be the point of the exercise, however the 9/11 Commission stated it was a side issue that never actually happened:

Griffin also appears to be implying that simply providing examples of the possible use of planes hijacked in the US, then being used as weapons, will contradict Eberhart’s “no recognition” claim. But is that true?

Here’s where the claim is used in the Commission Report:

They’re plainly conceding that there was knowledge of a potential threat from suicide hijacks. The Commission tell us that NORAD exercise planners assumed that hijacked aircraft would originate from outside the US, but they don’t say that no-one else ever suggested such a thing.

This is what General Myers said at the 9/11 Commission hearings:

Myers is also conceding that there were reports about using planes as weapons, and he was aware of these, but the intelligence didn’t indicate these were likely, and so NORADs primary focus was elsewhere.

If we’ve interpreted this correctly, then, to prove the Commission wrong will take far more than simply pointing to someone suggesting the possibility of suicide hijackings in the US. But then Dr Griffin has told us he’s got nine examples from the 9/11 Commission Report alone, so perhaps we should start by reviewing those.

Nine Commission Report Examples

The Eiffel Tower

Dr Griffin's first example is described here, but unfortunately he's left out a key detail. Here's the part of the first sentence that Dr Griffin cut out (in bold, our emphasis), and a footnote relating to the report:

And here’s more about how the hijack started:

This situation began as a hijack on the ground, then, which is where the plane remained for more than a day. When the plane did take off, it was under the control of the regular crew. The hijackers were fooled into permitting a landing in Marseilles, under the guise of a refuelling stop, where the plane was stormed and the hostages freed.

This is clearly a very different situation to 9/11. The hijack was of the conventional type; the terrorists were never going to fly the plane; interception or shooting down the plane wasn’t an issue at any time; and there’s no certainty that the flight was to be used as a missile, either.

You might still say that it should have bought attention to the possibilities of hijacking, but even that isn’t necessarily true, as this article from 1995 suggests:

Here poor airline security in Algeria is held responsible for the hijacking, while in comparison the US is applauded (although please go read the rest of the above article, because there’s also criticism and interesting suggestions later). And if this could be blamed on Algeria, then the US may have been less likely to see it as a story relevant to them.

In any event, we’d suggest this falls a long way short of establishing a clear or credible precedent for 9/11-type attacks.


This is occasionally quoted as though it invalidates NORAD all on its own, however, as we've seen, Myers told the 9/11 Commission he was aware of the plot:

In addition, this story doesn’t fully satisfy Dr Griffin’s requirement for contradicting NORAD. It certainly included suicide pilots, but how the second phase might have unfolded isn't entirely clear. The possibility of hijacking commercial airliners was reported later:

However, this second phase may also not have involved hijacking, or commercial jets, at all:

As such, this cannot be a clear contradiction of NORAD's "no recognition" claim.

World Trade Centre

This isn’t exactly a complete view of the claim. The full sentence in the report, for instance, simply says "[i]n August of the same year, the intelligence community had received information that a group of Libyans hoped to crash a plane into the World Trade Center". No mention of hijacking here. A footnote from the 9/11 Commission report tells us more:

Dr Griffin ignores the finding that this claim could not be corroborated, and the source wasn’t deemed to be credible.

His statement that the Commission does not “explicitly” say that the “plane would be hijacked from within the United States” is correct, but misleading. The footnote makes no mention of hijacking at all. And the comment that “the Libyans did not possess aircraft with the necessary range to make good on the threat” plainly indicates that they were expecting the attack to come from overseas.

This example fails Dr Griffin’s test, then, as it isn’t necessarily about hijacking, or commercial airliners, or flights that originated within the United States. It does contain the threat of using planes as weapons, but this is lessened by the fact that it could not be corroborated. And if the source wasn’t deemed credible then it’s hard to see why NORAD (or anyone else) should have taken this particularly seriously.

A Hijacked Lear Jet

This gets close to Dr Griffin’s target, in that we’re talking about an attack originating in the US. It’s not a commercial airliner, though, and isn’t a clear hijacking (though this depends on the meaning of “commandeered” here).

The example also falls short as far as we’re concerned, in that it relates only to Clarke’s exercises, rather than direct intelligence on what terrorists were doing. This is important because, for instance, we have no idea of how many other exercises Clarke might have done. We also don’t know how credible his speculations might have been to the military, although we can get some clues. This, for example, is the full Commission Report paragraph from which the Dr Griffin quote is taken (our emphasis):

The Defense Department didn’t want to contribute resources to his air defense plan? This surely confirms that they didn’t take the threat seriously, at least in 1996: precisely what the 9/11 Commission Report were saying.

