For all its successes, the U.S. anti-terror war was conceived in sin, the sin of U.S. government negligence. As much post-9/11 journalism has pointed out, there was the foreign-policy error of abandoning post-Soviet Afghanistan after having infused it with weapons, the CIA's failure to act more forcefully on tips and intercepts regarding al-Qaida operatives overseas, and the FBI's and INS's similar failings regarding suspicious characters already in the United States. And the FAA's (and the airlines', the airports', and security firms') breakdown on airport security. However, there has been a good deal less focus on another federal fubar, that perpetrated by the Air Force's North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
The NORAD home page declares its mission to include "the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles." It may seem ungallant to say the obvious, but since no one else has, I will: At the aircraft part of this mission, NORAD sucks.
How does NORAD explain its failure to intercept any of the hijacked airliners on 9/11? Its commander, Gen. Ed Eberhart, pointed out in congressional testimony that the FAA has the primary responsibility for hijackings in U.S. airspace, that NORAD can only help respond once the FAA notifies it, and that on 9/11 the FAA delayed precious minutes before doing so. Eberhart has also said that while before 9/11, NORAD had practiced responding to a hijacked plane trying to slam into a target in the United States, the exercises assumed that the flight had originated overseas, giving intercepting jet fighters more time. More important, he also said that even if his aircraft had practiced the domestic scenario, it wouldn't have mattered. Why? "I really think that, for sure in the first two instances, and probably in the third, the time and distance would not have allowed us to get an airplane to the right place at the right time."
It's certainly true that the FAA didn't give the Air Force the speediest heads up: Newsday reported that the FAA delayed 29 minutes (!) before telling the military about the third (!) suspicious plane, the one that ultimately hit the Pentagon. And before 9/11, a domestic-hijacked-airliner-suicide attack was admittedly not the most probable of worries. But it's simply wrong to say that therefore, there probably wasn't anything NORAD could have done to change history.
According to NORAD's official 9/11 time line, the FAA notified NORAD at 8:40 a.m. Eastern time that there was something peculiar going on with American Flight 11. But NORAD didn't issue an order for fighters to scramble until 8:46 a.m., the time when American Flight 11 hit the first WTC tower. Six minutes later, at 8:52 a.m., two F-15 fighters responded to the order by launching from a base 153 miles from New York City. They still were not on the scene at 9:02 a.m. when the second airliner, United Flight 175, hit the second WTC tower. They wouldn't get there for another eight minutes, at 9:10 a.m. A NORAD senior officer, Major Gen. Larry Arnold, told NBC that when the fighters took off, they were flying straight to New York City. He also said that they were going "about 1.5 Mach, which is, you know, somewhereâ€11- or 1,200 miles an hour." But note that the F-15 fighters took 18 minutes to cover those 153 miles, which comes out to more like 510 mph. Yet, according to the Air Force, the F-15 has a top speed of 1,875 mph. So, you have to wonder, why were they flying at less than a third of what they're capable of?
According to NORAD, the FAA notified it at 9:24 a.m. that there was something suspicious with American Flight 77. Two F-16 fighters were immediately ordered launched, and they got airborne at 9:30 a.m. The New York Times reports that at first, they were headed to New York at "top speed" reaching "600 mph within two minutes," before vectoring toward Washington instead. These planes didn't arrive in the vicinity of the Pentagon until 9:49 a.m., 12 minutes after American Flight 77 hit it. (They then stayed in the skies above Washington to protect against the fourth errant airliner, United Flight 93, with orders to shoot it down if necessary, a command mooted by an apparent passenger insurrection that caused that plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field.) The F-16s covered the 130 miles of their journey in 19 minutes, which would be an average speed of about 410 mph. Now, that's artificially low because these fighters spent several minutes flying toward New York, but even allowing for this, you don't come up with anything like what the Air Force (which may know better than the New York Times) says is the plane's top speed of 1,500 mph. So, again, why didn't NORAD feel the need for speed? It wasn't because of FAA regulations prohibiting supersonic flight over land in U.S. civil airspace. A NORAD spokesman told me that fighters violate that speed restriction "when circumstances warrant."
That is, in both cases where NORAD launched fighters, a closer look suggests that it's just false that there was nothing they could have done. For one thing, they could have flown faster.
