Controversy Over ‘Air Force One’ Scoop

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By: Stephen I. Schwartz

The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle last Saturday sure seemed scary: “Web site exposes Air Force One defenses.” And the copy down below was just as breathless, discussing a nameless online document which gave “specific information about the anti-missile defenses” on the two specially-converted 747-200B series planes serving as Air Force One (Air Force designation VC-25A).

“Detailed interior maps” showed, among other things, the “location of Secret Service agents” and, more alarmingly, “the location where a terrorist armed with a high-caliber sniper rifle could detonate the tanks that supply oxygen to Air Force one?s medical facility.”

But, as I pointed out in a Web posting at, the Chronicle failed to mention the most important ? and most glaringly obvious — aspect of the document: It’s part of a safety manual, written so firefighters and emergency responders can quickly rescue Air Force One’s pilots and passengers if there’s an accident or mishap. The document was cleared for international public release ages ago.

Paul J. Caffera’s story in the Chronicle was quickly posted on the Drudge Report and subsequently picked up and picked apart in all sorts of places. Predictably, many folks criticized the Chronicle for publishing the article and, in their view, jeopardizing security. There was even speculation that the drawings were decoys designed to mislead terrorists. Few, however, have actually looked closely at the document, even as they point out the relative ease with which they located it. And no one has explained its true purpose or the fact that it has been freely available online for over seven years.

The Chronicle article says that “the Air Force reacted with alarm last week after The Chronicle told the Secret Service” about the document, while the Secret Service had no comment. Caffera quotes a public affairs officer from the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base saying “it is not a good thing” to have such information in the public domain. For good measure he throws in comments from a national security analyst Daniel Gour? (whose quote actually gives away the “secret” of the anti-missile defense system deployed on the aircraft) and former congressman and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, who says, “If I were still chief of staff, I would order the damned site (to) pull it down.”

Of course, protecting Air Force One should be given the absolute highest priority. Every measure should be taken to ensure the safety of everyone aboard. But would yanking this document really help? Or could it hurt?

The document Caffera found is part of the Air Force?s Technical Order 00-105E-9 – Aerospace Emergency Rescue and Mishap Response Information (Emergency Services) Revision 11. It resided, until recently, on the web site of the Air Logistics Center at Warner Robins Air Force Base. The purpose is pretty straight-ahead: “Recent technological advances in aviation have caused concern for the modern firefighter.” So the document gives “aircraft hazards, cabin configurations, airframe materials, and any other information that would be helpful in fighting fires.”

As a February 2006 briefing from the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency explains, the document is “used by foreign governments or international organizations and is cleared to share this information with the general global public?distribution is unlimited.” The Technical Order existed solely on paper from 1970 to mid-1996, when the Secretary of the Air Force directed that henceforth all technical orders be distributed electronically (for a savings of $270,000 a year). The first CD-ROMs were distributed in January 1999 and the web site at Warner Robins was set up 10 months later. A month after that, the web site became the only place to access the documents, which are routinely updated to reflect changes in aircraft or new regulations.

But back to the document Caffera found. It’s hardly a secret that Air Force One has defenses against surface-to-air missiles. The page that so troubled Caffera indicates that the plane employs infrared countermeasures, with radiating units positioned on the tail and next to or on all four engine pylons. Why does the document provide that level of detail? Because emergency responders could be injured if they walk within a certain radius of one of the IR units while it is operating.

Nor is it remarkable that Secret Service agents would sit in areas on the plane that are close to the President?s suite, as well as between reporters, who are known to sit in the back of the plane, and everyone else. Exactly how this information endangers anyone is unclear. But it would help emergency responders in figuring out where to look for people in the event of an accident.

As for hitting the medical oxygen tanks to destroy the plane, you’d have to be really, really lucky to do that while the plane is moving at any significant speed. And if it’s standing still and you are after the President and armed with a high-caliber sniper rifle, why wouldn?t you target him directly? Besides, if you wanted to make the plane explode, it would be much easier to aim for the fuel tanks in the wings (which when fully-loaded hold 53,611 gallons). Terrorists don?t need a diagram to figure that out. But a rescuer would want this information so that the oxygen valves could be turned off to mitigate the risk of a fire or explosion.

Interestingly, what Caffera either missed or ignored is that the Technical Order includes detailed information on most of the fixed-wing and rotary aircraft operated by the military, by NATO, and by civilian agencies like the Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Having read all this, you?ll probably want to peruse the documents yourself, as many thousands of people, including yours truly, have already done. Well you can?t, because just as predictably they?ve been yanked off the web (though you can find cached text-only versions via Google). And not only the current version is gone, but previous ones as well.

Caffera has written a follow-up article in the Chronicle that breathlessly begins: ?Air Force and Pentagon officials scrambled Monday to remove highly sensitive security details about the two Air Force One jetliners after The Chronicle reported that the information had been posted on a public Web site.?

This time, Caffera correctly describes the purpose of the Technical Order. Nevertheless, according to Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Catherine Reardon, “We are dealing with literally hundreds of thousands of Web pages, and Web pages are reviewed on a regular basis, but every once in a while something falls through the cracks?. We can’t even justify how (the technical order) got out there. It should have been password-protected. We regret it happened. We removed it, and we will look more closely in the future.”

An Air Force source familiar with the history and purpose of the documents who asked not to be identified laughed when told of the above quote, reiterated that the Technical Order is and always has been unclassified, and said it is unclear how the document can be distributed now, adding that firefighters in particular won?t like any changes that make their jobs more difficult or dangerous.

“?The order came down this afternoon [Monday] to remove this particular technical order from the public Web site,? said John Birdsong, chief of media relations at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, the air base in Georgia that had originally posted the order on its publicly accessible Web site. According to Birdsong, the directive to remove the document came from a number of officials, including Dan McGarvey, the chief of information security for the Air Force at the Pentagon.”

Muddying things still further are comments from Jean Schaefer, deputy chief of public affairs for the Secretary of the Air Force. “We have very clear policies of what should be on the Web,” she said. “We need to emphasize the policy to the field. It appears that this document shouldn’t have been on the Web, and we have pulled the document in question. Our policy is clear in that documents that could make our operations vulnerable or threaten the safety of our people should not be available on the Web.”

And now, apparently, neither should documents that help ensure the safety of our pilots, aircrews, firefighters and emergency responders

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