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In northern Virginia, the morning of 11 September 2001 was beautiful, with clear blue skies and mild temperatures that gave just a hint of fall. That morning I left my home in Alexandria, Virginia, an hour later than my past routine had called for, having entered into the CIA’s ninety-day Retirement Transition Program just eleven days earlier. I had spent the time since then cleaning up loose ends at the office, preparing a resume covering my thirty-five-year career in the most exciting, challenging, and—not infrequently—dangerous job within the CIA. Retirement was going to be a dramatic shift for me, and, quite frankly, it was a stretch to say that I was looking forward to it. The Retirement Transition Program is designed to help ease employees into retirement and alleviate, as much as possible, the inevitable career-change angst. The three-month period I would spend in the transition program with others facing their own retirement—many with excited anticipation, I’m sure—would help us in our respective searches for “life after the CIA.” Although I was interested in exploring employment opportunities in the private sector, I had no idea exactly what I wanted to do. I was hopeful that the transition program would provide the time and the insights to allow me to develop a clear plan for the next several years.
I was anxious to reach the office, because I had received bad news late the previous day that Ahmad Shah Masood, the charismatic Tajik leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, with whom I had a long professional relationship, had been killed in a suicide bomb attack at his headquarters in the Panjshir Valley. Worse for me was the news that Masood’s senior political adviser, Masood Khalili, had been seriously injured in the blast and might not survive. Khalili and I were professional colleagues and close personal friends. I felt saddened and helpless at the news of his condition. The assassins were identified as two “Arab journalists” representing some, as yet, unidentified Islamic organization based in Europe. This was disturbing news. The Arab angle immediately pointed to the possibility that Usama bin Ladin and his al-Qa’ida organization were responsible for the attack. Bin Ladin, hosted by Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, was hiding in Afghanistan, and the U.S. government was applying all the pressure it could muster to force the Taliban to remove bin Ladin from their country.
The Taliban had grown from a handful of refugee Afghan religious students in the radical madrasses (religious schools) of northern Pakistan in early 1994 to a force now controlling three-fourths of Afghanistan. The only serious military opposition to the Taliban rested in Ahmad Shah Masood and his Northern Alliance forces, which controlled the rugged, mountainous northeast corner of Afghanistan. Masood’s absence would seriously weaken the Northern Alliance, a shaky collection of regional warlords held together primarily by their charismatic leader. Killing Mullah Omar’s last major opponent seemed a sure way for bin Ladin to gain continued acceptance as the Taliban leader’s favored guest.
When I arrived at the CIA compound in Langley, Virginia, I drove past the Old Headquarters Building, passing my former parking spot located just fifty yards from the front entrance of the building. The spots in the immediate front of the building are reserved for senior officers in management positions; as deputy chief of the Near East and South Asia Division of the Directorate of Operations (DO), I had been part of that rather small group. Now I was relegated to parking in the West Parking Lot, the lot farthest from the building, and I would join the morning scramble to park there, then face the ten- to twelve-minute walk back to the building. A little thing, to be sure, but it was a clear daily reminder of my changed status.
I was in the Near East Division (NE) front office suite, down the hall from where I had sat for the last two years. It was a comfortable office, and I was near my friends and colleagues, at least for a few more days. Once I finished the remaining administrative tasks facing me, I would stop coming into the office on a daily basis. I reached the office this morning only to find that there was no further news from Afghanistan concerning the fate of Khalili or the status of the Northern Alliance leadership in the aftermath of what should have been a serious, perhaps crippling blow to them. I slipped into my morning routine of getting on the secure computer system, checking e-mail, and reviewing the work I would focus on that day; then I wandered toward the area in front of the division chief’s office to get a cup of coffee.
At least five or six people were standing there, including Chief NE, Jim H., and the television set was on. This was unusual, because the morning is a busy time at the DO. Our stations overseas are open while Washington sleeps, and when we arrive in the morning we have a full dump of incoming traffic from the field to review, organize, and respond to. I joined the group and I too stood transfixed by the images on the television screen. The first tower of the World Trade Center poured a billowing cloud of black smoke from its wounded side, staining the clear blue September sky.
