Intercept time

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Central to the claim of a 9/11 [Stand Down] is the idea that the hijacked planes should have been intercepted, because similar procedures are carried out frequently and intercept times are very short. How short, exactly? Authors like David Ray Griffin and Nafeez Ahmed have presented arguments to say they should be in the range of 10 or 20 minutes, and we'll consider their evidence here.

Payne Stewart

In "The War On Freedom" Nafeez Ahmed used the Payne Stewart case as an example of a "routine air response":

However, Ahmed has misread the NTSB report. The relevant part is here:

Read it carefully and you'll notice a change of time zone, from Eastern to Central time. CDT is one hour on from EDT, so contact was regarded as lost at around 09:38, and the fighter didn't get to within 2000 feet of Stewart’s jet until 10:54. That's roughly 76 minutes from the controllers realising there’s a problem, to intercept taking place: this does not support the case for rapid intercepts. Read more on this page.

ATCC Controllers Read Binder

Nafeez Ahmed's War on Freedom contained another paragraph where a very quick intercept time estimate was provided: "10 or so minutes".

The same passage was quoted favourably in Mike Ruppert's "Crossing the Rubicon" (see here), a very similar version appear in Ahmed's later "War on Truth", and David Ray Griffin has made several references to this document:

With so much backing from these heavyweight researchers, you might assume this reference would be very reliable indeed.

But you'd be wrong.

Let's begin with a look at the full paragraph from the document in question. We've emphasised some of the parts that Ahmed didn't think worth passing on to his readers:

This paragraph is clearly referring to intercepts of planes coming from overseas, not internal US flights as on 9/11, yet Ahmed has chosen to remove any sign of that from his retelling. That's very deceptive, but there's another problem that's even worse.

While Griffin describes this source as an "Air Traffic Control" document, and Ahmed quotes from its pages as though they have authority, it's not actually a Government release at all. The paragraph comes, in fact, from a guide produced by Xavius Software for users of their simulation program ATCC (Air Traffic Control Center). Although this is described as a "fully realistic simulation of actual traffic flows, radar sectors, ATC procedures, and rader equipment currently used throughout the U.S. Designed by a real controller, ATCC is ideal for pilots [and] controller trainees”, so the authors feel able to say "it's not just an addictive game", a game is what it is, costing (according to that page) a mere $12, and not an official document in any sense. As you can tell from the qualification at the bottom of the page:

This document clearly carries less authority than Griffin and Ahmed want to admit, then, perhaps why they kept its true origins buried in the footnotes of their books. And this is yet another examaple of why you really can't take what you read for granted, even here. Reading footnotes carefully, ensuring you have the references you need, then checking them in-depth are all essential steps in separating the facts from the spin.

Of course the fact that the quote comes from a game manual doesn't necessarily make it incorrect. However, it is referring to a different situation than was faced on 9/11, and is considering only the military response time, not the FAA. As such it cannot be considered as a definitive source on what a 9/11-type intercept time should actually have been.

NORAD spokespersons

In The New Pearl Harbor David Ray Griffin quoted NORAD "spokespersons" as saying intercepts took only minutes:

Griffin tells us here what the flight controller should have done. Or so he claims. In reality it takes time to figure out there's a problem, though, and controllers aren't going to call NEADS straight away, as this TIME article makes clear:

Still, when the controller accepts there's a problem we do at least have the NORAD statements to explain the speed of response. This all seems very damning, until you spot the footnote attached to this claim. Which, it turns out, is quite important:

While the body copy plainly implies the NORAD statements related to standard procedure on 9/11, the footnote appears much less certain. We learn that the statements occurred after 9/11, not before, and were preceded by "now". Which before Griffin edited it out, did indeed suggest "a speed-up in procedure".

This is hardly the message you'd take from the version readers will encounter first, but Griffin suggests that's okay, because "there seems to be no evidence that response times were different prior to that date". Really? How has Dr Griffin looked for that evidence? There are certainly other reports that suggest the procedures had changed:

Griffin didn’t have to go looking for new articles, though. Simply checking the original sources would have helped.