But the flawed time/distance argument isn't NORAD's only excuse. Gen. Arnold told NBC that even if U.S. jets had intercepted the airliners, "No one would have known the intent of the hijackers. And without that, I don't think anyone would have been able to order them to shoot down thatâ€that aircraft."
That may be true, but it's misleading. Arnold leaves out other tactics the jet fighters could've tried. According to a Boston Globe article, when intercepting aircraft, NORAD practices a graduated response. The approaching fighter doesn't immediately shoot down the bogey: It can first rock its wingtips to attract attention, or make a pass in front of the plane, or fire tracer rounds in its path. So even though on 9/11, the NORAD pilots working the first three airliners didn't have shootdown authority (they got it only after the Pentagon was hit), they would or should have been ready to try these other techniques, which might well have spooked or forced the hijackers into turning, which might have given the fighters a chance to force them out to sea. And even if the hijackers decided instead to fly right into a fighter in their way, wouldn't an airburst have killed fewer people than two collapsed flaming skyscrapers did?
After 9/11, NORAD said it adjusted to the new realities. In October, Gen. Eberhart told Congress that "now it takes about one minute" from the time that the FAA senses something is amiss before it notifies NORAD. And around the same time, a NORAD spokesofficer told the Associated Press that the military can now scramble fighters "within a matter of minutes to anywhere in the United States."
lo and behold, earlier this month when 15-year-old student pilot Charles
Bishop absconded with a Cessna and flew it into a Tampa skyscraper,
NORAD didn't learn of it until it overheard FAA radio calls about the
situation, and it wasn't able to launch its fighter jets until 15 minutes
after Bishop had already crashed into the building. Those fighters didn't
arrive on the scene until 45 minutes after Bishop took off.
When we hired Scott Shuger back in 1997 to try his hand at a new Slate feature called "Today's Papers," we thought we were doing him a favor. Scott, who died Saturday at the age of 50 in a scuba diving accident, had been a casual friend of several of us from the small world of Washington journalism, and the even smaller world of alumni of the Washington Monthly. Scott at that time was a respected free-lance writer and was having some success moving into television. For a while he was under contract to develop stories for 20/20 on ABC. Scott was doing OK.
But he was not having the blistering career that he, among others, felt he deserved. One reason may be that he did not suffer foolsan essential tolerance for someone who needs to be in good favor with several editors and TV producers at the same time. Also, he had lovingly followed his wife, Debora, out to Los Angeles when UCLA offered her a professorship in medieval literature. Scott enjoyed L.A.for the convenience of pursuing his passion for diving, among other reasonsbut it was not the best place from which to peddle meaty articles about government policy. Scott could be cynical or playful, in life as well as in his writing, but an intensepatriotic, reallyearnestness about defective weapons or intelligence reform or homeless policy was one of Scott's endearing characteristics.
We asked Scott to do Today's Papers for two banal reasons: He was available, and he lived in the Pacific time zone. The job, we imagined, was a fairly straightforward one of reading the new editions of the five national newspapers as they were posted on the Internet throughout the night and summarizing them for Slate readers by early the next morning. Someone on the West Coast, we figured, could achieve this by staying up very late rather than getting up very earlywhich most journalists would regard as a big advantage.
It turned out that the favor we were doing by hiring Scott was for ourselves. "Today's Papers" quickly became our most popular feature. The idea (from the staff member who is now Slate's editor, Jacob Weisberg) was a good one, but the execution was brilliant. Like a cook who knows instinctively just how much spice to put in a stew, Scott turned out to be a natural at knowing exactly the right balance between telling it straight and adding his own insights. He developed a style and a set of conventions that allowed him to deliver a tremendous amount of information in few words, without making the result seem like a deadly summary.
Some of Scott's best insights were about the press itself. TP, as we call it, became a daily course in how the media think, what they get right and wrong, all illustrated by the day's news. He used the different ways the five papers covered (or didn't cover) the same story as a controlled experiment in journalistic practice. Scott actually stopped writing TP last September, in order to become Slate's principal writer about the war on terrorism, but Scott's style and method were stamped so strongly on the feature that many readers thought Scott was still writing it.
It didn't take us long to realize we had a huge hit. In fact, it took less than 24 hours. The first day Today's Papers appeared, we got a message from Bill Gates asking when we were planning to make it available by e-mail. We had been planning to do this within a year or so, if possible, given our limited resources and other priorities and technical difficulties and so on. Miraculously, following the chairman's inquiry, we had e-mail delivery going within barely a week. Soon hundreds of thousands were getting Today's Papers by e-mail, and similar numbers were reading it on the Web. William F. Buckley e-mailed, distraught and begging for reinstatement, when his e-mail delivery was accidentally canceled.