There was confusion within the group watching the TV, and people spoke softly with an ear to the commentary. A small plane had hit the building. No, it was an airliner. How could this have happened? How badly was the tower damaged? I recalled that a B-25 bomber had struck the Empire State Building on a foggy morning in late 1944, and although there had been extensive damage, the building itself withstood the explosion and fire. Surely the World Trade Center buildings were equally well constructed. Someone reminded the group that one of the towers had withstood a terrorist attack in the early 1990s when a truck filled with explosives was detonated in its underground parking garage.
Then, as we watched, a second aircraft flashed into the picture and penetrated the second tower. The scene rocked the room. We all recognized that this was no tragic accident unfolding before us; it was a deliberate, planned attack. Word soon came from friends in the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) that perhaps as many as six commercial airliners had been hijacked that morning. More attacks were to come. The group standing before the television set grew and changed as people joined the crowd and others wandered off, dazed and shaken. Then we watched the screen—as did millions of Americans—in disbelief and horror as the first tower collapsed.
I am not sure of the sequence of events after that. I was too shocked by the unbelievable scenes playing out in real time before us. There was a telephone call at my secretary’s desk, and she picked up and listened carefully. I recall a hush beginning to settle on the group around her, and she looked up and said, “The Pentagon was just struck by an airliner. It crashed right into the building, at the side just next to Route 395.”
I was reeling. My son, Christopher, worked at the Pentagon. Was he hurt? Was he dead? What was going on? I could not recall what area of the Pentagon he worked in, and I prayed that he was safe. I called my daughter Jenny, who is a State Department officer in the East Asia Bureau. She came on the phone choked with emotion, having also heard the news about the Pentagon. She had immediately tried to call Chris on his cell phone, but the cell network was overloaded with calls and she could not get through. I asked about Kate, my other daughter, and Jenny said she had gotten through to her at her office in Rosslyn, Virginia, and she was fine. Kate said she’d remain at her office until she knew what was going on. I said good-bye to Jenny with a large lump in my throat; it seemed to me that the State Department complex would be an attractive target.
Jim came out of his office and called for attention. He had just been contacted by our Seventh Floor (senior CIA management resides there) and was told that the decision had been made to evacuate CIA Headquarters save for a small, key skeleton staff. There were reports that at least one other hijacked plane was in the air and heading for Washington. The attack on the Pentagon was taken as confirmation that key government installations in the DC area were targets, and all were to be evacuated. All CIA personnel were to close up their offices and immediately depart the compound.
It was an eerie experience trudging down the stairwell from the sixth floor with friends and colleagues, leaving when there was a crisis under way. It ran contrary to all my years of experience as a CIA operations officer. A time of crisis was when we dug in and worked the hardest. This evacuation seemed too much like running away. Insult was added to injury when we exited the building and saw the massive traffic jam that had already begun, as thousands of employees tried to exit the compound at the same time. I was angry and frightened, and I thought of my wife and children. I had tried to reach my daughter Kate before leaving my office, but the phone lines were still jammed. I hoped she really would stay in her office until the attacks were over and the streets clear. And I thought of my wife, Betsy, now in Beirut, Lebanon, on a temporary duty assignment with the State Department. Who knew what impact these events would have overseas. Beirut had become much safer in the past few years, but I hated to think of her there at a time like this.
Later that evening the news was better. Christopher was safe, having delayed going in to work after a late night in the office on 10 September. He had just arrived at the metro station at the Pentagon when the plane struck, and the exits up to the street level and the Pentagon itself had quickly been closed. Passengers in the station were safe and were able to exit the station on following trains. Jenny and Kate were back home, shaken but also safe. Later that night I got a call from Betsy. By then we knew that all air traffic into the United States from Europe was canceled for at least several days; so although she was stuck in Beirut until that situation was resolved, at least she was safe.