Clarke’s book offers further confirmation of this (our emphasis):

In Clarke’s Commission testimony he didn’t seem surprised at the lack of recognition of the threat, even in 2001.:

The mention of “probably hundreds of thousands” of intelligence reports helps to put Dr Griffin’s 15 examples (these 9 plus 6 more later) into context. (Although note that he did go on to say that he’d like to think he could have put the pieces together, if he’d known about Moussaoui.)

This particular example does cover suicide attacks that originated in the US, then. But on the other hand, it doesn’t come directly from intelligence, or relate to passenger jets, or necessarily to hijacking, and it doesn’t appear Clarke’s efforts were taken seriously at the time (by the military, at least). And as such it seems to support the official NORAD position, more than hurt it.

Richard Clarke and the CSG

This is a little vague. What type of aircraft? Hijacked where? To do what? Here’s the context of this as it appears in the original text:

The context here suggests a suicide hijacking, however we don’t know of what type of plan, or where, or what form the attack might take. In addition, we have the issues itemised in example 4: we don’t know how many other issues Clarke considered, for instance, and we’ve no reason to believe his ideas were considered any more likely now, than earlier. Certainly a Clarke exercise in itself cannot invalidate Myers view that "the intelligence did not point to this kind of threat", and so we don't believe this example contradicts the NORAD position.

FAA Intelligence Report

This is non-specific as to the location of the threat, and the form the attack might take. And if you read the full version, then you’ll find this passage is followed by an important qualification:

Once again, this supports the NORAD position, that intelligence wasn’t pointing to suicide hijackings as a likelihood: it’s in no sense evidence against them.

CIA Memo on KSM

This is particularly poor evidence. It doesn’t mention hijacking at all, or even planes, and the worries about an attack in June weren’t restricted to the US, as the full text makes clear:

The idea that this report (even in conjunction with others) might persuade NORAD that “the threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airliners within the United States -- and using them as guided missiles” was more realistic than they’d previously assumed, is simply bizarre.

The Genoa G8 Threat

As Dr Griffin points out, this isn’t about a threat in the US, nor is it necessarily about hijacking, or commercial jets:

As such the example fails the tests he applied previously, although you’ll note he now changes this to a more general “thesis that there was a “failure of imagination” with regard to the possibility that terrorists might try to use airplanes to attack President Bush”. It’s an easier straw man to knock over, although this doesn’t help his case much. And it’s not the only problem here.

First, we don’t know that threats from the air were the specific reason that Bush stayed on a carrier. It was certainly reported that he did this to reduce his exposure to terrorist attack, but even if true, such attacks can come from many directions. And it’s worth noting that other leaders stayed offshore, too.

Certainly not everyone seemed to be taking all reports of the aerial threat seriously. Here’s a Time comment from June 2001:

Presumably this was a different threat, as you wouldn’t put up antiaircraft batteries against “remote-controlled model aircraft”. Would you? However, it illustrates the difficulties in picking out what’s real. And if we don’t know how seriously the US took these threats at the time, then we cannot say what impact they may (or should) have had elsewhere.

The August 6th PDB

This is something else that looks rather less impressive once you consider the text that Dr Griffin has left out:

This hijacking concern was an old one, from 1998. It was described as “sensational”, and could not be corroborated. And it appears to be a conventional hijacking (you need hostages if you’re hoping to gain the release of someone).

There is the general concern about preparations for hijackings, of course:

However there’s nothing here to say that these were suicide hijackings. And in fact a warning about “preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks” is particularly useless, as it could obviously be about anything.

As there’s also nothing here about using planes as weapons, this example fails Dr Griffin’s test, and ours.

Six Further Examples

The 9/11 Commission told us that “the threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airliners within the United States -- and using them as guided missiles -- was not recognized by NORAD before 9/11”.

In “The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions”, though, David Ray Griffin tells us the Commission Report itself provides nine examples “that either clearly do, or at least may” contradict this claim. We’ve discussed these above.

In addition, though, Dr Griffin tells us that “the claim is even further undermined if we look outside this document”. He then delivers six further examples, which we’ll examine here.

Terror 2000

This example sounds very impressive, however take a closer look and issues begin to emerge.

First, Dr Griffin presents the panel of experts views and the Futurist magazine quote together, which might persuade you that the second quote was about the use of airplanes to fly into the WTC. But you’d be wrong. The Futurist article discussed chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, economic attacks on the Internet, banking system and more, but nothing at all to do with using planes as missiles.

