“Readiness is the name of the game and the ability
of our people to respond is the second part of it.”

– Admiral Robert Natter, commander of the U.S.
Navy’s Atlantic Fleet on September 11, 2001 [1]

The Pentagon on September 11

Navy personnel at the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001, including some key officials, appear to have acted with a surprising lack of urgency after they learned of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Even though the Navy–along with the rest of the United States military–was responsible for protecting America if it was under attack, its personnel at the Pentagon seem to have done nothing, or very little, to help defend the country after they learned of the plane crashes at the World Trade Center. Remarkably, many of them continued with their normal work duties as if nothing unusual had happened. Furthermore, the Navy’s top officials appear to have issued no orders to their personnel, regarding what to do in response to the crashes.

The failure of Navy staffers at the Pentagon to promptly initiate a military response to the attacks is particularly significant because, among other things, the Navy had assets–including fighter jets–that could help defend the Northeast U.S. A quick response was critical so these assets could be deployed as soon as possible.

Navy personnel should also have responded immediately when they learned what had happened at the World Trade Center because their department would have been responsible for helping the rescue efforts in New York. The Navy was supposed to coordinate with the Army and the Air Force “on proposed action to support civilian authorities during emergencies involving mass casualties,” according to the Department of Defense’s book about the Pentagon attack. [2]

What is more, even before 9/11, the Pentagon was considered a likely target for terrorists. And yet, on September 11, Navy personnel–many of whose offices were damaged or destroyed when the Pentagon was hit–received no orders to evacuate and made no attempts to get out of the building of their own accord before it was attacked. And, apparently, no attempts were made to move the most senior Navy officials away to safer locations prior to the attack on the Pentagon. [3]

Unfortunately, the failure to take effective action quickly enough to prevent the attack on the Pentagon had serious consequences for the Navy. Percentage-wise, it lost more of its spaces at the Pentagon than any other military department did on September 11. [4] And a third of the 125 Pentagon employees who died when their building was hit worked for the Navy. [5]

In this article, I examine the actions of several senior Navy officials who were at the Pentagon on September 11. These include Admiral Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations; Vice Admiral Timothy Keating, deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy, and operations; and Susan Livingstone, under secretary of the Navy. These officials all appear to have failed to respond appropriately after they learned of the crashes in New York.

I look at the goings-on in several key spaces in the Pentagon, such as the Navy Command Center and the office of the vice chief of naval operations. Like the senior officials whose actions I examine, personnel in these spaces appear to have responded to the crashes at the World Trade Center in a way that is far from what we might reasonably have expected.

I also look at a possible reason for the inaction of Navy personnel at the Pentagon. Specifically, I consider whether the Navy was involved in a training exercise on September 11 and this led to its staffers mistakenly thinking the crashes at the World Trade Center were simulated, rather than genuine attacks. If this was the case, it would indicate that rogue individuals in the U.S. military were involved in planning and perpetrating the 9/11 attacks, and deliberately created confusion that caused the Navy to respond so inadequately to the attacks.

On September 11, Admiral Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, was in a meeting in his office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon’s E ring, discussing budget issues, when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. [6] (The Pentagon is a five-story building–which also has two basements–consisting of five concentric rings of offices. These rings are labeled alphabetically from A to E, with the A ring being the innermost ring and the E ring the outer ring. Clark’s office was therefore in the outer ring of the Pentagon.)

Vice Admiral Mike Mullen, deputy chief of naval operations for resources, requirements, and assessments, was with Clark in the meeting. [7] Admiral William Fallon, vice chief of naval operations, appears to have been there too. [8]

Although Clark had a television in his office that would have shown what had happened at the World Trade Center as soon as the coverage of the first plane crash–which occurred at 8:46 a.m.–began, that day the television was off. All the same, members of his staff reportedly “kept him informed of events at the World Trade Center.” Clark has commented that he also “knew that my Command Center … would keep me apprised of what was going on there.”

