Air Defense Exercise a Month Before 9/11 Was Based Around Osama Bin Laden Carrying Out an Aerial Attack on Washington
NORAD's Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) held a training exercise just over a month before September 11, 2001, which had some uncanny similarities to the 9/11 attacks. The exercise, called Fertile Rice, was based around the scenario of Osama bin Laden--the man who supposedly ordered the 9/11 attacks--organizing an aerial attack on a high-profile government building in Washington, DC--one of the cities attacked on September 11.
NEADS personnel were scheduled to take part in an exercise on September 11. We therefore need to consider whether the similarities between the scenario for the Fertile Rice exercise and some of the incidents they had to deal with on the morning of September 11 caused them to mistake real-world events for part of the day's exercise and thereby impaired their ability to respond to the 9/11 attacks.
EXERCISE INVOLVED BIN LADEN PLANNING TO ATTACK WASHINGTON WITH A DRONE AIRCRAFT
NEADS, based in Rome, New York, was responsible for monitoring and defending the airspace in which the hijackings occurred on September 11, and was consequently responsible for coordinating the U.S. military's response to the 9/11 attacks.  It ran an exercise called Fertile Rice each week.  On August 4, 2001--five and a half weeks before 9/11--Fertile Rice was based around the scenario of Osama bin Laden's operatives attacking a target in Washington. 
An information sheet on the exercise outlined the details. It stated that the scenario for the exercise involved an "Osama bin Laden threat to [the] U.S." Bin Laden had "reportedly acquired at least one and possibly two" unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The UAV he'd obtained was believed to be the Russian-developed "Colibri," which had been modified to be launched off a ship.
Bin Laden's operatives intended to carry out an attack in the next 24 to 36 hours. Although their exact target was unknown, it was believed that they intended to strike a "highly visible U.S. government target" that was probably in the Washington area.
The Colibri they would use to carry out the attack was a propeller-driven drone aircraft designed to perform various military and civilian missions. It was 4.25 meters long, had a wingspan of 5.9 meters, and its maximum speed was 155 miles per hour. It was fitted with sophisticated electronic jamming equipment, as well as equipment for monitoring electronic communications and radar.
The ship transporting the Colibri to the Washington area had left a port in the Middle East and was set to rendezvous with one of the terrorists off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, on August 4. This person would provide the final targeting information that would be programmed into the Colibri. The ship was believed to be carrying additional military equipment, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and plastic explosives.
The Colibri's "weapon payload" was "reportedly some type of fuel-air explosive" that would be "activated with an altimeter device."  Fuel-air explosives are highly destructive weapons. They spray an explosive mist and then ignite the vapor, thereby creating a blast far larger than a conventional weapon produces. 
The exact form that the Colibri's "weapon payload" would take in the scenario is unstated in the information sheet. It could perhaps have been a fuel-air bomb that the UAV would drop onto its target. Alternatively, the mock terrorists' intention may have been to fly the Colibri into its target such that the fuel-air explosive it carried would detonate on impact.
AUGUST 4 EXERCISE HAD SIMILARITIES TO THE 9/11 ATTACKS
It is worth considering whether the similarities between the scenario for the Fertile Rice exercise on August 4 and some of the incidents NEADS had to deal with on September 11 had a detrimental effect on how NEADS personnel responded to the 9/11 attacks.
NEADS personnel are known to have been in the middle of a major air defense exercise on September 11, called Vigilant Guardian, which simulated an attack on the United States.  Most of the staffers on the NEADS operations floor on the morning of September 11 had no idea what the exercise was going to involve that day, according to the Utica Observer-Dispatch.  They could presumably therefore have thought any suspicious reports they received were part of the exercise.
We can see that the August 4 exercise resembled the 9/11 attacks--or at least the official account of the attacks--in several ways. These similarities may have caused NEADS personnel to mistakenly think events on September 11 were part of that day's exercise, since these personnel might have thought they were being tested on a similar scenario.
The first similarity was that while Fertile Rice was based around a scenario in which Osama bin Laden's operatives attacked the United States, the attacks on the U.S. that occurred on September 11 were, according to the official account, ordered by bin Laden and carried out by members of his al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Secondly, the scenario for Fertile Rice and the 9/11 attacks both involved America being attacked from the air. In the exercise, the simulated attack was going to be carried out using an unmanned drone aircraft; on September 11, the attacks were carried out using commercial aircraft.
Thirdly, Fertile Rice and the 9/11 attacks both involved terrorists attacking prominent government buildings in the Washington area. In Fertile Rice, the exact target is unstated. However, the information sheet on the exercise specified that it was a "highly visible U.S. government target" that was likely in the Washington area.  This could well have been the Pentagon, the White House, or the Capitol building--three of the most "visible" government buildings in the Washington area.
