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PostMemories of 9/11 (Michael Delong, Qatar, 09/11/11 5:12 am)
This is my inside view of what I saw and did on 9/11 and 9/12, 2001. I was the Deputy Commander of Central Command. This was my first day back from a 10-day trip. At 7 AM on September 11, 2001, we were immersed in our weekly staff meeting in the Master Room at CentCom.
The department heads--the generals of the J (Joint) sections--sat with me around the huge conference table, their assistants standing along the back wall. We were breaking down the previous night's intel from the Middle East. Franks was traveling, so I was running the show. I had just returned from Oman, where I had met with Omani defense officials, so we had a lot to cover.
At 8:45 AM, my secretary came into the room and discreetly handed me a piece of paper, not wishing to interrupt the proceedings. The note read: "An airliner has just hit one of the World Trade Center towers."
I quietly rose from the table and walked down to my office with my executive assistant. We always have a television on at CentCom (on mute), tuned either to CNN, FOX News Channel, or MSNBC, so we turned up the volume and began to watch. I said to my assistant, "The weather must be bad and someone got lost. That must be the explanation."
But when I saw a second plane appear in the clear blue skies, I knew it was an attack. Before it hit, I was on the phone to the head of Operations, Major General Gene Renuart.
"Stand up the CAT," I said.
The Crisis Action Team (CAT) is used only in dire emergencies--usually ones necessitating force--and is designed to assemble instantly. The team is composed of about fifteen officers from all six directorates--personnel, intel, operations, logistics, plans and programs, and communications and information technology--and has its own situation room at CentCom where they can focus exclusively on the issue at hand and keep intel flowing to the rest of us.
"Are you sure?" General Renuart asked. Pulling officers for a CAT leaves the directorates undermanned, so you need to be damn sure you need it.
"Shouldn't we wait?"
I turned to my assistant.
"Get a hold of General Franks, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense."
If coordinated attacks were occurring at the World Trade Center, attacks could be imminent or in progress against our boys in our AOR.
I called our regional commanders and told them to lock down their bases. When bases are locked down, guards are doubled, physical barriers are erected for a wide perimeter, no one is allowed out, entry is restricted, soldiers are made to put on battle dress (including flak jackets and helmets), and everyone is positioned to expect an attack. Transport airplanes often won't want to fly into a locked-down area.
It costs a fortune and obviously puts extreme stress on base personnel. You can't lock down bases for extended periods of time.
We then heard the Pentagon was hit, and that another plane was heading for the White House. Twenty-five thousand people work in the Pentagon, including our direct boss, the Secretary of Defense. I tried to get through on the phone, but the Pentagon went into a blackout and all their phones were down.
That's when my red phone rang.
The red phone--only Frank's office and my office had one--is a direct-dial secure phone to reach the President, the Secretary of Defense, the deputy Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commanders of all the regional commands around the world. I picked it up.
"Do you know what's happened?" the voice asked.
It was Dick Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was calling from the Pentagon; somehow he'd found a working phone. He told me the Pentagon had been hit hard. We compared notes on what we knew, what we had done, and what we needed to do, especially regarding the lockdown of our bases. I told him we were tracking down Franks, and he said, "Rumsfeld will want to talk to you too. But I had a hell of a time getting through and don't have a working number here to give you."
As I hung up with Myers, I looked at the television and saw images of the burning Pentagon. Rumsfeld was on the screen, carrying bodies out of the building.
Myers's voice, usually emotionless, could barely contain his shock, anger, and thirst for retribution. All day long I was on the phone with leaders at the Pentagon and their voices conveyed the same intense anger. One even told me, "You don't sound angry."
"I am, but I have a job to do. I can't afford to let anger dictate what I'm going to do next."
Many CentCom staffers thought we might get hit next. We elevated security tenfold in and around MacDill Air Force base, erecting barriers outside and putting multiple shooters on the roofs.
My assistant had Franks on the phone from Cyprus.
"I'm coming home," he said.
"I'm not sure I can get you clearance," I said. "There's nothing in the air right now."
"I'm coming home," he repeated. "You find a way." He hung up.
Then Myers was back on the line, this time with Rumsfeld. We reviewed the actions we'd taken or were going to take in expectation of additional attacks. Myers assured me that Franks would be cleared for arrival.
The calls never stopped coming, and most of my day was consumed with logistical details. I discovered that rather than the brief retaliatory strikes that had been the Clinton administration's response to terrorist attacks, this administration would want war, and we immediately began preparing for that, requesting that troops on leave be recalled. I asked our J3 to review existing counter-terrorism contingency plans. I wanted to pinpoint known terrorist cells so that we could deploy SpecialOps as soon as we got the order.