He has recalled that, after he learned of the second crash at the World Trade Center, which took place at 9:03 a.m., he “knew now that we had in fact witnessed an unprecedented act of terrorism.” And yet he appears to have done almost nothing in response to the attacks in New York. [9]

Clark said, on one occasion, that in the minutes just after he learned of the second crash, he “got up from this meeting, went over to my red phone, made a few telephone calls, talked to leaders in a couple of places.” [10] According to Mullen, a few minutes before the Pentagon was hit, Clark phoned Army General Henry Shelton, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “to query what we were doing,” since “it appeared that we were under attack.” Shelton replied that he had been notified that a plane was heading toward Washington, DC. [11]

Clark, however, appears to have done nothing to help initiate a military response to the attacks. He said, on one occasion, that after he learned of the second crash, he simply continued his meeting about budget issues. He said: “I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even think about [the terrorists] coming to get us at the Pentagon. I had at other times. But at that moment I was focused on what was going on in New York. So we went back to work, and a few minutes later we heard this incredible explosion … and the Pentagon was hit.” And Sea Power magazine reported that Clark was still receiving his budget briefing when the Pentagon was attacked.

Furthermore, even though Clark, as chief of naval operations, was the most senior uniformed officer in the Navy, his staffers only came to evacuate him from his office after 9:37 a.m., when the Pentagon was hit. [12] And yet surely they should have wanted to get such a key official moved away to somewhere safer when it became obvious the U.S. was under attack–i.e. immediately after the second World Trade Center tower was hit–if not before then. Since Clark’s office was on the Pentagon’s fourth floor and in its outer ring, they should have realized that Clark was in an area of the building that would be particularly vulnerable–as compared to, say, a room in the basement–if the terrorists planned to attack the Pentagon.

Another key official who was at the Pentagon when the attacks on the World Trade Center took place was Vice Admiral Timothy Keating, deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy, and operations. [13]

Keating learned of the first crash during the “operations update”–his daily intelligence briefing, held in the Navy Command Center on the first floor of the Pentagon. “We couldn’t understand how a pilot could make such a significant navigational error on a day when the skies were crystal clear blue,” he has recalled. But although they were “perplexed,” Keating and those with him “just kept going” with the briefing.

When the briefing ended, Keating went to his office, on the fourth floor of the Pentagon, and saw the second crash on television. Keating has claimed that, even then, he didn’t realize a major terrorist attack was underway. “It still didn’t occur to us what was happening, that this was a large-scale attack with catastrophic consequences,” he commented. [14]

In his office, Keating met with Edmund James Hull, the ambassador-designate to Yemen. Their previously scheduled meeting appears to have started shortly after 9:00 a.m.: Hull said it began about 30 minutes before the Pentagon was attacked, which would have been sometime around 9:07 a.m. The two men apparently ignored the fact that the U.S. was under attack. “We went ahead with the meeting nevertheless,” Hull recalled. [15]

The main topic of their discussion, according to Sea Power, was “the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole on 12 October 2000 during a port visit to Aden, Yemen,” which had been “masterminded by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network” and caused the deaths of 17 American sailors. [16] Hull recalled: “We briefly noted the events of New York but then proceeded to discuss future collaboration in Yemen. … I stressed my commitment to successfully completing the investigation of the Cole attack and bringing its perpetrators to justice.” [17]

Keating and Hull were still discussing the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole when the Pentagon was hit, almost 35 minutes after the second attack in New York occurred. “We were discussing the fact that the Cole attack was coming up on a year’s anniversary–those were almost our exact words at the moment the plane impacted,” Keating recalled. [18] Just before the Pentagon was hit, Hull has written, “[W]e reviewed the situation [in Yemen] and our upcoming responsibilities.” [19]

Keating’s lack of action in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center seems particularly odd considering that, according to Sea Power, one of Keating’s responsibilities was to oversee day-to-day operations in the Navy Command Center. [20] The Command Center was responsible, among other things, for monitoring significant international events and keeping senior Navy officials informed of important developments. [21] In a situation like what occurred on September 11, then, it was surely more important for Keating to follow what was going on in this critical hub than discuss the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole with Hull.