The Slate article uses the NORAD statements in this paragraph, for instance:

It's made clear in this piece that NORAD are talking about improvements in their standard procedure. And while the author points out that some things haven't changed, this doesn't help Griffin's argument, in fact it makes it worse: the Charles Bishop case shows that even post-9/11, fighters wouldn't necessarily arrive as quickly as you might hope.

And Eberhart? He made his statement in October 2001, not 2002. Here's some context to the comment that was later used by Griffin and others (our emphasis):

The core exchange in bold makes it clear that the "about one minute" claim is a new situation, an old problem that has been fixed. It could still be argued that Eberhart's word isn't direct evidence and more proof is required, but that doesn't give Griffin the right to use his words quite so blatantly out of context.

In fairness, Dr Griffin’s subsequent use of these quotes has been more up-front. This is from a Match 2006 lecture, for example:

He’s still inexplicably suggesting that we only need “suspect that they reflect a post-9/11 speed-up in procedures”, trying to introduce doubt, when it’s entirely clear from Eberhart’s statement that is exactly what he meant. But at least listeners now had more information.

And in "The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions", he adds the rider:

This is nothing more than an argument from ignorance: because Dr Griffin is personally unaware of sufficient evidence to support the idea of a post-9/11 intercept speedup, he's assuming that no such speedup took place. He's also then assuming that the post-9/11 talk of intercepts now occurring in minutes is correct, which seems odd (apparently he requires no supporting evidence here). And he's therefore assuming that this performance also applied before 9/11, even though there's no evidence for that, either. (At least, none beyond the quote from a PC game document that he tags onto the end.)

This construct may convince Dr Griffin, but we find it feeble in the extreme. The reality is that, as we've shown above, there are articles that support Eberhart. Take the quote that "now 100 fighter jets stand on constant alert as opposed to 14 in North America prior to Sept. 11", for instance - that couldn't fail to improve intercept speeds. You can say those and related statistics may be false, if you like, but you can't use your ignorance of the data to claim something else altogether. The simple fact is that these NORAD quotes unambiguously referred to the situation post-9/11, and Dr Griffin presents nothing tangible whatsoever to justify saying they applied before then.

killing things

In Debunking 9/11 Debunking, David Ray Griffin gives us the following quote as partial support of his claim that "any hijacked airliners would have been intercepted within 10 minutes or so".

However, anecdotal evidence in a story promoting how good the pilots are may not be entirely reliable. Consider this, from the same article:

Are we to believe that Herring could be woken up, get dressed, run down two flights of stairs, get to his plane, take off, then catch a target perhaps 100 miles away and heading away from him, and always in "five minutes or less"?

Quick math tells us that if the fighter were to average 800 miles an hour, for instance (good if he's not using afterburner), then that would be 13.333 (recurring) miles every minute. If we allow two minutes between being alerted and getting to the plane, then the additional three minutes would enable the fighter to travel at most 40 miles to reach his target, and realistically it would be much less (he must locate the target first and is most unlikely to be flying in a straight line).

It seems to us that "five minutes or less" isn't in any sense a guarantee, then. And this is hardly surprising, as NORAD fighters were reported to be on 15-minute alert: that's up to 15 minutes between a scramble order and becoming airborne, not reaching the intercept target.

This report also differs from 9/11 in another factor: it relates to intercepts from overseas.

And the "five minutes or less" time appears to be told from the point of view of the pilot, so we assume he's starting the clock at the point when he's alerted. But in the context of 9/11, it's also important to include the time it takes the FAA to realise a plane has been hijacked and escalate that to their hijack coordinator, then how long it takes him to inform NORAD, then how long it takes the military to issue a scramble order to a particular base. In the Payne Stewart case it took 10 minutes to accept that contact had been lost with a plane; another 11 minutes to alert the military; another 13 minutes before the scramble order was issued. That's 34 minutes to add on to whatever time it takes the pilot to get off the ground, locate and reach his target. Even if this was, say, twice as long as normal (something asserted by no-one at the time) this in no way supports Dr Griffin's claim that "any hijacked airliners would have been intercepted within 10 minutes or so".