Audio Tapes Released From 9/11 Archives, Majority of Records Still Sealed

09/09/20110 Comments

James Corbett
September 9, 2011

This is Behind the Headlines from on this 9th day of September, 2011.

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, the National Archives has released a compilation of audio clips of air traffic controllers, military officers and pilots recorded that morning.

The release was organized by former 9/11 Commission investigator Miles Kara, who reviewed and transcribed the documents with help from Rutgers Law School Director and former 9/11 Commission Senior Counsel John Farmer. The clips were originally organized by Commission members for a report on the air response that day, but was not completed before the Commission wrapped up in 2004 because they were unable to gain the necessary declassifications for the recordings in time.

The tapes are being heralded for the stark insight they provide into the chaotic response to the 9/11 attacks.

Although many of the recordings have been heard before, the recent release purports to compile the key conversations into a single, chilling narrative of what unfolded over American airspace that day.

Rather than bringing closure, however, the tapes merely highlight some of the still unresolved issues of the 9/11 air response.

This includes the inexplicable decision to scramble fighters from Langley Air Force Base, not toward the nation’s capital where American Flight 77 was already approaching the Pentagon, but out over the Atlantic Ocean, toward a military-training airspace known as Whiskey 386.

This recording, taken at 9:39, captures the moment when NEADS Mission Crew Commander Kevin Nasypany learns for the first time that the fighters have been scrambled in the wrong direction

Equally puzzling is the 12 minute gap between the time American Flight 11 stopped responding to commands and the time when Air Traffic Controllers begin notifying the chain of command that the plane has been hijacked. At that point, the plane had been wildly off course for five minutes and the plane’s transponder had been off for a full 4 minutes.

This delayed response is in fact so unlikely that in December of 2006, experienced Boston Center air traffic controller Robin Hordon went public with his assertion that 9/11 was an inside job. Calling the focus on the confusion and panic in the tapes distractionary, Hordon said at the time:

“The real focus is what the air traffic controller did immediately upon seeing that American 11 was in trouble and what we do as air traffic controllers is we get eyes and ears on this flight.

“If the air traffic controller were going by emergency procedures which he is trained to do, he would have reached out directly to ADC (NORAD) and say what do you see?”

What this release of audiotapes obscures is the fact that recorded testimony of six of the air traffic controllers involved in directing the air traffic that day, testimony that could have potentially resolved many of the outstanding questions about the air response that day, was destroyed by an FAA manager before anyone had a chance to transcribe what was said, or even listen to the tapes.

According to information that surfaced in 2004, the manager destroyed the recording by “crushing the tape with his hand, cutting it into small pieces and depositing the pieces into trash cans around the building.”

Hidden in the shadow of the press coverage devoted to this release of material from the National Archives, much of which was previously available to the public, is the stark fact that even now, two years after the National Archive was slated to make the 9/11 Commission’s records open to the public, more than two-thirds of that information is still being kept sealed.

Of the 575 cubic feet of records held by the archive, so far only 150 cubic feet of textual records has been released, and even amongst that, a significant amount of material has been redacted. The Commission itself had asked the Archives to unseal their records in January of 2009, but after initially releasing the Commission’s Memoranda for the Record, the Archives have stopped releasing further material.

Since the Commission was set up as part of the legislative branch of government, its records are exempt from Freedom of Information requests. Only one archive official now works on the 9/11 Commission document archive, and a Reuters report indicates that she usually refers applicants to the agencies that created the documents rather than respond to requests for information herself.

The information still held by the Commission includes details of the Commission’s meeting with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, which they insisted in doing behind closed doors, off-the-record and without being sworn under oath. To this date, that meeting remains the only time the two have ever been formally questioned about the events of the single most important day in modern American history.

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