Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security
By Kip Hawley, Nathan Means
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Kip Hawley and Nathan Means
All rights reserved.
A DARKENED LAND
ONE CRISP MORNING IN LATE SUMMER 2001, CHIEF BILL HALL of the Port Authority police was pulling on a motorcycle uniform for his daily inspection of the transportation facilities he looked after when the phone rang in his Jersey City office. He picked it up on the first ring. "Hello?"
Rabbi Itchy Herschel, one of the chaplains Bill worked with at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was on the other end. "Hey, chief. What's going on at the World Trade Center?"
"I dunno," replied Bill, in his thick Jersey accent. "I'll get back to ya."
Bill, a slight man with alert eyes and a silver sheen to his hair, walked over to a window facing east across the Hudson. After three decades with the Port Authority he'd been promoted to chief of surface transportation, and his office had a good view of one of his biggest responsibilities, the World Trade Center, towering two or three miles away in downtown Manhattan. He could see some smoke rising out of the top of Building One, the north tower. Bill turned and ran down the hall to tell his boss, Fred Marone, the superintendent of police for the New York New Jersey Port Authority.
"Hey, Fred. I'm going down to the World Trade Center to see what's going on. You wanna go?"
"Yeah, sure," Fred answered.
As Fred and Bill slid into the eastbound traffic they saw more smoke. As they entered the Holland Tunnel towards New York City, they decided to temporarily order the tunnel closed. Within minutes they emerged in Manhattan and drove down West Broadway to Vesey Street, just north of the World Trade complex. Chunks of debris pummeled the roof and hood of the car. Fred jumped out, calling back, "I'll see you inside."
Bill parked underneath a pedestrian overpass. He knew there was a fire burning on the upper floors of one of the World Trade buildings, but that was about it. On the way over, he'd heard a report on the radio that someone was on top of the Woolworth Building, a few blocks northeast of the Twin Towers, with a rocket launcher. Maybe that was it? Bill got out of his car and ran over to rejoin Fred in the lobby of Building One. "I'm going up," said Fred. "You stay here at the command center." He disappeared up the stairs.
At the command center, Bill oversaw the evacuation of the building, an operation that wasn't nearly as chaotic as it could have been given that there could be as many as 50,000 workers in the complex, thanks largely to the dress rehearsal that the bungled 1993 car bombing in the underground garage had provided. After that attack, aware that the building would remain a terrorist target, the owners installed better stairwell lighting and easy-to-open exit doors. As a result of these and other improvements, people who worked more than halfway up the 110-story building exited safely down dozens of flights of stairs. The ground level had also been fortified against another car bomb attack, but that upgrade proved less effective.
A few minutes later, a Port Authority detective named Tommy McHale called Bill, asking him to come over to the plaza between the two buildings. Outside more debris was pouring down, some of it burning. Bill saw the detective emerge from the thick smoke dragging a piece of metal. "Hey, Chief," he yelled. "I think this is a part of an airplane's landing gear."
"All right," said Bill. "Take it downstairs to the police desk. Someone might wanna see it." Just then, a falling body hit the ground between the two men, bursting apart on impact. Stunned, Bill realized that the people on the upper floors, faced with incineration, had started to jump.
Bill ran back to the command center and continued to supervise the evacuation until a fire chief yelled over to him: "We need to get out of here. I think those elevators are going to fall!" He knew that if the heat on the upper floors melted their cables, the elevators would plummet hundreds of feet, squeezing out a massive blast of air and blowing out the whole bottom of the building. Bill tried to relocate his command post just west of the towers, but there was so much falling debris that he had to move a few more blocks away.
In the midst of the still-unexplained catastrophe, he ran into Rabbi Herschel and another Port Authority employee named Jeff Green. Not only did Bill have no time for the ongoing news coverage, he never even heard the second plane hit Building Two. While the three of them were standing together, Building Two pancaked floor by floor down to meet the ground. The men raced across the street to a loading dock behind a Verizon building, trying to take refuge behind a wall separating the docking bays from an entry door. Bill couldn't squeeze in. If this is it, he thought, so be it.
Seconds later a blizzard of dust, sand, dirt, insulation, and burned building material swallowed them, silencing everything. Complete darkness enveloped them, but they weren't dead. After a minute or two, they felt around, and began creeping through several feet of silty matter toward what they thought was the exit to the loading dock. Every time he tried to breathe, Bill felt like he was sticking his head in a sand dune. After a few minutes of crawling he sensed that he'd made it outside, but if the city was still there, he couldn't hear it. And no matter which way he turned, it was still blacker than night.