On September 11, meanwhile, the Pentagon was one of the buildings that were attacked. At 9:37 a.m., according to the official account, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into its west wall.  And it has been claimed that either the White House or the Capitol building was the most likely target for United Airlines Flight 93--the fourth and final plane to be hijacked, which failed to reach its target and supposedly crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. 
NEADS RECEIVED NUMEROUS REPORTS OF SUSPICIOUS AIRCRAFT IN THE WASHINGTON AREA ON SEPTEMBER 11
NEADS personnel were alerted to suspicious aircraft that were approaching or over Washington at least four times on the morning of September 11. Since these incidents presumably resembled the scenario they had encountered in Fertile Rice on August 4, we need to consider whether that exercise affected how they evaluated them. For example, did they think the reports of suspicious aircraft were simulated, as part of a scenario like the one they'd encountered in Fertile Rice?
Some, or perhaps all, of the reports NEADS received of suspicious aircraft over or approaching Washington on September 11 might even have been part of the exercise taking place that day. Close analysis of these reports reveals many oddities, which indicate they may indeed have been related to the exercise, rather than to actual events.
FLIGHT 11 WAS REPORTED AS FLYING TOWARD WASHINGTON LONG AFTER IT CRASHED
The first one of these reports came at around 9:21 a.m.--18 minutes after a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and 16 minutes before the Pentagon was attacked.
Colin Scoggins, the military liaison at the FAA's Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, incorrectly told NEADS that American Airlines Flight 11--which crashed into the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.--was still airborne and was flying south toward Washington. "It was evidently another aircraft that hit the tower," he said. 
Scoggins, however, had no solid evidence that Flight 11 was heading for the capital. Air traffic controllers "were never tracking an actual plane on the radar after losing American 11 near Manhattan," Vanity Fair magazine reported. But, "The plane's course, had it continued south past New York in the direction it was flying before it dipped below radar coverage, would have had it headed on a straight course toward DC." 
The 9/11 Commission stated that it had "been unable to identify the source of this mistaken FAA information."  But according to Vanity Fair, "Colin Scoggins ... made the mistaken call." Scoggins told the magazine he had been monitoring a conference call between FAA centers "when the word came across--from whom or where isn't clear--that American 11 was thought to be headed for Washington." 
NEADS WAS ALERTED TO AN AIRCRAFT FLYING AWAY FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
NEADS personnel were alerted to a suspicious aircraft flying over or toward Washington for a second time just before 9:36 a.m., about two minutes before the Pentagon was hit. Again, the source of the information was Colin Scoggins.
Scoggins initially told ID technician Stacia Rountree that the "latest report" was of an aircraft "six miles southeast of the White House" that was "moving away" from the White House. But, seconds later, he said the aircraft was in fact six miles southwest of the White House and "deviating away." Asked if he knew the identity of the aircraft, he replied: "Nothing. ... I have no clue." He suggested that NEADS contact the FAA's Washington Center for more information.
Rountree promptly called the Washington Center and asked about the suspicious aircraft, but the person who answered the call told her: "We don't know anything about that. ... It's probably just a rumor." They were surprised that Scoggins had alerted NEADS to the aircraft, since, they said, Boston Center's "airspace doesn't even come close to [Washington]." "I don't know how they got that information," they added.
Scoggins had told Rountree that Boston Center controllers didn't even have a blip for the suspicious aircraft on their radar screens. Boston Center personnel had just heard about the aircraft over a teleconference and wanted to pass on the information to NEADS, he'd said. 
The aircraft was later determined to have been Flight 77--the plane that supposedly crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. 
NEADS WAS ALERTED TO AN AIRCRAFT FLYING OUT OF CANADA
The third report of a suspicious aircraft approaching or over Washington came at around 10:00 a.m., when a NORAD unit in Canada contacted NEADS and told it an aircraft was heading south from Canada into the United States. 
A member of staff at NEADS relayed the details to their colleagues. The aircraft, from an "unknown departure airport," was "heading towards Washington," they said, but nothing else was known about it.  Another member of staff at NEADS called the Canadian NORAD unit, seeking more information, but an officer at the unit could provide few details. He said he had seen "something on the chat." (He was presumably referring to NORAD's computer chat system.) The information he'd seen was that his unit's intelligence officers were "assessing that there's a possible aircraft." 
