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Top brass says no chance hijackers fly into pentagon { April 15 2004 }

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Hijackers fly into Pentagon? No chance, said top brass
'Unrealistic' war game pooh-poohed before 9/11

Julian Borger in Washington
Thursday April 15, 2004
The Guardian

Five months before the September 11 attacks, US military planners suggested a war game to practise a response to a terrorist attack using a commercial airliner flown into the Pentagon, but senior officers rejected the scenario as "too unrealistic".

Details emerged yesterday in an email leaked to a public policy watchdog group. In the email, written a week after the attacks, a special operations officer discussed the exercise with his colleagues.

Details of the exercise, codenamed Positive Force, and the rejected hijacking scenario were confirmed by Norad, the North American aerospace defence command.

The disclosure of the proposal came in the thick of a season of finger-pointing in Washington over responsibility for the failure to prevent the attacks. A national commission is holding hearings on the issue this week.

In a press conference on Tuesday night, George Bush claimed that his administration could not have foreseen the use of aeroplanes as mis siles by terrorists. "We knew he [Osama bin Laden] had designs on us, we knew he hated us. But there was nobody in our government, and I don't think [in] the prior government, that could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale," he said.

That claim was questioned in a report published yesterday by the September 11 commission, which pointed to a string of intelligence reports in the 1990s suggesting that al-Qaida was contemplating such ideas, including, in 1998, "a possible plot to fly an explosives-laden aircraft into a US city".

The email leaked to the Project on Government Oversight (Pogo) was written by Terry Ropes, identified as a special operations officer who had been temporarily assigned to Norad in the spring of 2001.

According to Pogo's director, Peter Stockton, special operations officers had the job of testing Norad's air defences by thinking like terrorists and plotting unexpected attacks.

"In defence of my last unit, Norad," Mr Ropes began his email, dated September 18 2001, "the Norad exercise developers wanted an event having a terrorist group hijack a commercial airline and fly it into the Pentagon. Pacom [Pacific command] didn't want it because it would take attention away from their exercise objectives, and joint staff action officers rejected it as too unrealistic."

In response to the leaked email, Norad said in a written statement yesterday: "Before September 11, Norad regularly exercised its response to possible hijacks, but never with the intent of lethal engagement, because planes were normally landed safely by their pilots and the hijackers would begin negotiations.

"Before September 11, Norad conducted four exercises a year, normally to include hijacks."

As for the April exercise and the Pentagon attack scenario mentioned in the email, Norad said: "The exercise was a continuity of operations exercise, with several fictitious scenarios posed during the planning process. This scenario was rejected, as were many others."

"Continuity of operations" refers to government contingency plans to keep working in the event of an attack on the US. American defence officials described the hijack scenario as "thinking outside the box", not a response to a specific threat.

The 1998 plot mentioned by the September 11 commission, involving an explosives-packed aircraft aimed at a city, was reported by an unnamed source "who walked into an American consulate in east Asia".

"Neither the source's reliability, nor the information, could be corroborated," the commission report said. The report also mentioned a 1994 attempt by an Algerian group to fly an airliner into the Eiffel tower, which failed because the group was unable to fly the plane. In early 1995, an accomplice of the convicted terrorist Ramzi Yousef told interrogators in the Philippines that they had discussed flying a plane into the CIA headquarters in Virginia.

Despite such clues, the report said, the CIA's counter-terrorism centre did not analyse how a hijacked aircraft might be used as a weapon. It added: "Neither the intelligence community nor the NSC [national security council] policy process analysed systemic defences against suicide aircraft."

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