After an agonizingly long spell of groping their way along, the group stumbled into an Irish pub on West Broadway. They tried the building's phones, all of which were down. A feeling of apocalypse pervaded the bar. Eventually Bill dusted himself off and went back out on the street to find the fire department and start the search and rescue.
THAT MORNING, FOR THE FIRST TIME HE COULD REMEMBER, MICHAEL Jackson rolled out of bed and decided to drive his daughter to school. He called his government-assigned chauffeur, Mr. Howard, and told him not to bother, that he'd make it into work himself.
After dropping Catherine off at her first-grade classroom, Michael merged onto the George Washington Parkway, a green, tree-lined strip that afforded impressive views across the Potomac River to Maryland and Washington, DC. The deputy secretary of transportation for the past four months, Michael was a wiry and excitable workaholic who was running late, but he could still appreciate a stunningly clear day after three months of swampy humidity.
As he drove past the Pentagon, Michael's phone rang. On the other end was an urgent voice from the Federal Aviation Administration's operations center (the "FAA ops center," in Beltway parlance). It was the first place where news reports related to aviation would be received, filtered, and distributed within the agency.
"We've had an incident in New York. Where are you?"
"I'm on the way to the office," replied Michael in a voice shaded with a Texas twang.
"You need to get there ASAP. A plane has hit one of the World Trade Center towers. It might be a private plane; it's unclear."
Michael sped across the Fourteenth Street Bridge, into the Department of Transportation's basement garage, keyed in his private code for the top floor, and went straight down the hall to DOT Secretary Norm Mineta's office. The Department of Transportation had direct authority over the FAA, meaning he and Mineta were the top two people ultimately responsible for aviation.
Inside Secretary Mineta's office was a cluster of people staring at the television. Michael got a quick rundown — the staff had been looking at replays and it was now clear that the aircraft was too big to be a private jet. Then, just as Michael got up to speed, the second plane hit Building Two.
Soon thereafter, the White House summoned Secretary Mineta to join Vice President Dick Cheney and other high-ranking officials in a secure bunker. Left in charge of the DOT, Michael worked with his chief of staff and Jane Garvey, the FAA administrator, to piece together what information they had and to formulate a response to what was now, at the very least, the most serious incident in the history of American transportation.
Across town, the FAA's operations center was swamped. While its staffers tried to get on top of the situation, word came in that two more planes had gone down. Meanwhile, the city was descending into chaos. Panicked employees fled downtown offices. A sonic boom thundered overhead as fighter jets scrambled to intercept incoming planes. Rumors were flying about a bomb at the State Department. In the midst of all this, Michael knew that his wife, Caron, who normally worked from home, happened to be at her downtown DC law firm that morning. But he didn't have time to dial into jammed telephone circuits to call her.
A few hours later, Michael got a call from the Secret Service telling him that he needed to evacuate. He raced back down to the ground floor and hopped in a government-issued black Lincoln Continental. The driver he'd waved off that morning, Mr. Howard, now drove him through the deserted city streets to join a motorcade that was forming just south of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. Though it was an emergency, there was no need to flip on the flashing grill lights. The rendezvous point was just a few blocks away, and the streets were deserted. Minutes later, the Continental pulled up onto the grass beneath the pool before proceeding at high speed down eerily deserted highways into Virginia and one of those infamous "undisclosed locations."
Once inside the bunker, Michael looked around. In a crisis, a well-defined government protocol kicks in, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) had corralled the evacuees into their own governmental areas; Michael recognized the faces of numerous other cabinet members. After sitting restlessly and talking for twenty minutes or so, Michael and his fellow evacuees ventured out to see who else was locked up. They invited themselves into rooms housing the House and Senate leadership and began to compare notes. The Senators had a secure video teleconference (SVTC, pronounced "sivitz") set up with Vice President Cheney at his undisclosed location and were able to share a bit more information about the attacks.
Meanwhile, the skies above were emptied of commercial traffic. Across the country, scores of air traffic controllers had all made the same decision: Get the damn planes on the ground. International traffic from Europe was either sent back or grounded in Canada. Incoming flights from the south landed in Mexico or elsewhere. Every other aircraft was told to land at the nearest airport, Air Force base, or available strip. While this was underway, Secretary Mineta issued an official order grounding all planes. Nothing would take off without his direct authorization.
Back in Michael's bunker, his colleagues were getting antsy. "What the hell am I doing here?" barked one man. After stewing a bit longer, he called his driver. "Come get me. I'm leaving."
"Sir, we need you to stay," a security official urged him.
"Screw this. I'm leaving. I've got work to do." Michael didn't know exactly what work the man was talking about, but in the aftermath of a devastating attack, it was hard to argue the point.
