OMAHA — On the clear blue September morning that terror struck America, Brig. Gen. Kelvin Coppock was preparing to grapple with mock nuclear hell from his desk at Offutt Air Force Base.
Coppock served as the U.S. Strategic Command’s director of intelligence on Sept. 11, 2001. It was to be “execution day” for a giant exercise called Global Guardian involving many of StratCom’s 4,000 staffers at its Offutt headquarters, as well as military personnel at several other U.S. bases.
That was the day an escalating conflict with the fictional nation of Sloumonia would erupt into nuclear war.
As Coppock reviewed intelligence documents, a civilian colleague rushed into his office.
“General, turn on your TV,” he told Coppock.
They watched as smoke poured from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center after a plane crashed into it.
Minutes later, they gazed in amazement — along with millions of Americans — as a second jetliner plunged into the south tower.
“Like everyone else, I was slack-jawed, astonished, bewildered and mesmerized by what I was witnessing,” said Coppock, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in his newly published e-book memoir, “Destination 9/11.” “I knew it was not an accident. I knew I was watching a deliberate attack on the United States of America.”
By day’s end, StratCom’s faux Armageddon would give way to a real-world catastrophe that tested military leaders beyond anything the command’s planners could have devised.
Hijackers would crash three commercial airliners into critical targets, while the doomed passengers of a fourth would force it down in rural Pennsylvania before hijackers could ram it into a Washington landmark. The twin towers would collapse in a heap of rubble, and fire would gut one slab of the Pentagon. Almost 3,000 people would die; 6,000 more were hurt.
At Offutt, Coppock and his boss, Lt. Gen. Robert C. Hinson, would monitor the unprecedented clearing of U.S. airspace of 3,000 aircraft, watching for signs of undetected hijackings.
They would personally brief President George W. Bush on the events of the day during the commander in chief’s short-notice visit to Offutt. And they would help shift StratCom to a war footing.
‘Kind of a Pearl Harbor’
The 9/11 attacks exposed big gaps in America’s readiness for terrorist attacks.
For years, the nation’s command and control system — of which StratCom is a critical part — had been relying on a system of sensors that looked outside U.S. borders, in space and across oceans for external threats.
Those sensors were set up to provide a 30-minute window of opportunity for military leaders to detect and assess those threats, and then advise the White House and Pentagon.
But nothing had prepared them to respond to multiple commercial airliners inside the United States that had suddenly been transformed into guided missiles, filled with human beings.
“Kind of a Pearl Harbor, using our own aircraft,” said Adm. Richard Mies, StratCom’s commander on 9/11, in a 2016 interview.
The Global Guardian exercise had been going on for more than a week, and much of the effort had been concentrated at StratCom and other military headquarters around the country. At the same time, NORAD — the Colorado-based North American Air Defense Command — was conducting a parallel exercise, Vigilant Guardian.
But by the morning of Sept. 11, the exercise had expanded to include placing real weapon systems on alert status. StratCom’s forces stood at the equivalent of DEFCON 3, the third-highest alert level.
Dozens of nuclear weapons had been loaded aboard strategic bombers at U.S. air bases in Louisiana, North Dakota and Missouri. Ballistic missile crews in the western Great Plains were on alert. So were several Trident submarine crews. A pair of Offutt-based E-4B “Doomsday” command aircraft were already airborne (which would later feed bizarre conspiracy theories about U.S. complicity in 9/11).
“Everything that had already taken place meant that all the strategic forces were in positions of high readiness — which was unbelievably coincidental, and unbelievably convenient,” Coppock wrote in his book.
Mies had stopped at Offutt’s Officers Club for breakfast with some VIPs who were in Omaha to play in Warren Buffett’s charity golf tournament. Although Global Guardian was in full swing, he planned to escort them on a tour of StratCom’s famous underground command center.
During breakfast, Mies learned about the plane that had struck the World Trade Center.
