Like most people, I've never been to NORAD, but I can picture the place thanks to movies like War Games and Independence Day.
In addition to that mental image, I also had another image of the North American Aerospace Defense Command — one that both those movies also referenced. NORAD was the omnicompetent, nearly invincible guarantor of American supremacy in the skies. For the last half of the 20th century, from Truman through Clinton, NORAD embodied the slogan the U.S. Air Force used to use in its commercials: "No one comes close."
The Air Force stopped using that slogan because, well, someone came close — close enough to hit us hard, from the air.
That sense of invincibility that NORAD seemed to embody, it turns out, was another example of "pre-9/11 thinking." The defenders of the air that we were certain could, at a moment's notice, intercept and repel the most sophisticated Soviet attack turned out to be unable even to intercept a hijacked commercial jetliner with an hour and a half of warning.
Forget the Soviets, NORAD, it seems, isn't even as competent and fearsome as the Dutch. Witness this morning's headline: "F-16s escort jet back to Schiphol."
Those would be Dutch F-16s, flown by Dutch pilots from the Royal Netherlands Air Force:
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (CNN) — A Northwest Airlines flight bound for India was escorted back to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport by F-16 fighter jets on Wednesday.
The plane was turned around after "a couple of passengers displayed behavior of concern," according to Northwest Airlines. …
The airport spokeswoman said the pilot had requested to return to Amsterdam and after the plane landed, there were some arrests.
So what gives? Is the Koninklijke Luchtmacht really that much more capable than the USAF?
The Northwest flight took off from Amsterdam at 10:25 a.m., the pilot reported his concerns, the F-16s scrambled and escorted the jet back to Schiphol by 11:39 a.m. An effective and efficient response. Elapsed time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.
Contrast this with the events of Sept. 11, 2001(here's CNN's chronology — although this one is more comprehensive). The first hijacked plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. A second hijacked plane struck the south tower 18 minutes later. Forty minutes later, a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. And 27 minutes after that a fourth hijacked plane, United Flight 93, crashed in western Pennsylvania. No effective response from NORAD. Elapsed time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
The answer, the Official Answer, is: We don't know.
NORAD officials testified before the 9/11 Commission, but their testimony was misleading and inaccurate. "We to this day don't know why NORAD told us what they told us," commissioner Tom Kean said. "It was so far from the truth." Kean and commission co-chair Lee Hamilton express their frustration with this official deception in their book, Without Precedent, as the Associate Press reports:
The Sept. 11 commission was so frustrated with repeated misstatements by the Pentagon and FAA about their response to the 2001 terror attacks that it considered an investigation into possible deception, the panel's chairmen say in a new book. …
"Fog of war could explain why some people were confused on the day of 9/11, but it could not explain why all of the after-action reports, accident investigations and public testimony by FAA and NORAD officials advanced an account of 9/11 that was untrue," the book states.
Vanity Fair has reported on "The NORAD Tapes" — but that provides only a glimpse of mid-level chaos at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, which was valiantly trying to see through that fog of war. We still don't know the bigger picture, farther up the chain of command.
So, again, we're left with the Official Answer: We don't know why NORAD was unable to demonstrate the same level of competence as the Royal Netherlands Air Force has just demonstrated.
We also, Officially, do not know why "FAA and NORAD officials advanced an account of 9/11 that was untrue."
Seems there's a lot we don't know.