Documents newly found at the National Archives show that in the weeks before the 9/11 Commission issued a subpoena for tapes of events at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) on the day of the attacks, it told the military not to send some or all of them to the commission. The documents are internal commission e-mails and a memo, as well as communications between the commission and the military. They were found at the National Archives by History Commons contributor Erik Larson (a.k.a. paxvector) and posted to the 9/11 Document Archive at Scribd.
The tapes became one of the cornerstones of the commission’s account of the day of 9/11, which differed significantly from previous statements by the military and FAA. Although the military had previously claimed it had launched fighters from Langley Air Force Base in response to the hijacking of Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, and to have been tracking Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, the commission found otherwise. It said the Langley fighters were launched for another reason, and failed to find any mention of Flight 93 in military records until around 10:00 a.m., shortly before it crashed
If the commission’s version is correct, it is unclear why the military gave the public and then the commission such a misleading account. Did the Pentagon knowingly lie to overstate its readiness to intercept errant airliners, was it just a SNAFU in the Pentagon investigation, or was there some other reason? The concealment of the tapes from the commission would have indicated a deliberate lie by the military, but the newly found documents show the military repeatedly referred to them in communications and made an apparent offer to provide some or all of them to the commission five weeks before the commission issued its subpoena.
The newly found documents show that the commission received a partial transcript of the tapes on 2 June. However, this transcript was incomplete and, according to a commission memo dated 29 October 2003, only reflected 5 or 6 tapes. Some of the tapes were first released to the public by the makers of the documentary Loose Change, and a fuller set was later obtained by Government Attic, which received a total of 21 tapes. This means the initial transcript reflected at most about one quarter of what NEADS had.
The memo indicates the commission thought the 2 June transcript was a full transcript of all the tapes. However, it ended at 10:15 a.m., just a few minutes after the last airliner crashed, and the commission wanted it to be supplemented to continue after this time. According to the memo, the commission made repeated requests for supplementation, on 8 September, 20 October and 24 October. The memo says that prior to flying to visit NEADS the commission “stressed the significance of receiving all tapes and transcripts relevant to 9/11.” It is unclear which military component these requests were made to.
At the same time the commission was asking the military for the tapes, it was also telling it not to send them.
In an e-mail dated 29 September 2003 (page 8), Miles Kara, one of the commission staffers slated to visit NEADS, wrote to his NEADS point of contact Kasey Blaney. Instead of asking for the tapes and transcripts in advance of the visit, he wrote, “[P]lease have tapes of the transcripts available on site and then provided to us for retention through the document process.”
The next day, he wrote (same as previous link, page 1) to other staffers investigating the air defence on the day of the attacks, telling them: “She [Blaney] confirmed that they have the tapes, but are concerned about fragility—they are reel-reel [note: a problem occurred when NEADS attempted to transcribe them, and NEADS came to believe a couple of the tapes had been accidentally deleted, although they were later recovered]. I told her to hold on making copies and we would make that judgment on site in consultation with their technical folks.” The purpose of making copies would be to provide the copies to the commission, in advance of the visit.
An e-mail dated 21 October from Blaney to Kara and copied to the other relevant staffers also mentions the plan to listen to the tapes. Blaney asks: “When did you envision us listening to the relevant tapes for the period 1015 EDT onward? Cross your fingers, if all works well, the tapes will be copied to a hard drive and will be available on our local area network. You’ll be able to listen to them at your convenience!”
However, when the commission staffers arrived at NEADS in the last week in October, team leader John Farmer apparently became displeased and suspended the visit. He then flew to see Commission Chairman Tom Kean, and demanded that the tapes be subpoenaed. According to Philip Shenon’s The Commission, Farmer intended to resign if the commission did not issue a subpoena.
The exact source of the displeasure is not wholly certain. Possibly, although Farmer had gone to NEADS specifically to listen to the tapes, he did not realise how many tapes they had (i.e. by providing the transcript of 5-6 channels, the military had implied it had only recorded those many channels). Therefore, he was angered by the lack of an explicit reference to the amount of tapes and their non-provision of the commission.
Seen in this light, the subpoena may seem somewhat harsh on the Pentagon. The e-mails between Kara and Blaney show the commission previously told NEADS not to send the tapes in advance. However, commission staffers went to listen to the tapes, and then demanded a subpoena for them, citing NEADS’ non-provision of the tapes beforehand.
On the other hand, the commission may have not understood exactly how many tapes NEADS had. In addition, there were numerous other pieces of documentation being withheld by the military, which had also made other false claims, and subpoenas are hardly extraordinary in Washington.
In addition, some critics of the commission have attacked its policy of not issuing subpoenas. In one instance, the commission only issued a document request to the CIA for detainee materials, and the CIA withheld recordings of the detainees Abu Zubaida and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri being questioned. The recordings were then destroyed. The withholding was not an illegal act by the CIA in regard of the commission’s document request, which was not backed by the force of law, although the tapes’ destruction may have been illegal for other reasons.
The commission issued the subpoena in early November; the tapes were provided promptly.
Finally, there is the question of the incorrectness of the 29 October memo, a report from Team 8 to the commission’s front office about the need for a subpoena. It states:
Because the [2 June] transcript ends at 10:15 am, we asked in repeated telephone conversations that the tape be further transcribed. This request was memorialized in an email on September 8th. (See tab B). On October 20, after receiving no response to our September 8th message, we again wrote and stressed the importance of both continuing the NEADS transcript and of receiving all relevant NEADS documents prior to flying out to Rome, New York.”
It is hard to understand how Team 8 could have thought there had been no response to the 8 September e-mail, as in late September Kara and Blaney discussed this issue and came to an agreement, of which Kara then informed the other staffers on Team 8. Perhaps if the front office and commissioners had known of this, they would have viewed the subpoena request differently.
UPDATE: Kara responds here. He mentions private correspondence between us, but prints only his side, which is completely fine. The main thrust of his post seems to be to repeat that the commission got all the documents that were available (although, in fact, this happened nearly a year after the commission was formed and months after it had requested them). Reading between the lines, he seems to think I have a hidden agenda regarding NEADS that I don’t actually have. For the record, Erik spent days going to the National Archives and posting the commission files, so I figured I could do him the courtesy of reading the damn things. If I read a document and think it contains news, I write it up. I don’t look for files specifically supporting a certain point of view. Before finding these documents, I had an open mind on whether the military lied deliberately to the commission. Now, I would lean slightly towards SNAFU.