“A few minutes later, I heard about the second plane,” he said. “I realized it was a terrorist attack.”
‘Exercise is canceled’
Across the street, Coppock and his colleague dashed up three flights of stairs to Hinson’s office. They quickly agreed that Hinson should assemble StratCom’s battle staff in the subterranean command center, 40 feet below the ground. Manned around the clock, it is the nerve center where StratCom watches the world for threats.
By the time they got there, almost everyone had already assembled, dressed in camouflage battle fatigues.
“It was a whirl of activity,” said Hinson, who is now retired and living in Omaha.
Mies, Hinson and several other officers sat side by side at a round table in the center of the room, their eyes on an array of eight screens on the wall.
In the early stages of the attack, the nation’s civil defense system, including StratCom, was as shocked and confused as anyone.
“For a while, there was chaos as we figured out the real picture,” Al Buckles of Papillion, StratCom’s deputy director of operations on 9/11, said in 2016.
Mies quickly pulled the plug on Global Guardian to focus on the terror threat. DEFCON 3 became real.
“Exercise is canceled,” the order said. “Real world continues.”
Indeed it did.
One screen kept track of planes that were thought to have been hijacked. American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, never made the list, Buckles said. United Airlines Flight 93 was at first thought to be headed toward Chicago’s Sears Tower before it turned east. Passengers stormed the cockpit, preventing an attack on the Capitol or the White House.
Fears were also raised about two other flights, from Denver and Madrid, but those planes eventually landed safely.
“You see all these events occurring, and you ask yourself, when does it stop?” Hinson said.
One of the screens stayed tuned to live TV coverage of the attacks. Even at one of the military’s most sensitive command posts, the leaders relied on television for news about the attack.
“Our sensors on 9/11 became CNN,” Buckles said.
StratCom leaders were linked with the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon when the plane hit another part of the building. They could hear the distant explosion on the other end.
“That changed everything,” Coppock said in an interview. “When you attack the Pentagon, or the White House or the Capitol, it becomes a huge StratCom element.”
His job was to keep the “intel” screen updated with the latest information, including the status of StratCom’s forces.
Hinson was in touch with the commanders of those forces. Lt. Gen. William Keck, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, worried about the B-52s spread out on his runway, fully loaded with nuclear weapons for the exercise.
The president arrives
On that day of confusion, the unsheathed nukes looked like a ripe terrorist target.
Such an attack wouldn’t have caused an atomic blast, Buckles said, but it could have done a lot of damage.
“You would destroy half of Bossier City, Louisiana, with the explosions,” he said. “That would have been a way to really cripple us. All these nuclear weapons were exposed.”
Concerns amped up higher when the Air Force One jet carrying Bush — who had been reading to schoolchildren in Sarasota, Florida, when the planes hit — headed to Barksdale because the base offered secure refueling. The presidential party remained in Louisiana for almost two hours.
The Secret Service didn’t want Bush to return to Washington until the city was fully secure. Instead, they chose Offutt, where they knew that StratCom had a secure communications link.
Early in the day, Mies considered the possibility that Bush might fly to Offutt. He asked the 55th Wing to prepare Quarters 13, a building for VIP guests on General’s Row, for the presidential party just in case. Security teams swarmed through the base’s housing area.
“Without knowing whether he would come or not, we had started making preparations,” Mies said. “We didn’t know how long the president might have to stay.”
Only after Bush left Barksdale did leaders at Offutt find out that the president was headed their way.
“We knew about half an hour out,” Mies said. “I didn’t want a lot of pomp and circumstance at that point.”
The 55th Wing’s security squadron hiked security “tenfold” after the attacks, Hinson said, limiting access to the base, barricading the flight line and covering the names of buildings.
“When the president came, that just ramped up even higher,” he said.
Air Force One landed at about 1:50 p.m., escorted by two F-16 fighter jets. Mies picked up Bush in his Chrysler and drove with him to the underground command post.