For me, the next several days were a blur. Although I was relieved of the worry about my family, the saturation of media coverage of the events playing around the clock made it hard to focus on anything but the tragedy. I returned to the office the next day and somehow managed to halfheartedly resume the final tasks left undone from the day before, and by the thirteenth I finished the last of my administrative requirements. With no real job on which to focus my energy, and rather than feel like a fifth wheel by hanging around the office, I decided to take several days off and think about my future. I was adrift and, like everyone in the country, I was angry, dazed, and frustrated at the inability to do anything to punish those who had perpetrated this horror on so many innocent people. Betsy’s arrival home late that night helped bring some focus back into my life.
Late in the evening of 13 September, I received a call at home asking me to meet with Cofer Black, chief of the CTC, early the next morning at his office. I had no idea what Cofer wanted with me, and while I drove to the compound I mused over the possibilities of what he would want to discuss. Cofer is a large man, well over six feet tall, always well dressed and imposing. He greeted me warmly and seated me at the small conference table that he used for meetings. He came straight to the point. “Gary, I want you to take a small team of CIA officers into Afghanistan. You will link up with the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley, and your job is to convince them to cooperate fully with the CIA and the U.S. military as we go after bin Ladin and the al-Qa’ida. You will also evaluate their military capabilities and recommend steps we can take to bring the Northern Alliance forces to a state of readiness so they can effectively take on the Taliban forces, opening the way for our efforts against UBL.” Cofer leaned forward and spoke quietly. “Gary, this is an incredibly risky assignment, but it is also incredibly important. You are, frankly, the best-qualified officer to lead this team.”
I responded without a pause. “Of course I’ll take the team in. I’m honored and grateful to be asked.”
Cofer thanked me, saying that anything I needed—people, materiels, money—would be made available. He asked that I meet immediately with Rod S., chief of the Special Activities Division (SAD), to get SAD’s input into the planning. That thought had already occurred to me. I telephoned Rod from Cofer’s office, and he said he was waiting to meet with me.
Rod greeted me outside his office door. He is a former marine and has maintained that fit and solid image, with hair still closely cut. I was sure he never, ever observed “casual Fridays.” Rod repeated Cofer’s assurances of providing whatever assistance I might need. He had one request, however—that I consider taking one of his senior officers as my deputy on the team, and he named Rick as his choice. I agreed immediately. Although I had met Rick on several occasions, I knew him more by his excellent reputation as one of the youngest Senior Intelligence Service (SIS) officers in the CIA, and one of the best officers working in the paramilitary area of operations. Rick was standing by, and while we waited for him to come to the office, Rod expressed his concerns about the upcoming mission.
He explained that the decision to field a team to Afghanistan had been made the day before by CIA’s director, George Tenet, who ordered Cofer and the CTC to take the lead in pulling together a team for the mission. With a shake of his head, Rod said that the CTC had placed Murray, a former CIA technical operations officer, in charge of making the initial arrangements for the mission, until Cofer could meet with me to offer me the assignment. Rod went on to say that Murray had hit the ground like a tornado, creating, in his opinion, almost as much confusion as progress.
I knew Murray from the 1991 Gulf War and Riyadh, where he had worked for me on a paramilitary program to develop intelligence collection capabilities inside Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. Murray had done an excellent job in that program, but he clearly chafed under bureaucratic restraints, and he had trouble working for officers he did not respect. He had resigned from the CIA following the end of the Gulf War, although he had eventually come back to work for the CTC on contract. I knew I could work effectively with Murray, and the fact that part of his background included a number of years as a navy SEAL team member made him an attractive candidate for our team.
Rick arrived and we exchanged greetings, recounting quickly where we had previously met. I then welcomed him as my deputy. Our operational backgrounds and experiences complemented each other: I had been involved in Afghan affairs on and off since 1978 and had personally dealt with many of the senior Northern Alliance commanders during the 1988–90 time frame; Rick was a former Special Forces A-Team member and he had years of field experience in CIA paramilitary operations. I said I thought the matchup was perfect. We left Rod to meet with Murray and review the status of his efforts.