Hull’s inaction in response to the crashes also seems particularly odd since, in the two years before 9/11, Hull had been the principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department and had represented the State Department on Richard Clarke’s Counterterrorism Security Group. [22] He should therefore have been an expert on terrorism and have had a better understanding than most of the seriousness of the situation on September 11. Indeed, Hull has said that after he learned of the second crash, he had “the thought in mind that al-Qaeda had definitely undertaken a new operation in the U.S.” [23] And yet he proceeded with his unnecessary meeting with Keating as if nothing unusual had happened.

Furthermore, according to Shipmate magazine, even though Keating and Hull had “witnessed the devastating news of the attacks in New York,” they “didn’t question their own security” at the Pentagon. [24] They consequently made no attempt to get out of the building, despite it being a likely target for terrorists.

Keating has estimated that his office was “about 150 feet” from where the Pentagon was hit at 9:37 a.m. But his staffers only came and advised him and Hull to get out of the Pentagon shortly after the attack there took place. [25]

A further important official whose actions at the time of the 9/11 attacks deserve scrutiny is Susan Livingstone. As under secretary of the Navy, Livingstone was the second-highest-ranking civilian in the Navy. On the morning of September 11, she was scheduled to hold a briefing for a group of 30 civilian employees of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Crane, Indiana.

The NSWC employees were in Washington, DC, to complete a program for a certificate in public management and this involved meeting with Livingstone, who was going to talk to them about defense policy in the 21st century. The briefing was set to take place in a conference room on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s E ring and was supposed to begin at 9:00 a.m. [26]

Livingstone and her executive assistant, Captain Dennis Kern, learned about the crashes in New York before the NSWC group arrived for the briefing. “Someone called to let us know two planes had hit the World Trade Center,” Kern recalled. [27] The NSWC employees, meanwhile, were delayed. Their bus was almost 20 minutes late and so they were traveling to the Pentagon when the attacks on the World Trade Center took place. They arrived at the conference room where the briefing was going to be held at about 9:10 a.m. At that time–around seven minutes after the second attack occurred–they were still unaware of the crashes in New York. But after they arrived, they were told what had happened. [28]

Livingstone said to them that “terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City just a few minutes earlier by hijacking two planes and flying them into the two towers,” according to Eric Moody, one of the NSWC employees. She also said that “she would have to cut her talk short due to another important meeting.” [29] Jim Buher, another member of the visiting group, recalled that Livingstone said, “I have to cut my presentation short today, because planes have hit the World Trade Center and I have to go to the Command Center at 9:30.” [30]

The members of the NSWC group were “all in shock” upon hearing the news, Dusty Wilson recalled. And yet Livingstone went ahead with the briefing. [31] She apparently discussed the information she’d originally intended to cover, without being influenced by what had happened in New York. Moody recalled that she talked about “her administration’s frustration stemming from the lack of effective strategic planning since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” [32]

Livingstone’s behavior appears to make no sense. Why did Livingstone continue with the briefing as if nothing abnormal had happened? Surely her attention should have been focused on dealing with the terrorist attacks. The meeting with the NSWC group could easily have been postponed. Furthermore, since the Pentagon was considered a likely terrorist target, surely Livingstone and Kern should have immediately arranged to get the NSWC group members moved to somewhere safer after they arrived at the conference room.

Some of the NSWC employees actually suspected they were in danger at the Pentagon after they learned what had happened at the World Trade Center. Greg Smith has commented, “It occurred to me, and probably others, that Washington, DC, would also be a terrorist target.” [33] Moody recalled that “it suddenly dawned on him that by sitting in the top military operations center in the country, the building they were in could be a targeted area.” [34] He said he had therefore thought his group “might be in danger” and had “said a short prayer, as I often do, ‘Dear God, please keep us safe.'” [35]

Doris Richardson was similarly concerned. She recalled: “I know I wasn’t the only one in that room who stopped to say a prayer. Mine went as it always does, ‘Lord, not my will but thine be done.'” [36] If these visitors realized the danger they were all in at the Pentagon, surely Livingstone and Kern should have too.

In fact, since Livingstone was the second-highest-ranking civilian in the Navy, it seems odd that her colleagues allowed her to remain on the top floor of the Pentagon’s outer ring–probably one of the most vulnerable areas of the building–when the U.S. was under attack. Why did no one come and take her to somewhere safer? Why did Kern, who, as her executive assistant, presumably bore some responsibility for her safety, allow her to go ahead with the briefing?