One night early on Scott posted a notice, in place of the column, that he had a terrible cold and was too sick to write. By the next morning there were dozens of alarmed e-mails from loyal readers inquiring nervously about his health. The concern was human but also practical: They had come to depend on Scott to introduce the world to them each morning. One e-mail came to the editor (me, at the time) from Bill Gates Sr., the chairman's father, who spoke of "Scott in Los Angeles" with such personal affection that I thought at first that he was referring to another of his children, not to a Slate writer he had never met.
Scott Shuger was, in a way, the first complete Internet journalist, in that the Internet was essential to both his input and his output, and the result was something new and useful that couldn't be done before. Without the Internet, Scott couldn't have read five newspapers from across the countryand done it before the paper editions were even available. With the Internet, Scott could even write the columnabout the day's major American newspapers, rememberfrom Berlin, where Debora Shuger had a visiting fellowship in 2000-2001. Scott used to say that the best place to write Today's Papers from would be Hawaii, where, he claimed, it would almost be a normal 9-5 job.
Having gathered his material from the Web (with the help, as it became popular and influential, of faxes and phone calls from the various papers' newsrooms), Scott would push a few buttons that would essentially publish his column to our Web site, where it could be read within seconds all over the world, and send it out by e-mail automatically. This is in the middle of the night, mind you, when editors and technicians prefer to be asleep.
(One rival claimant to the crown of first pure Internet journalist might be blog and scandal pioneer Matt Drudge. As it happens, Drudge first came to national attention in a Los Angeles Times story written by Scott Shuger shortly before he came to Slate.)
Scott became a regular visitor to Seattle, a friend of all his Slate colleagues, and a close friend of several, including me. A fitness buff, a master of judo and karate, an experienced scuba diver, he enthusiastically added the local sports of hiking and rafting to his repertoire and shared memorable adventures with several of us. On these outings he would delight in talk and argument as only a writer who ordinarily works alone all day can.
One subject that often came up was that of risk. Scott was an odd combination of macho daredevil and supercautious worrywart. (On one hike he carried a full-sized chair several miles up the side of a mountain, along with a heavy packan impressive feat of strength in service of a fastidious desire not to sit on the ground.) He was obsessed with personal security, carried various weapons (not firearms) for self-protection, and loved any opportunity to train women to repel attackers.
But he also was an explicit and adamant believer that experiencing life vividly is worth taking risks. Pending an autopsy, we do not yet know exactly what happened yesterday afternoon. I would be very surprised if this tragic accident were the result of some negligence or failure on Scott's part. At the same time, he was about as realistic as any human being can benot all that realistic, I suppose, but still ... about the unavoidable dangers of his avocations. He was not a gratuitous risk-taker, but he knew what he was doing and had thought intelligently about the potential cost.
Scott might not have enjoyed growing old. He treasured his good health and mental acuity and would have disliked watching them slip away even more than most of us will. He was in a good place in his life. He loved his job. He brimmed with pride in his daughter, Dale, who graduated from Harvard last year. He looked forward to a new period when he and Debora (who were married for 29 years) could adventure together, unfettered by child-rearing and tuition bills. He certainly wouldn't have chosen a sudden exit yesterday. But all of us who shared Slate editorial meetings with him can well imagine Scottpuckishly, tentatively at first, but perhaps even adamantly as he got swept up in his argumentmaking the case.
Scott Shuger, an early Internet journalist who wrote the popular column "Today's Papers" for the online magazine Slate, died on Saturday while diving off the coast of California just south of Los Angeles. He was 50 and lived in Los Angeles.
His body was found in the water a little off the shore by kayakers. The cause of his death was not known, his family said; an autopsy is pending.
In 1997, Microsoft's publication Slate hired him to write a new daily column, described by Slate as the first to depend on the Internet for both its subject matter and its distribution; it was a sometimes controversial assessment of the latest Internet editions of several national newspapers. He wrote the column until September, when he became Slate's chief writer about the struggle against terrorism.