They entered through a fire escape in front of the building that looked like a nondescript maintenance shed. Mies said it was the only time he ever used it.
“When he went into the bunker — wow. That’s still a scene in the movie in my head all these years later,” Ellen Eckert, a White House stenographer traveling with Bush, said in Garrett Graff’s 2019 book “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.” “Clearly the only way to go was down.”
“I think Adm. Mies was trying to get them underground as fast as he could,” said Hinson, who had stayed in the command center to wait for the president.
‘Right out of a movie’
Bush and a small group of aides descended several circuitous flights of stairs, down two hallways, past a guard and through double sets of doors to reach StratCom’s command post, called the Global Operations Center.
They saw a room about 30 by 50 feet, buzzing with activity. In the back, there was a second deck that could be cordoned off for highly classified discussions.
“It’s right out of a TV movie set — all these flat-screen TVs, all these military people,” Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, said in Graff’s book. “You can hear the fog of war, all these communications from the FAA and the military.”
Bush sat down at the circular table between Mies and Hinson.
“The president said, ‘My word, I never realized there was this level of activity going on in this headquarters,’” Hinson recalled.
As the intelligence director, Coppock knew that he needed to brief Bush on the situation. With help from his staff, in 15 minutes, he pulled together a half-dozen briefing slides covering the latest news, the state of U.S. nuclear forces and some predictions about what might happen.
Already, it was clear from the intelligence streams that terrorist groups had carried out the attacks, not foreign governments.
“He didn’t really have any questions of me,” Coppock said.
Bush stayed only a short while in the command center. He realized that his presence was interfering with the work there.
“It’s tough for the military folks — they all want to stand and show respect to the commander-in-chief, but you can tell they want to sit and do their jobs,” Card said in “The Only Plane in the Sky.”
Bush also wanted to get to a secure communications room, where he could safely hold a teleconference with his National Security Council and other top officials in Washington.
That meeting convened at 2:30 p.m., with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice; Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta; CIA Director George Tenet; and Richard Clarke, chief counterterrorism adviser on the security council, among those taking part.
“There was a lot of discussion about how to get New York and Washington back to some sense of normalcy,” Mies said. “It was clearly the president’s desire to get back to Washington as soon as possible.”
“He was totally uncomfortable with the idea that he was hiding in an underground bunker in Omaha, Nebraska, when the country was under attack,” Hinson said.
‘A bolt out of the blue’
With the nation’s airspace now cleared, the Secret Service deemed it safe for Bush to return to the White House. He left Offutt aboard Air Force One at 3:36 p.m. — so quickly that it took the plane’s pilot, Col. Mark Tillman, by surprise, according to “The Only Plane in the Sky.”
“I started to race back to the plane. He’d already gotten there,” Tillman said. “He’s waiting at the top of the stairs and told me, ‘Tillman, we got to get back home.’”
Coppock ran into a Secret Service agent who was left behind at StratCom.
“You should have seen the look on that man’s face,” Coppock wrote in his book. “When (the president) was ready to go, whoever was with him went. Whoever was not with him, didn’t.”
A 60-member battle staff, working 12-hour shifts, kept the command post operating even after the crisis had passed.
“It was two days before StratCom even started to get back to normal,” Buckles said.
He got home about 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 11. Only that evening did he find out that his son, a military officer working in the Pentagon that day, had gotten out safely.
“I remember sitting on the back deck, kicking my shoes off, drinking a Scotch,” Buckles said. “It wasn’t until that night I started comprehending what had happened.”
The attack forced the U.S. military, and the entire government, to confront a foe in a way that they hadn’t seriously considered before. Leaders at StratCom and NORAD realized that they had been well prepared to counter the fictional threat that they prepped for in Global Guardian but not for the real enemy that confronted them on 9/11.
“This was a scenario that was a bolt out of the blue,” said Hinson, who retired from the Air Force in 2003. “9/11 should never be forgotten. Nor should it ever be allowed to happen again.”