The report turned out to be a false alarm. At around 10:10 a.m., the officer at the Canadian NORAD unit called NEADS and said his unit's intelligence officers were "not assessing that there is an actual aircraft problem." It was simply the case that "there could be problems from our area." "There's no actual aircraft that we suspect as being a danger," he added. 
A SUSPICIOUS AIRCRAFT WAS REPORTEDLY FLYING OVER THE WHITE HOUSE
The fourth report alerted NEADS personnel to a suspicious aircraft that was supposedly flying over the White House. This report was received at 10:07 a.m.--four minutes after Flight 93, the final aircraft to be hijacked that day, supposedly crashed in Pennsylvania. So by then the terrorist attacks were already over.
A pilot in one of three fighter jets that had taken off from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and were flying a combat air patrol over Washington called NEADS. He said a controller at the FAA's Washington Center was "saying something about an aircraft over the White House" and asked if NEADS had any instructions for him. NEADS immediately ordered him to intercept the aircraft and divert it away from the White House.
While the fighters from Langley Air Force Base were heading toward the White House, a member of staff at NEADS suggested to his colleagues that the suspicious aircraft, which was flying "very low," was "probably a helicopter." But a few minutes later, NEADS personnel concluded that the aircraft was in fact one of the fighters from Langley Air Force Base, which the controller at the Washington Center had mistakenly reported because they were unaware fighters had been launched to protect the airspace over Washington. "It was our guys they saw, [Washington] Center saw," a member of staff at NEADS commented. 
The evidence that these four reports were part of the exercise NEADS was participating in on September 11--and were presumably related to simulated attacks on Washington--is, of course, inconclusive. The 9:36 a.m. report, for example, may have related to real-world events, when an aircraft involved in the actual attacks was near Washington.
Regardless of the reasons for the reports, though, the fact that Fertile Rice on August 4 included a simulated aerial attack on Washington would surely have increased the likelihood that NEADS personnel would think any reports of suspicious aircraft over or approaching Washington that they received on September 11 were part of the day's exercise.
NEADS PERSONNEL SUGGESTED BIN LADEN WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE 9/11 ATTACKS BEFORE ANY BLAME HAD BEEN ATTRIBUTED
Some evidence suggests the Fertile Rice exercise on August 4 did indeed influence the reactions of NEADS personnel to the crisis on September 11. Specifically, the fact that its scenario involved an attack that would be perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and his operatives may have led NEADS personnel to attribute the events of September 11 to bin Laden and Arab terrorists before any official allocation of blame was made.
Even while the terrorist attacks were taking place on the morning of September 11, at least one person at NEADS appears to have concluded that bin Laden was to blame for what was happening. At 9:28 a.m., Sergeant Steve Bianchi told his colleagues, "I think it's time we lost Osama bin Laden."  Later on, at 11:11 a.m., someone at NEADS told a colleague, "I think we're getting to the point we ought to start shooting all the ragheads."  ("Ragheads" is an offensive term for Muslims, Arabs, or Middle Easterners.)
And yet at these times, NEADS personnel had apparently received no information indicating that bin Laden and his terrorist organization were responsible for the attacks. Transcripts of tape recordings of the NEADS operations floor from the morning of September 11 show no examples of personnel inquiring about who was behind the events they were dealing with or being told who was thought to be responsible for the attacks. 
Furthermore, the first report on television firmly indicating that bin Laden and al-Qaeda were responsible appears to have only occurred just after 11:30 a.m. At that time, former NATO commander General Wesley Clark told CNN, "There is only one group that has ever indicated that it has this kind of ability [to carry out such a large-scale coordinated attack] and that's Osama bin Laden's."  A clear statement of blame appears to have first been made late that afternoon. At around 4:00 p.m., CNN correspondent David Ensor reported, "U.S. officials are saying that they now have new and specific information ... that people with links to Osama bin Laden may have been responsible for these attacks." 
In light of this information, it is worth considering whether NEADS personnel indicated that they thought bin Laden and "the ragheads" were behind the terrorist attacks so early on September 11 because they remembered that bin Laden and his operatives were behind the simulated attack in the Fertile Rice exercise on August 4.
It might also be worth considering whether the exercise NEADS was participating in on September 11 included a scenario, which, like the one in the August 4 exercise, involved an attack on the U.S. perpetrated by bin Laden and his terrorist organization. Even if it didn't, NEADS personnel may have mistakenly thought it did, based on their experiences in the August 4 exercise, in which bin Laden's operatives planned to attack "a highly visible U.S. government target" in the Washington area. The comments "I think it's time we lost Osama bin Laden" and "I think we're getting to the point we ought to start shooting all the ragheads" could therefore have reflected the fact that NEADS personnel thought the incidents they were dealing with on September 11 were part of an exercise scenario based around bin Laden launching an attack in the U.S.