Eventually, Michael got the green light to leave, but since almost everyone had told their drivers to get the hell out of town, there was a long wait for helicopters to ferry them back to DC. Fortunately for Michael, Mr. Howard had disobeyed that order and parked the Lincoln down the road. By late afternoon Michael was "home" on the top floor of the DOT, where he'd be living for the next year.
The most pressing task was getting in touch with the aviation community. He joined Secretary Mineta, the DOT leadership team, and representatives from the FAA in a large conference room. Michael got the CEOs of the major domestic airlines on a conference call.
"Look," said Michael, "we'll share what we know, which isn't a hell of a lot. We don't know when you'll be up to fly again, we don't know if there's another group of these guys waiting to get on a plane tomorrow — there's a lot more we don't know than we do know. But you tell us what you know, tell us what you're concerned about, we'll share what we know and we'll check in every four or five hours."
EARLIER THAT DAY, A MIDDLE-AGED, BALDING MAN WITH A YOUTHFUL face sat listlessly in a training seminar for senior National Security Agency executives. Bill Gaches was several decades into what had, until recently, been a self-described ordinary career at "the Fort," as the NSA was known. His mind drifted. He wasn't learning or doing much, stuck indoors with a hundred other unhappy attendees on a beautiful day. Then suddenly, his secretary walked in, bawling. Shit, he thought. Something has happened to one of my kids or my wife!
He ran over to her. "What's going on?"
"A plane has flown into the World Trade Center," Anna sobbed.
Bill and Anna rode the elevator back up to the sixth floor. By the time they got to the office that Bill insisted on sharing with his deputy —" I don't believe in this separate office crap," he'd been known to say — everyone was gathered around the television staring at the smoke billowing into the cloudless sky.
He didn't know much about aviation, but Bill had been the head of the NSA's counterterrorism's department since its founding the previous year. He stared at the screen, grave. The numbers added up to a plot — or maybe they didn't. Either way, the plane that had crashed was too big to be a general aviation craft that some amateur pilot had lost control of, and there was no way a commercial pilot could make the combination of mistakes necessary to slam into a 110-story building in the middle of Manhattan. Bill glanced at his Deputy, Ruth. "This is not an accident," he said. Then the other plane hit.
"Gather everybody," said Bill. "We know what's going on." When the whole counterterrorism team was assembled, he jumped up onto a desk in the middle of the chaotic room. "We all know we've been attacked. Let's quit feeling like we've screwed up. There's too much going on. Let's get to work."
Then Bill summoned his managers. "You need to figure out who to send home. We're going to be on shift work until I say differently. I don't want everyone to burn out." Bill and his deputy could split their shifts, but the really important people were the linguists, analysts, and reporters — he needed groups of each to be working around the clock.
Soon thereafter, the director of the NSA, General Michael Hayden, directly asked Bill. "What do you want to do with your people? You're the core. Do you want to go to some underground facility?"
"No," said Bill. "We'll stay here."
At midnight, Bill and his deputy stepped out into the cool nighttime air. A nearly full moon floated alone in the sky. The NSA was near the flight path for Baltimore/Washington International airport, but tonight there was no noise and no contrails. The flashing red lights that warned approaching planes of the Fort's presence had been turned off. The normally busy Baltimore-Washington Parkway was silent. But when Bill turned around he was nearly blinded by the row of lights shining on the sixth floor of the otherwise blackened building.
"We've got to turn those lights off," said Bill. Less than twenty-four hours after the completely unforeseen attacks on both the iconic buildings that had towered over Manhattan as well as the smoldering Pentagon, who knew what was next? Someone could be sitting in the woods surrounding the building, taking potshots at its windows. The next day, the NSA's logistics team came in and covered the windows with a heavy black material that kept the counterterrorism floor's lights completely hidden. It didn't come down until Christmas.
IN THE YEARS FOLLOWING 9/11, AMERICA WAS CONSUMED WITH WHAT went wrong and how the nation could have left itself so open to this horror. But in the immediate aftermath, there was also an unprecedented sense of unity and a surge of energy as the whole country dusted itself off — and resolved to never again be subject to a day like that.
This is the story of the people who took up that challenge, the task of reimagining our aviation and transportation security. On the day of the attacks, some of these people were already deeply involved in America's security and government network. Others were retired, working for private industry, even attending college or playing in bands. But over the next eight years, their individual contributions, sense of purpose, and commitment would be irreplaceable. In a breathtakingly short period of time, they created from scratch an agency that was simultaneously ambitious, flawed, inspired, ridiculed, innovative, and entirely unique within the federal government: the Transportation Security Administration. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Permanent Emergency by Kip Hawley, Nathan Means. Copyright © 2012 Kip Hawley and Nathan Means. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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