So why mention the WTC? Hardly surprising, as it had been attacked the previous year, but the author suggested plenty of other potential targets, too:

It could be argued that if you’d read the report produced by these experts, then come across the Futurist article, you should have been able to figure out that a 9/11-type attack could occur. But there’s a problem with this: the idea about using planes as missiles didn’t make it into the final report:

As far as we’re aware, it only became public knowledge after 9/11, when the study participants recalled what had happened:

Did the “planes as missiles” scenario even make the interim draft of the report? That’s not clear from these stories, however if it didn’t then obviously there was no chance of the idea influencing policy.

And even if the concept had been included the finished report, there’s no guarantee it would have made the slightest difference. What you’re not seeing from Dr Griffin’s snipped few words is that Terror 2000 was a substantial document, totalling more than four hundred pages. It considered many world trends, and proposed four different future scenarios: “Economics dominate”, “Violence dominates”, “Status Quo” and “Environment dominates”. Each scenario was then followed by all kinds of predictions, with “Economic dominates”, for instance, being covered as follows:

This was apparently regarded as the most likely future, and you can see that specifying hijacking as more likely after 2000 seems impressive. But on the other hand, they specify many other threats before then that haven’t materialised at all. Why should that particular element be taken above all others, including those in the other futures?

And while we can point at the “planes as missiles” idea now, and say how prescient it was, we don’t know how many other detailed scenarios were discussed (and left out) that weren’t accurate at all. Picking this out with hindsight is easy; deciding what was valuable in this report at the time would be rather more difficult.

Sam Nunn

The mention of “remote-controlled airplane” should be enough to make you wonder what Nunn was describing. Here’s the relevant paragraph from the original Time story:

This was about a method of delivering chemical or biological weapons, then, not hijacking or suicide attacks. It could be argued that the cumulative effect of examples like this should have persuaded NORAD to do more, but we’ll deal more with that later.

National Intelligence Council

This sounds impressively specific, until you read the full paragraph and discover everything else the author said:

This was not necessarily about hijackings, then, or commercial jets (the idea of a plane “packed with high explosives” suggests it’s one they’ve prepared themselves). Also, the suicide attack by plane scenario was only one of many discussed here, and the most likely response was judged to be a more conventional bombing of planes.

Pentagon Drill

Dr Griffin references two stories for this claim, one a Military District of Washington account, the other from the UK’s Daily Mirror. Neither provides any evidence that the drill was specifically about a hijacking, however, and an article Dr Griffin doesn’t mention points out that it was not:

This article also does its best to use the incident to cast blame, but points out that it was only about a crash. So why plan for this scenario at all? The same article later provides a reason:

It was sensible to plan for a potential accidental crash into the Pentagon because the building is very close to an airport: it’s as simple as that. Just another accident scenario, like the construction accident mentioned above.

This incident wasn’t about terrorists, then, or hijacking, or using planes as missiles. As such it fails to counter the NORAD case. Perhaps the fifth example will do better.

Drills of Jets as Weapons

Here Dr Griffin misrepresents his source by telling us that the hijacked airliners in these cases were “originating in the United States”. The story is quite clear on this:

It does say there were exceptions, however the only specific example provided seems to have been a conventional, not a suicide hijacking:

Then we get comments that might allude to further exercises of planes being used as weapons, although this is unclear, but nothing definitive on flights originating in the US:

It’s worth noting that the exercises were also mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report:

This example does not in itself counter the NORAD and 9/11 Commission position, then. Let’s move on to the sixth and final offering.

NRO Drill

Remember, these examples are supposed to be countering the claim that “the threat of terrorists hijacking commercial airliners within the United States -- and using them as guided missiles -- was not recognized by NORAD before 9/11”.

This particular incident did not involved terrorists, or hijackings. From Mike Ruppert’s account, it didn’t involve commercial airliners:

As it didn’t have anything to do with using planes as missiles, either, this example clearly does nothing whatsoever to counter the NORAD “no recognition” claims.


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.)

Recognition Table.gif

(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 full marks, or even 3 out of 4. And this is without introducing highly relevant factors like “credibility”.

The “crashing into the Eiffel Tower” report, for instance, scores 3 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.

Other high-scoring reports (Terror 2000, Clarke's CSG meeting on airplane hijacking) came from exercises or think tanks. The military run regular drills on all kinds of scenarios, though, and an exercise will never be as compelling as solid intelligence about terrorist plans.

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 overall case from weak individual 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. That would show you exactly what the analysts were seeing, and as Richard Clarke pointed out, this involved far more than these 15 examples:

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.