Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001, an officer at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC, was notified that the Secret Service wanted fighter jets launched over the nation’s capital. It was now obvious the U.S. was under terrorist attack, and Washington would have been an obvious potential target. And yet the Secret Service’s request came to nothing.

No fighters had taken off from Andrews by 9:37 a.m., when the Pentagon was hit. Nor had any launched by the time Flight 93 apparently crashed in Pennsylvania, shortly after 10:00 a.m., while flying toward Washington. In fact, fighters did not launch from Andrews until over 90 minutes after the second attack in New York. The first fully armed fighters did not launch from there until more than two hours after that attack. So why was the Secret Service’s early request for help not acted upon? Why did fighter jets only take off from this massive Air Force base to defend the capital well after the morning’s attacks had ended?

SECRET SERVICE CALLS FAA HEADQUARTERS

The Secret Service agent who made the early request that fighter jets be launched appears to have been Nelson Garabito. Garabito was responsible for coordinating the president’s movements, and was also the Secret Service’s liaison to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He was in the Secret Service Joint Operations Center (JOC) at the White House that morning. Just after Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., Garabito called Terry Van Steenbergen, his counterpart at the FAA, who was at the FAA headquarters in Washington. According to the 9/11 Commission, shortly into the call, Van Steenburgen told Garabito “that there were more planes unaccounted for–possibly hijacked–in addition to the two that had already crashed.”

Possibly in response to this information, Garabito appears to have asked Van Steenbergen to arrange for fighters to be launched over Washington. Van Steenbergen asked three of his colleagues at the FAA to call various air bases to see if they could get fighters into the air. One of these colleagues, Karen Pontius, had previously worked at Andrews Air Force Base, so she made the call to the FAA air traffic control tower there. [1] Garabito would have been unable to call the tower himself, because, according to a 9/11 Commission memorandum, the Secret Service “did not have a phone line to the Andrews tower.”

FAA HEADQUARTERS REQUESTS FIGHTERS

Pontius spoke to Steve Marra, an air traffic controller in the Andrews tower. Marra has recalled that Pontius “told him to launch F-16s to cap the airspace over Washington.” He relayed this information to the District of Columbia Air National Guard (DCANG), which is based at Andrews, across the airfield from the control tower. [2] Marra appears to have done so when DCANG officer Major Daniel Caine phoned the tower and asked if any air traffic control measures were being implemented in response to the attacks. [3] Caine later recalled that the tower controller–i.e. Marra–told him “that they just received the scramble order.” However, oddly, Caine told the 9/11 Commission that the Andrews tower “would not have been in the loop for any Secret Service orders to scramble aircraft.” [4]

If the DC Air National Guard was notified of this early “scramble order,” why was that order not acted upon? Pilots and others working for the DCANG at Andrews were already well aware of the crisis taking place. Upon learning of the second crash, someone at the unit reportedly yelled, “We’re under a terrorist attack!” [5] And, seeing the television coverage of the burning WTC towers, an officer exclaimed, “Well, holy shit, if this is a terrorist attack, we need to get something in the air!”

Furthermore, a request from the Secret Service should have carried considerable weight. According to author Lynn Spencer, “Given that the Secret Service provides protection to the president–and that the president, and the vice president when the president is not available, is the ultimate commander in chief of the military–the Secret Service also has certain authority over the military and, in this case, the DC Guard.” [6]

CAINE CALLS HIS SECRET SERVICE CONTACT

After his call to the control tower, Daniel Caine called his contact at the Secret Service, Kenneth Beauchamp, who was at the White House JOC. Caine later told the 9/11 Commission that, on reflection, he believed it was his hearing that the tower had received the “scramble order” that prompted him to call Beauchamp. [7]

And yet Beauchamp supposedly contradicted the Secret Service’s request for fighters. Even though it was obvious that the U.S. was under attack, and it should have been clear that Washington was a likely target for any further attacks, he said the Secret Service did not require assistance from the DCANG. Caine had asked: “Do you have any additional information? Are you guys going to need some help?” and Beauchamp replied, “No, but I’ll call you back if that changes.” [8]

Caine has said that during this call, which he described as “a very quick, confusing conversation,” Beauchamp told him that “things were happening and he’d call me back.” [9] However, Beauchamp did not call Caine back. [10] (Another Secret Service agent, though, did subsequently call Caine, and asked about getting fighters launched. [11])

According to Lieutenant Colonel Marc Sasseville, the acting operations group commander under the 113th Wing of the DCANG, at the time Caine spoke to Beauchamp, “we weren’t thinking about defending anything. Our primary concern was what would happen to the air traffic system.” [12] But when Brigadier General David Wherley, the commander of the DC Air National Guard, subsequently called the Secret Service JOC shortly after the Pentagon was hit and spoke to Beauchamp, Beauchamp implored him to launch jets to protect Washington. Beauchamp said: “We want you to put a CAP [combat air patrol] up over the city. We need some fighters now.” [13]

Read the rest of the article on the 9/11 standown.