DID THE AUGUST 4 EXERCISE AFFECT HOW NEADS PERSONNEL RESPONDED TO THE EVENTS OF SEPTEMBER 11?
The similarities between the Fertile Rice exercise that NEADS personnel participated in on August 4, 2001, and the 9/11 attacks, five and a half weeks later, give rise to important questions.
For example, were the similarities just a coincidence or were they the result of something more sinister? Might the exercise have been intended to, in some way, impair the ability of NEADS personnel to stop the 9/11 attacks? If so, this would indicate that rogue individuals in the U.S. military were involved with planning the 9/11 attacks and designed the August 4 exercise to increase the likelihood of the attacks being successfully carried out.
We can certainly see several goals the exercise may have achieved toward facilitating the 9/11 attacks. To begin with, since it involved a hostile aircraft aiming for a target in Washington, Fertile Rice could have increased the likelihood that NEADS personnel would think any reports they received of suspicious aircraft approaching Washington or in the Washington area on September 11 were part of that day's exercise, rather than being attempts to alert them to real events. And if they thought any of the incidents they had to deal with on September 11 were simulated, NEADS personnel may have responded to them differently than if they knew they were real. They may, for example, have reacted with less urgency.
Secondly, the exercise could have helped convince NEADS personnel that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization were capable of carrying out sophisticated attacks in the United States. Fertile Rice involved bin Laden organizing an elaborate and audacious aerial attack on a government building in Washington--an area that should have been particularly well protected. This may have led NEADS personnel to believe it had been determined that bin Laden was capable of carrying out highly sophisticated attacks in the U.S.
If they believed this, they would presumably have been more likely to accept the official explanation of who was behind the 9/11 attacks and less likely to raise questions about the validity of this explanation. They would therefore have been less likely to wonder if a rogue group within the U.S. military and other government agencies was responsible for the attacks.
NEADS personnel received a briefing in July 2001 that may have been intended to fulfill the same purpose--convincing them that bin Laden was capable of carrying out an aerial attack in the U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Stuart, an intelligence officer at NEADS, told the 9/11 Commission that "the last Osama bin Laden [Continental United States NORAD Region] threat briefing" before 9/11 was on July 14, "as part of the increased threat warning during summer 2001." The increased threat level "was briefed at NEADS," he said.  Since the briefing was given to personnel whose job was to defend the airspace over North America, it presumably warned about the possibility of bin Laden specifically carrying out an aerial attack in the U.S.
DID OTHER EXERCISES HAVE SIMILARITIES WITH THE 9/11 ATTACKS?
The details that are available about the Fertile Rice exercise held at NEADS on August 4, 2001, give rise to many questions. For example, did the similarities between the scenario around which Fertile Rice was based and some of the incidents they encountered on September 11 lead NEADS personnel to think these incidents were part of the Vigilant Guardian exercise taking place that day? Also, who came up with the scenario for the August 4 exercise and who was responsible for preparing the exercise?
Fertile Rice exercises were held weekly at NEADS, so numerous scenarios must have been included in them in the months leading up to 9/11 besides the one in the August 4 exercise. What were these scenarios and did any of them resemble the 9/11 attacks? Master Sergeant Joe McCain, the mission crew commander technician at NEADS, indicated that Fertile Rice exercises prior to September 11 had at least some similarities to the 9/11 attacks. He said they included simulated hijackings, although only one plane would be hijacked in the scenarios. Occasionally, he said, the aircraft hijacked in the simulation had taken off from within the United States--like the four planes that were hijacked on September 11.  So did their participation in these exercises lead NEADS personnel to think the hijackings on September 11 were part of that day's exercise?
Additionally, did NEADS conduct any other exercises in the months leading up to September 11, besides its Fertile Rice exercises, that were based around scenarios resembling the 9/11 attacks? It regularly held exercises called Fertile Spade, Fertile Angel, and Fertile Gain.  What scenarios did these exercises involve in the months before 9/11? If any of the scenarios resembled the 9/11 attacks, did this cause NEADS personnel to mistake events on September 11 for part of an exercise?
Furthermore, were any of the reports of suspicious aircraft approaching or over Washington that NEADS received on September 11 part of an exercise, such as Vigilant Guardian? If so, this would mean the exercise was allowed to continue after the second hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center--at 9:03 a.m.--and it became obvious that the U.S. was under attack. The exercise may in fact have still been going on at 10:07 a.m., when NEADS was alerted to a supposedly suspicious aircraft flying over the White House. If the exercise did indeed continue even though the U.S. was clearly under attack, why was this? Whose job should it have been to cancel it?
