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.

It was only after the second tower was hit that Master Sgt. Maureen Dooley realized these crashes were no accidents.

"When I actually felt that this was not an accident and that it was going to be an attack on the United States, was when the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center," she said. "Then I went, 'Oh, my God,' and it was like a pit in your stomach."

Faulty information continued to flow into NEADS, which was now operating under the impression that American Airlines 11, the first plane to hit the tower, was still in the air and on its way to Washington, D.C.

Over the next several hours, NEADS undertook a frantic chase for this so-called phantom plane, AA 11.

At 9:34 a.m., a call came in to NEADS about yet another suspected hijacking -- this one was American Flight 77, just miles from the White House.

Col. Kevin Nasypany, the NEADS mission control commander, scrambled to get fighters in position, ordering jets to intercept the planes as soon as possible. Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon just two minutes after he gave that command.

But the tapes' biggest revelation may revolve around United Flight 93, which passengers forced down near Shanksville, Pa.

Tech Sgt. Shelley Watson first received a call about United 93 at 10:07 from the Cleveland Air Traffic Control Center, which claimed that the plane was hijacked and carrying a bomb. By that time, the flight had already been burning on the ground for three minutes. The timing of the call, which is beyond dispute, as the tapes are stamped with time codes, means it was impossible for the military to have had any chance of shooting down United 93.

This new timeline contradicts certain statements given by administration and military officials in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, made both publicly and before the 9/11 Commission.

"I was extremely troubled, and so were the other members of the commission," Thomas Kean., chairman of the 9/11 Commission. "This was one of the most troubling facts in the whole 9/11 investigation -- how our military failed to get the information and then, in testifying before us, didn't really give the truth.

"What's strange to me about these statements to the press on the ABC News special [which aired on September 11, 2002] and many other places is, you know, a year later and beyond, you have Cheney, Rove, Andrew Card, and you have military people continuing to talk about the fact that they were watching United 93 -- they were deliberating," Bronner said.

"The reality is, even though the military tried its best to get going and tried its best to intercept these plans, they had information late every time and there was no real play on any of the hijacked planes."

"The air defense that morning came from the passengers themselves," Kean said. "That day, they were more effective then the whole of the United States military."