Born and raised in Baltimore, he held a bachelor's degree from Carleton College and a doctorate in philosophy from Vanderbilt. He was a naval intelligence officer and was on the staff of The Washington Monthly before becoming a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
Survivors include his wife, Debora; a daughter, Dale Shuger of Brooklyn; two sisters, Nancy Shuger of Baltimore and Lisa Shuger Hublitz of McLean, Va.; and his parents, Sewell and Virginia Shuger of Baltimore.
SCOTT SHUGAR: Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: The coverage of these events, television and the print media has been pretty phenomenal and quite expansive, but I'm just wondering, as someone who reads the papers all the time, have you detected anything particular that's missing?
SCOTT SHUGAR: I see two big holes, Bob. I see two stories that are crying out to be done that I think in other contexts would have been much further along than they are now. The first one is the question of exactly how it is that no Air Force fighters were able to intercept any of the four airplanes. I mean that's an incredible fact if you think about it. We have a North American Defense Command that has a budget of some large number of dollars and has fighter aircraft that are on alert -- yet basically they weren't able to bring any of their assets to bear.
That could be scandalous, but it certainly bears looking into.
BOB GARFIELD: Well I have seen some stories, for example, that there were fighters that were on their way to intercept the plane that had hit the Pentagon but were 8 minutes away when the crash occurred.
SCOTT SHUGAR: I've seen some coverage of this story also, but basically it's been incredibly complacent. The AP moved a story late in the week giving the times at which the Air Force scrambled planes.
But that very story said: but it's not clear what they could have done if they'd gotten there anyway. That is incredible to, to think that we have this whole air defense establishment -- planes with missiles connected to the FAA -- and the whole point is really maybe they can't do anything. That, that's not what they say when they ask for the money for the budget.
So I think it's been pretty lazy reporting. It was partially deflected by the White House because they rolled out Dick Cheney last weekend to basically dazzle the press on Sunday when he appeared on Meet the Press when he said that the President authorized shooting down airliners that didn't respond to--commands from the fighters.
BOB GARFIELD: "Take them out," as the vice president put it.
SCOTT SHUGAR: Which of course was very dramatic and seemed to divert the press from the basic issue.
BOB GARFIELD: You said there was another story that you thought got under-covered.
SCOTT SHUGAR: Yes. It has been reported that the FBI had identified two people who turned out we believe to have been among the hijackers as being people that they didn't want in the country, and they notified the INS, and the INS reported back basically sorry -- too late - they've already come in. And the reporting seemed to basically stop at that point!
This seems very complacent to me. It's as if once the FBI had determined that the people have gotten into the country, that's it. That's it, that's it investigatively. Which of course we now know is false. They arrested so many people on the days afterwards that it raises the crying question: why didn't the FBI do these other things then?
BOB GARFIELD: For our purposes the, the crying question is: why did journalism pull up short? What makes these news organizations less aggressive than they might have been on these subjects in the past?
SCOTT SHUGAR: I think that there's a-- two-fold answer. One is there are a lot more obvious doable stories right now. When you have 5,000 murder victims you can do incredible human interest stories from now until doomsday.
The other reason is that journalists are afraid -- either consciously or subconsciously -- of appearing to be unpatriotic. To think that being a patriotic journalist requires you to have missed stories like this I think is a huge mistake.
After all, if a story like this leads to the improvement of how the FBI investigates suspicious characters once they're in the country or if a story like I was mentioning before about how the FAA and the NORAD handle hijacked aircraft would improve that system, both of those would be of great benefit to the country.
BOB GARFIELD: Well I must say that my suspicion on this is that the New York Times and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times and the Boston Globe and maybe, you know, ABC News are actually working on these stories right now to try to do a post-mortem on What Went Wrong.
But as to the larger question of when a misguided sense of patriotism gets in the way of basic journalism, do you see that happening a lot?
SCOTT SHUGAR: I think in the Gulf War it happened quite a bit. I think basically journalists are aware that nowadays they are reasonably unpopular among ordinary folk, and I think that they're aware that one of the things they're most unpopular for is the widespread belief that journalists are in it for the "big story" and the "big paycheck," so I think it's not too far from the conscious mind of most newspaper reporters and news anchors to avoid reinforcing this impression.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well thank you very much!
SCOTT SHUGAR: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott Shugar writes the Today's Papers column for Slate.com.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up: Hollywood rewrites history to protect our delicate sensibilities; comedians in confusion; and what audiences want now on screens big and small.
GARFIELD: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.