WASHINGTON — In the two years before the Sept.
11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command conducted
exercises simulating what the White House says was unimaginable at the
time: hijacked airliners used as weapons to crash into targets and
cause mass casualties.
One of the imagined targets was the World Trade
Center. In another exercise, jets performed a mock shootdown over the
Atlantic Ocean of a jet supposedly laden with chemical poisons headed
toward a target in the United States. In a third scenario, the target
was the Pentagon — but that drill was not run after Defense officials
said it was unrealistic, NORAD and Defense officials say.
NORAD, in a written statement, confirmed that
such hijacking exercises occurred. It said the scenarios outlined were
regional drills, not regularly scheduled continent-wide exercises.
"Numerous types of civilian and military
aircraft were used as mock hijacked aircraft," the statement said.
"These exercises tested track detection and identification; scramble
and interception; hijack procedures; internal and external agency
coordination and operational security and communications security
A White House spokesman said Sunday that the
Bush administration was not aware of the NORAD exercises. But the
exercises using real aircraft show that at least one part of the
government thought the possibility of such attacks, though unlikely,
On April 8, the commission investigating the
Sept. 11 attacks heard testimony from national security adviser
Condoleezza Rice that the White House didn't anticipate hijacked planes
being used as weapons.
On April 12, a watchdog group, the Project on
Government Oversight, released a copy of an e-mail written by a former
NORAD official referring to the proposed exercise targeting the
Pentagon. The e-mail said the simulation was not held because the
Pentagon considered it "too unrealistic."
President Bush said at a news conference
Tuesday, "Nobody in our government, at least, and I don't think the
prior government, could envision flying airplanes into buildings on
such a massive scale."
The exercises differed from the Sept. 11 attacks
in one important respect: The planes in the simulation were coming from
a foreign country.
Until Sept. 11, NORAD was expected to defend the
United States and Canada from aircraft based elsewhere. After the
attacks, that responsibility broadened to include flights that
originated in the two countries.
But there were exceptions in the early drills,
including one operation, planned in July 2001 and conducted later, that
involved planes from airports in Utah and Washington state that were
"hijacked." Those planes were escorted by U.S. and Canadian aircraft to
airfields in British Columbia and Alaska.
NORAD officials have acknowledged that
"noscriptwriters" for the drills included the idea of hijacked aircraft
being used as weapons.
"Threats of killing hostages or crashing were
left to the noscriptwriters to invoke creativity and broaden the required
response," Maj. Gen. Craig McKinley, a NORAD official, told the 9/11
commission. No exercise matched the specific events of Sept. 11, NORAD
"We have planned and executed numerous scenarios
over the years to include aircraft originating from foreign airports
penetrating our sovereign airspace," Gen. Ralph Eberhart, NORAD
commander, told USA TODAY. "Regrettably, the tragic events of 9/11 were
never anticipated or exercised."
NORAD, a U.S.-Canadian command, was created in 1958 to guard against Soviet bombers.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, NORAD conducted four major
exercises a year. Most included a hijack scenario, but not all of those
involved planes as weapons. Since the attacks, NORAD has conducted more
than 100 exercises, all with mock hijackings.
NORAD fighters based in Florida have intercepted
two hijacked smaller aircraft since the Sept. 11 attacks. Both
originated in Cuba and were escorted to Key West in spring 2003, NORAD