The conference room where the briefing took place was directly above the area of the building that was struck when the Pentagon was attacked. [37] It was “not more than 50 feet away from the area of impact,” according to Moody. [38]

When the Pentagon was hit–about 27 minutes after Livingstone’s briefing began–those in the conference room heard “a tremendous noise like dynamite” and felt the room rock. [39] Moody described: “A large blast shook the entire room. Several of the ceiling panels from the suspended ceiling fell to the floor and the light fixture in the middle of the room came crashing down on the conference room table. Smoke immediately began filling the room from the light fixtures and vents in the ceiling.” [40]

Although, by going ahead with the briefing, Livingstone had acted as if she was unaware of any danger to those at the Pentagon, when the building was hit she immediately realized what had happened. She told the others in the conference room, “It must be terrorists.” [41] Only then did she tell the group of NSWC employees to evacuate. Moody recalled that she “calmly but firmly stated that we were under a terrorist attack and we should immediately leave the building.” [42] Livingstone and Kern then led the NSWC employees out of the conference room. [43]

They all made it out of the Pentagon without injury. But Livingstone’s going ahead with the briefing when the U.S. was in the middle of a major terrorist attack could have had catastrophic consequences. “We all agree that we were extremely fortunate to survive this devastating situation,” Moody has commented. [44]

We can see a pattern of military personnel failing to respond appropriately and effectively to the attacks on the World Trade Center when we examine the behavior of Navy staffers in some key spaces in the Pentagon. This pattern of behavior was, for example, exhibited by personnel in the office of Admiral William Fallon, vice chief of naval operations, on the fourth floor of the E ring.

When the attacks on the World Trade Center took place, Fallon was in the meeting in Vern Clark’s office, down the hallway from his own office, in which budget issues were being discussed. [45] But members of his staff were in his office, available to respond to the crashes.

One of them, Captain William Toti, special assistant to the vice chief of naval operations, learned of the first crash from the coverage of it on television. It occurred to him immediately that the crash must have been a deliberate act. He has commented that he and his colleagues “knew from the first moments that it was an act of terrorism.”

However, instead of taking action to initiate a military response, they started discussing where the terrorists would strike next if an organized attack was taking place. (Toti actually concluded that the terrorists would attack the Pentagon.) Seeing the second crash on television “confirmed what we already knew,” Toti has commented. And yet the staffers still did nothing toward implementing a military response. [46]

Lieutenant Kelly Ennis, aide-de-camp to the vice chief of naval operations, has confirmed the lack of response among Fallon’s personnel. Ennis had gone across the hallway from his own office to Fallon’s office in time to see the second hijacked plane crashing into the World Trade Center live on television. “All I could think is that we needed to get some help in New York,” he has commented. And yet, he said, “All we could do at that time was watch, listen, and pray for our family members there.” [47]

Toti even found time to call his wife. He recalled that because he knew the country was under attack and the Pentagon was a likely target, he wanted to call her while he still had a chance. She was not at home so he left a message telling her “to take the kids out of school, stay at home, and leave the phone lines open.” [48] But why did Toti call his wife when the U.S. was in the middle of a serious terrorist attack? Surely he should have realized that the promptness of the military’s response might determine whether any further attacks were successful and so his attention needed to be focused on his military duties. Surely phoning his wife could have waited?

As well as apparently failing to take action toward implementing a military response to the attacks in New York, it seems that Fallon’s staffers did not go down the hallway to check that their boss knew what was going on or bring him back to his office. In fact, considering that Fallon’s staffers supposedly realized “from the first moments” that the crashes in New York were “an act of terrorism” and had determined that the Pentagon was likely to be the next target, surely they should have been concerned that, in an office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon’s outer ring, Fallon might be in danger. And so surely they should have wanted to move such an important official to a safer location.

And yet it appears they did nothing toward that end. Rear Admiral William Crowder, Fallon’s executive assistant, only left Fallon’s office and went down the hallway to talk to the vice chief of naval operations about what was happening just before the Pentagon was hit–about 30 seconds before the attack occurred, according to Toti. [49]

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