NORAD/NORTHCOM’s command center scrambled into action by Boston bombing

When a bomb exploded in Boston, first responders rushed to help victims on the street. At the same time, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, the military’s North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) began their own scramble to determine if something more was happening — was America under attack?   The U.S. ...

NORAD photo
NORAD photo
NORAD photo

When a bomb exploded in Boston, first responders rushed to help victims on the street. At the same time, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, the military’s North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) began their own scramble to determine if something more was happening -- was America under attack?
 
The U.S. military got its first information about the Boston Marathon bombing the same way the rest of the country did -- from live images on cable television. Quickly the NORAD/NORTHCOM Command Center, or N2C2, began a threat assessment.
 
“Are we seeing things in different threat streams?” the team asked itself, according to a U.S. defense official who briefed the E-Ring about the military’s reaction to Monday’s bombing.
 
It’s one of the products of the September 11, 2001, attacks. When a domestic incident occurs, like the bombing, the U.S. military needs to quickly determine if there’s a role for it in the U.S. response. But even in the military, which relies on precision guidance, determining that there is an attack on America can be more art than science. The N2C2 team looks for a combination of simultaneous threats, such as a coordinated cyberattack, air assault, multiple terrorism incidents, intelligence concerns, or a missile attack.
 
The N2C2 team responsible for making the determination is currently operating underground in Cheyenne because its normal command center in a basement at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo., is being remodeled. “They were in the mountain yesterday when it happened,” said the official.
 
The N2C2 team reported up to Gen. Chuck Jacoby, commanding general of NORAD and NORTHCOM, who determined that the bombing did not rise to the threat level requiring him to file a “domestic attack assessment.”
“We did not see the DOD nexus in this,” said the official, “or any specific threat to DOD installations.”
 
NORTHCOM sets the “baseline force protection condition” for all U.S. military installations, but individual installations can take higher security measures if they desire. On Monday, the command did not elevate the baseline, the official said, but sent a force-wide message for individual commands to be on alert.
 
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary flight restriction over Boston that was three miles wide and 3,000 feet high. But that was soon reduced to just a one-mile radius around the blast site, which the U.S. Coast Guard enforced with helicopters, mainly to keep television news helicopters from swarming above the scene. 
 
In Boston, some sites took their own precautions. Recruiting offices were shut down and the USS Constitution sent tourists home and increased security. The ship and the Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center remained closed on Tuesday.
 
Across the U.S., local jurisdictions have agreements with the U.S. military for niche capabilities to help with disasters, and in this case a Navy explosives ordinance disposal team based in Newport, R.I., was called and went to Boston. They returned home Monday evening. 
 
Meanwhile not until late Monday did an unnamed White House official say that the federal government was treating the bombing as an act of terrorism. On Tuesday morning, however, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, appearing in a previously scheduled hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said the bombing was a “cruel act of terror.”
 
“As the president said yesterday, we still do not know who did this and why, and a thorough investigation will have to determine whether it was planned or carried out by a terror group, foreign or domestic," Hagel said.
 
“The Department of Defense is prepared to respond quickly to any response for additional support from domestic law enforcement agencies. I will continue to consult closely with DOD's senior leaders and my counterparts in other agencies on how we can best support the government's response and investigation.”
 
A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the Pentagon is at the ready if called upon.
 
“The FBI has the lead for the investigation and DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] is taking appropriate steps to coordinate with state and local officials, and to increase security as necessary,” said Col. David Lapan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman. “We have no direct role at this point, but that could change at any time as the situation develops. We continue monitoring the situation and awaiting requests for assistance, if they come.”
 

When a bomb exploded in Boston, first responders rushed to help victims on the street. At the same time, deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, the military’s North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) began their own scramble to determine if something more was happening — was America under attack?
 
The U.S. military got its first information about the Boston Marathon bombing the same way the rest of the country did — from live images on cable television. Quickly the NORAD/NORTHCOM Command Center, or N2C2, began a threat assessment.
 
“Are we seeing things in different threat streams?” the team asked itself, according to a U.S. defense official who briefed the E-Ring about the military’s reaction to Monday’s bombing.
 
It’s one of the products of the September 11, 2001, attacks. When a domestic incident occurs, like the bombing, the U.S. military needs to quickly determine if there’s a role for it in the U.S. response. But even in the military, which relies on precision guidance, determining that there is an attack on America can be more art than science. The N2C2 team looks for a combination of simultaneous threats, such as a coordinated cyberattack, air assault, multiple terrorism incidents, intelligence concerns, or a missile attack.
 
The N2C2 team responsible for making the determination is currently operating underground in Cheyenne because its normal command center in a basement at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs, Colo., is being remodeled. “They were in the mountain yesterday when it happened,” said the official.
 
The N2C2 team reported up to Gen. Chuck Jacoby, commanding general of NORAD and NORTHCOM, who determined that the bombing did not rise to the threat level requiring him to file a “domestic attack assessment.”
“We did not see the DOD nexus in this,” said the official, “or any specific threat to DOD installations.”
 
NORTHCOM sets the “baseline force protection condition” for all U.S. military installations, but individual installations can take higher security measures if they desire. On Monday, the command did not elevate the baseline, the official said, but sent a force-wide message for individual commands to be on alert.
 
The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a temporary flight restriction over Boston that was three miles wide and 3,000 feet high. But that was soon reduced to just a one-mile radius around the blast site, which the U.S. Coast Guard enforced with helicopters, mainly to keep television news helicopters from swarming above the scene. 
 
In Boston, some sites took their own precautions. Recruiting offices were shut down and the USS Constitution sent tourists home and increased security. The ship and the Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center remained closed on Tuesday.
 
Across the U.S., local jurisdictions have agreements with the U.S. military for niche capabilities to help with disasters, and in this case a Navy explosives ordinance disposal team based in Newport, R.I., was called and went to Boston. They returned home Monday evening. 
 
Meanwhile not until late Monday did an unnamed White House official say that the federal government was treating the bombing as an act of terrorism. On Tuesday morning, however, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, appearing in a previously scheduled hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said the bombing was a “cruel act of terror.”
 
“As the president said yesterday, we still do not know who did this and why, and a thorough investigation will have to determine whether it was planned or carried out by a terror group, foreign or domestic," Hagel said.
 
“The Department of Defense is prepared to respond quickly to any response for additional support from domestic law enforcement agencies. I will continue to consult closely with DOD’s senior leaders and my counterparts in other agencies on how we can best support the government’s response and investigation.”
 
A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the Pentagon is at the ready if called upon.
 
“The FBI has the lead for the investigation and DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] is taking appropriate steps to coordinate with state and local officials, and to increase security as necessary,” said Col. David Lapan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman. “We have no direct role at this point, but that could change at any time as the situation develops. We continue monitoring the situation and awaiting requests for assistance, if they come.”
 

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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