Read an Excerpt
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.