Rick and I spent several hours with Murray, and indeed he was a whirlwind of activity. He had contacted various offices to arrange for equipment we would need. He had been in touch with SAD to discuss possible flight arrangements to get the team into central Asia, where we would have to stage before moving into Afghanistan. Murray also “recruited” a young CTC officer for our team. Neither Rick nor I said much, simply taking notes on the things Murray had under way. He had made an excellent start, but it was clear that bureaucratic toes had been stepped on and that Murray had too many balls in the air for one man to possibly handle.
I listed several factors that we should consider in our planning. The team should be small—six or seven officers maximum. We would need a professional communications officer with extensive field experience, and we should have a medic accompany us. With Rick, Murray, and me, that made five officers. (I had already decided that Murray’s recruit would not come along; he had no CIA field experience and lacked area knowledge of Afghanistan.) The other two officers should be operations officers, and I mentioned I had a strong candidate in mind for one of those positions. Rick said he had a Special Activities officer in mind for the other slot.
I noted that our mission was open-ended and that we might be required to stay in Afghanistan for months. Resupply would eventually be worked out, but we should take with us as much essential material as we could safely manage. I suggested to Rick that he and I take the night to think through the myriad administrative and logistical details facing us, then regroup early the next morning to pull together the team and the necessary equipment.
As we headed our separate ways, all I could think of was that I had just been given an opportunity to take the first real steps to strike back at bin Ladin and the al-Qa’ida. The images of the Twin Towers collapsing, the Pentagon in flames, and that blackened crater in Pennsylvania were etched in my memory. I knew that the only way to effectively get at bin Ladin was to go after him in Afghanistan, and the only way to effectively chase him in that country was to eliminate the Taliban forces protecting him. The only way to do that was by using the only military force in Afghanistan that was organized and capable of taking on the Taliban in the field—Masood’s Northern Alliance. My only fear was that Masood’s death might have so shaken the confidence of the remaining leadership of the alliance that they would be too demoralized to carry on the fight.
My immediate concern, however, was the upcoming struggle I would face when I arrived home and informed Betsy of my new assignment. My wife is a State Department officer, and we had shared a number of dangerous assignments during our twelve years of marriage. We were together in Riyadh during the Gulf War, and we had sat in our living room there with Iraqi SCUD missiles exploding in the skies overhead. She took in stride the threat of chemical or biological weapons, the massive explosions of conventional SCUD warheads nearby, and the real threat of Iraqi terrorist attacks in Riyadh. We did a three-and-a-half-year assignment in Islamabad after that, again dealing with the constant threat of terrorist attacks. She was evacuated from Pakistan following the al-Qa’ida bomb attacks against U.S. embassies in Africa in August 1998, but she returned to finish out her assignment in Islamabad the following spring. Dangerous places and dangerous assignments were not new to her. And over the years she had come to accept the fact that my CIA work put me at far greater risk than that taken by officers from other government agencies serving abroad.
But this was the most dangerous assignment of my career. She and I had already discussed the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, and how shaky the Northern Alliance was following Masood’s assassination. I had to tell her that the team would be isolated, and we would be on our own should the situation deteriorate and the Northern Alliance break. We were going deep into harm’s way, and I could not lie to her by saying that help would be anywhere nearby. I knew she would be angry with me for taking on this risk so late in my career. Our lives had been on a smooth path, and we had plans for retirement. We were looking forward to sharing a new life outside U.S. government service. Now all of that was in jeopardy.
We sat up late into the night discussing the mission, and there were tears and anger, as I had anticipated. In the end she knew that my mind was made up. As she got ready for bed, she said, “I know you’re going to do this. I don’t really understand why you want to put yourself at such risk. I’ll try to be supportive, but just don’t expect me to pretend to be happy about it.” I knew that not being able to share this danger with me was one of the hardest things for her to accept about the situation.