New 9/11 Audiotapes Reveal U.S. Military's Information Breakdown

At 8:37 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, communications officers at the Air Force center responsible for defending a region of the United States that ranges from Memphis to Maine were discussing sofas and slip covers.

The Northeast Air Defense Sector, or NEADS, is located in an unlikely bunker in upstate New York. Seconds into the mundane conversation, a phone call came in from a civilian air traffic control center in Boston alerting NEADS to the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11. The next 100 minutes of that fateful day were recorded on more than 30 hours of audiotapes, later obtained by Vanity Fair writer Michael Bronner.

You can hear the tapes or read the Vanity Fair article here.

ABC News was permitted full access to these recordings, which tell the story of the military's complete lack of preparedness for the incoming terrorist attack.

The tapes also lay to rest the lingering conspiracy theory that the U.S. military shot down United Airlines Flight 93.

The day began with the expectation of a military exercise, which ironically included a hijacking simulation. Several minutes after the hijackings began, that expectation was hard to shake as reality intruded on the NEADS staffers.

"When the initial call came in ... we had to ask if it was real world or if it was an exercise, and they said, no, it was real world," said senior airman Stacia Rountree, one of the technicians fielding calls that morning at NEADS.

The tapes also reveal that the military could not keep up with the unfolding scenario of planes being used as weapons. This was partly because the hijackers took key steps to remain undetectable on radar scopes.

Every commercial plane is equipped with a beacon that broadcasts the name and type of the airplane -- information which would have been up on civilian air traffic controllers radar scopes. The 9/11 hijackers turned those beacons off, ditching the civilian air traffic controllers, who were the crucial informational link to the military.

"It was almost impossible for the military controllers looking at their scopes, [which were] literally like a sea of green dots, to figure out which planes the civilian controllers were telling them were hijacked," Bronner said. "That was the biggest problem all day."

Making matters worse, the NEADS scopes were all focused out to sea, anticipating Russian bombers flying in from the Atlantic, as a vestige of the Cold War era strategy.

Bronner also said that he was amazed to learn that the United States had only four armed fighter jets in the entire Northeast to protect it -- two at Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod, Mass., and two at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

"We got the scramble order itself at 8:46. ...We were just given an altitude and a heading to fly, which happened to have been toward New York City," said Maj. Dan Nash, who was the pilot of one of the jets at Cape Cod. "So, we were assigned to intercept American 11, but there was no way that was going to happen."

By the time Maj. Nash began taxiing down the runway, only two minutes after he was authorized to take off, Flight 11 had already crashed into the World Trade Center.

Seventeen minutes after that collision, Rountree received another call saying that a second plane had been hijacked. At the exact moment, she received that call, United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

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