A new investigation of 9/11 is necessary to address questions like these. Investigators would need to have access to all relevant documents, and individuals who worked at NEADS on September 11 and in the months before then would need to be able to speak freely about their experiences. Examination of military training exercises and their possible connections to what happened on September 11 may reveal a lot of important information about the 9/11 attacks and who was responsible for them.
 James Bamford, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies. New York: Doubleday, 2004, pp. 3-4; Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live: The NORAD Tapes." Vanity Fair, August 2006; Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. New York: Twelve, 2008, p. 203.
 Interview with Master Sergeant Joe McCain, written notes. 9/11 Commission, October 28, 2003; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With MSgt. Joe McCain." 9/11 Commission, October 28, 2003.
 "Exercise Fertile Rice: Startex Intel Summary." Northeast Air Defense Sector, August 4, 2001; Interview with Col. Mark E. Stuart, written notes. 9/11 Commission, October 30, 2003; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Lt. Col. Mark E. Stuart, USAF, Intelligence Officer, Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS)." 9/11 Commission, October 30, 2003.
 "Exercise Fertile Rice"; "Intelligence Update: Exercise: Fertile Rice." Northeast Air Defense Sector, August 5, 2001.
 Tom Fiedler and Mark Thompson, "Despite Iraq's Offer, Gulf War Rages." Philadelphia Inquirer, February 16, 1991.
 Leslie Filson, Air War Over America: Sept. 11 Alters Face of Air Defense Mission. Tyndall Air Force Base, FL: 1st Air Force, 2003, p. 122; 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p. 458; James Bamford, A Pretext for War, p. 4; William M. Arkin, Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs, and Operations in the 9/11 World. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2005, p. 545.
 Elizabeth Cooper, "NEADS on 9/11: Professionalism and Helplessness." Utica Observer-Dispatch, August 5, 2004.
 "Exercise Fertile Rice."
 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 314.
 Rachel Clarke, "The Ambassadors of Flight 93." BBC News, September 5, 2003; 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 14; Guy Trebay, "A Moment in Time Captured in Pieces." New York Times, August 13, 2014; Lauren Raab and James Queally, "No Indication of Arson Found at Flight 93 Memorial." Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2014.
 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 26; Priscilla D. Jones, The First 109 Minutes: 9/11 and the U.S. Air Force. Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2011, p. 37.
 Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live."
 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, p. 26.
 Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live."
 NEADS Audio File, Identification Technician Position, Channel 7. North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001; Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live."
 Priscilla D. Jones, The First 109 Minutes, p. 39.
 "Transcripts From Voice Recorder, 11 September 2001 1227Z-1417Z, Northeast Air Defense Sector, Rome, NY." North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001; Priscilla D. Jones, The First 109 Minutes, p. 44.
 NEADS Audio File, Mission Crew Commander Position, Channel 2. North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001.
 NEADS Audio File, Identification Technician Position, Channel 4. North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001.
 NEADS Audio File, Identification Technician Position, Channel 5. North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001.
 NEADS Audio File, Weapons Director Position, Channel 3. North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001; Michael Bronner, "9/11 Live."
 NEADS Audio File, Identification Technician Position, Channel 4.
 NEADS Audio File, Tracking Technician Position, Channel 21. North American Aerospace Defense Command, September 11, 2001.
 Transcripts available at the 9/11 Document Archive.
 "10:53 a.m.-11:34 a.m." CNN, September 11, 2001; "Gen. Wesley Clark Discusses Ongoing Terrorist Situation." Breaking News, CNN, September 11, 2001; "Timeline of Chaos." Ottawa Citizen, September 11, 2001.
 "3:45 p.m.-4:26 p.m." CNN, September 11, 2001; "Karen Hughes Delivers Remarks on Terrorist Attacks." Breaking News, CNN, September 11, 2001; "September 11: Chronology of Terror." CNN, September 12, 2001.
 Interview with Col. Mark E. Stuart, written notes; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With Lt. Col. Mark E. Stuart, USAF, Intelligence Officer, Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS)."
 Interview with Master Sergeant Joe McCain, written notes; "Memorandum for the Record: Interview With MSgt. Joe McCain."
 "Memorandum: Fertile Spade 97-26." Northeast Air Defense Sector, June 18, 1997; "Memorandum: No-Notice Air Defense Exercise, Fertile Angel 99-01 and Fertile Spade 99-07." Northeast Air Defense Sector, November 30, 1998; "Memorandum: Fertile Gain 99-05 After-Action Report." Northeast Air Defense Sector, September 21, 1999.