Mostly, I was occupied with logistically helping get the CAT into place. It began with 12 people, but by day's end we realized this crisis wasn't going away, and the CAT grew to 35 people, which was enormous for a CAT and required substantial reshuffling of personnel. Indeed, this was just the beginning of what was to come: the CentCom staff, normally around 1,000, would triple to almost 3,000 in the months to come.
Not only that, but this incident would be the catalyst for a deployable (forward) CentCom Headquarters, situated in Doha, Qatar. This is something I had set in motion months before, at Franks's request. He had wanted a second, deployable CentCom Headquarters, in the region of our AOR, to be able to deploy wherever a war would be. (It was not used or needed during the Afghan War, but would be pivotal in the Iraqi War.)
All day long we watched TV and talked to our people. At some point the name "Al-Qaeda" arose, and it seemed to stick. If that was the case, we had a target: Al-Qaeda itself, and the Taliban government of Afghanistan, a terrorist-sponsored government which supported Al-Qaeda and gave them sanctuary in the region. We also, of course, then had a location: Afghanistan.
I began to pull our information on Afghanistan, and in a short time realized we had very little. With no military presence there, no ambassador, little human intelligence, we had almost nothing to go on; it was largely a mystery. So I requested any and all information we could on Afghanistan. At CentCom we have a permanent political advisor who's a former ambassador, and we had him gather as much information as he could from the State Department; we also have a permanent CIA representative--we had him work with the CIA to get us everything he could. Throughout the day we turned to any and all sources to educate ourselves on the country, its military, its government, its terrain, its history of warfare. I knew that when Franks returned he'd want to have briefings ready on who was responsible, what our course of action should be, and how we were going to execute it. He would want thorough information, and he'd want a recommendation.
Sure enough, it wasn't long until Franks was back on a plane, heading for the United States. He called me from the air. He was in a more relaxed mood, maybe because he was heading home, maybe because he knew there would be action before him or maybe because he had been able to get through to Rumsfeld and Shelton in the past few hours. He told me how the pilot had summoned him to listen to his headset. "I don't hear anything," Franks had told him. "That's the whole point," the pilot had responded. "Right now we're the only thing in the air over the entire Atlantic."
"Mike, these are going to be some long, hard times," he said.
"We're not sleeping here yet," I answered.
He laughed; one of the rare times I'd heard him laugh that day.
It was true. I wasn't going to sleep yet, and wouldn't for a long time. On September 11th, I didn't leave CentCom until 2am of the 12th. All day long people were calling me, from the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, constantly updating me with more and more information on Afghanistan. I already started to become the "answer man," as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz would later come to dub me. By the end of the day I was drained-and there was no relief on the horizon.
President George W. Bush was staring at me. Franks and I were on a video teleconference with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and others--the entire National Security Council. The president would be briefed on who was responsible for the attacks, what we'd done, and what action could be taken (our part).
"There's no doubt in my mind it was al-Qaeda," Tenet said, noting the recent spike in al-Qaeda chatter, including chatter claiming credit for the attacks, and the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Massoud had been an enemy of the Taliban, an Afghan hero and leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and a possible US ally in the event of war.
"The agency has some contacts in Afghanistan," Tenet continued. "We've been looking into that area for a while. We know al-Qaeda is there--under Clinton we threw missiles at them there. We've been working with some of the tribal leaders to support the Northern Alliance in a limited way. It was a small operation. But we have people in place. I think we can handle this thing."
Rumsfeld interjected, "This needs to be a military operation. And if it's going to be a military op, then it has to be run by the military, not the CIA. I'm not even so sure Afghanistan is the right place to start. What if Iraq is involved?"
"What are you talking about?" Powell said. "We have al-Qaeda to deal with. If Iraq's involved and we know they're involved, then they'll be a part of this war. All we know for now is that al-Qaeda is responsible--and they're in Afghanistan."
"Let's deal with one thing at a time," the President said. "Let's deal with what we know. We know al-Qaeda is responsible. Let's focus on al-Qaeda."
Rumsfeld called us shortly afterwards, with Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the line.
"What about Iran?" Rumsfeld asked.
"What about them?" Franks replied.
"I want as much intel as we have on whoever we think was involved--whether it's Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, or anyone else. Just because it was al-Qaeda doesn't mean they weren't working in conjunction with some state. I don't want to rule anything out until we know for sure."JE comments: This fascinating account from Michael Delong is about as insider as it gets. Thank you for sending it, Michael! I'm sure a lot of WAISers will have followup questions. From the conversation above, I understand that Rumsfeld wanted to broaden the military response beyond just Afghanistan, but President Bush and Secretary Powell were against going into Iraq. I'd also like to know how seriously the NSC considered Iran to be one of the sponsors of the 9/11 attacks.