CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN, Colo. — Military officials at this super-secret base cocooned 2,000 feet inside a mountain said Wednesday that a major security overhaul since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks means they won't be surprised again.
New radars, fighter aircraft patrols over cities, better coordination among intelligence agencies and the steely-eyed willingness to shoot down a hijacked civilian airliner, has injected a new confidence into NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
"But we have a long way to go, the minute we say the status quo is good the enemy will knock us in the eye," said Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command.
Eberhart's comments came as officials here offered reporters a rare glimpse inside NORAD, including access to top secret intelligence facilities and monitoring rooms inside Cheyenne Mountain, rising 9,560 feet above nearby Colorado Springs.
The mountain is NORAD's listening post. Using satellites and other high-tech gear, intelligence gatherers inside can spot items as small as a tennis ball from space, track aircraft in flight or follow a boat in the middle of the ocean.
Inside, the place can be dark and dank, like an enormous basement with water dripping from the rocky ceiling 200 feet above. Pipes run along the walls and 1,000-pound earthquake-proof springs support prefab buildings. Secrecy is so tight that workers must log in and out when they go to the bathroom.
But the gloom dissipates in the well-lighted rooms where analysts ponder aerial photographs of potential terrorism targets. They watch thousands of glowing lights on wall screens, each showing an aircraft in flight. The routes, speeds and altitudes are monitored. Any deviation from a flight plan or report of an unruly passenger is enough to send up fighters. Jets are scrambled several times a week, though no shots or missiles have been fired.
"On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, there were 3,000 aircraft flying and NORAD saw less than 20% of those because of where our radars were," said Maj. Chuck Thinger. "Now we have the means to cover 100% of the airspace."
Eberhart said newfound coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration means he could intercept most targets in a matter of minutes. Fighter aircraft have been sent out 1,500 times since Sept. 11 to check out potential hijackings.
"We want to be on the front end of the problem," he said. "We want to defend as far outward as possible."
Although it is not known where a new attack would come from, NORAD's efforts are focused on the sky.
The command was founded in 1958 as a joint U.S.-Canadian effort to protect North America from Soviet long-range bombers and nuclear missiles. Cheyenne Mountain was the heart of the complex. In 1961, engineers went 7,400 feet up the side of the mountain and began blasting. After clearing 700,000 tons of granite, they burrowed a labyrinth of tunnels sealed behind 25-ton doors capable of sustaining nuclear blasts.
Buildings were installed, tarps were hung over the cavernous ceilings to keep out rainwater and one of America's most secret military facilities was born.
The Sept. 11 attacks changed NORAD's mission.
It had been focused on protecting the U.S. and Canada from missiles and bombers, not terrorists using civilian aircraft as weapons. By the time officials here realized what was happening that morning, it was too late to stop the four doomed airplanes.
"There were no procedures in place to mitigate what happened that day," said Cmdr. Michael White, who works at the complex. "We have had a complete transformation of NORAD post-9/11."
There are 51 new radars, an FAA representative is stationed at the base and the country has been divided into sectors where fighters are on irregular patrols. Areas near New York, Washington, oil refineries and nuclear plants are the most heavily monitored.
Another result of the terrorist attacks was the creation of Northern Command, or Northcom, in 2002. Its focus is centralizing domestic defense efforts and coordinating military support with local authorities.
The head of intelligence for NORAD, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his job was to "connect the dots."
"I think the average American would be surprised at the level of activity in the war on terror and how successful we have been," he said.
The heart of NORAD's deterrence is its willingness to shoot down passenger planes.
It's a subject officials don't like to discuss though they have procedures in place to carry out such an order.
"If we ever had to do that, the burden on the people who authorized the decision -- they would never be the same," he said. "Nor would the life of the fighter pilot who pulled the trigger."
The general, who flew 300 missions during the Vietnam War and will retire in November, told the Sept. 11 commission that shooting down a civilian aircraft would be as tragic as having one destroyed in a terrorist attack.
"We are not trigger happy," Eberhart said. "We've been wrong 1,500 times in launching fighters to check out air anomalies. I'd rather be wrong 1,500 times than miss one real attack."