The first two hours of that morning in the Pentagon were quite normal. As a Navy lieutenant commander, I was the operations officer for the 24/7 intelligence “Alert Center” within the National Military Joint Intelligence Center (NMJIC).1 After a year of serving as a watch officer on one of the five teams, I had moved up to managing the day-to-day operations of the intelligence hub. It was a duty I loved: I worked with good people, had an intensely interesting view on the world, and believed in the mission. The Alert Center was connected to the around-the-clock watch teams at the White House Situation Room, all the “three-letter” intelligence agencies, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), the military services and combatant commands, State Department’s Ops Center, and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Prior to and following the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in Yemen, there had been a lot “chatter” in intelligence reporting about terrorist threats. The chatter waxed and waned, but it was always there, though never with much specificity. Like most of my colleagues, I imagined all those threats were to U.S. embassies and civilians and deployed military forces outside the United States. On the morning of 11 September, before the attacks took place, I was in a meeting in the basement of the Pentagon. Coincidentally, we were discussing plans for a “continuity of operations” exercise that was to take place that fall—an exercise that would test the Pentagon’s ability to manage in the event of a natural disaster, nuclear war, or a terrorist attack.
On the other side of the room, a television was on, showing CNN’s Headline News. Twenty-four-hour TV news is a fixture in every military and intelligence command center. Sometimes classified information sources provide the first glimpses of an event, but often ubiquitous global journalism provides the first “tipper.” As our meeting progressed, we noticed the “breaking news” of an airliner hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. My first thought was, “The plane must have had a catastrophic engine or system malfunction taking off from LaGuardia.” The time was just before 9:00 a.m. My colleagues and I watched in horror as we considered how many people in the plane and the building must have been killed in that “accident.”
As we crowded around the television, suddenly another airliner ripped across the screen and crashed into the South Tower. Instantly, we all knew these were terrorist attacks, not accidents. I sprinted upstairs to the Alert Center and arrived to see a number of watchstanders crowded around the “NOIWON” phone. The National Operations/Intelligence Watch Officer Network (NOIWON) was a top-secret-level phone system that connected all the watch centers in the U.S. government. Any one of the centers could initiate a NOIWON call if they had vital, timely, breaking intelligence or information—information that merited waking up the President, or immediate action from Cabinet members or other senior officials.
Because the threat was aviation-focused, the NORAD and FAA watch officers were doing most of the talking. Every few minutes the White House Situation Room would pulse the other watch centers to see if they had anything to add. FAA reported that they were ordering every airplane in U.S. airspace, or approaching U.S. airspace, to land immediately at the closest airport that could handle them. NORAD was scrambling military fighters from as many air bases as they could. The thought of thousands of airliners, with hundreds of thousands of people on board, suddenly declaring to land at airports that were not their destinations, was stunning to me. As I tried to wrap my head around that action, someone from across the center yelled out, “The Pentagon has been hit.” Not hearing or feeling an explosion or impact, my immediate thought was, “Cessna? Or a car bomb in the parking lot?” It was—and still is—eerie to me that a Boeing 757 could hit the building and I would not feel it or hear it. But within seconds, the FAA watch officer on the NOIWON call was saying, “We’ve lost contact with American Flight 77 in vicinity of Washington, DC.” Sirens and smoke alarms started going off in the Pentagon. The public address system called out, “Evacuate. Evacuate. Evacuate.”
Then came words I will never forget. And every time I recall this part of the story—even 20 years later—I get chills. Over the NOIWON phone came the voice of National Security Advisor (NSA) Condoleezza Rice. I had participated in numerous NOIWON calls during my previous two years in the Alert Center. They were always handled by watch officers—people like me, mid-grade military officers or government civilians—not by “principals” (Cabinet-level officials). Rice identified herself by saying, “This is NSA ‘actual’.” She did not use her name. She went on, “I am ordering all principals to go to their alternate locations. I repeat, all principals go to your alternate locations.”
The voice of the National Security Advisor herself (“actual”) punctuated how serious this situation was. I started thinking about the possibility of truck bombings and terrorist shootings at other national icons and monuments: The Mall of America, the Brooklyn Bridge, a major-league baseball stadium, and the St. Louis Arch flashed through my mind.
“Alternate locations” meant secure facilities, many of them hardened and buried, outside the National Capital Region. Most government agencies have “continuity of operations” plans that include the ability to move teams and senior leaders to these alternate locations to keep the most essential functions of government going. Vice President Dick Cheney took a lot of grief for being at an “undisclosed location” for about a week after the attacks, but he was doing his part for “continuity of government.” The Pentagon’s alternate command facility had been built during the Cold War—and my teams and I had been there for several familiarization trips to test computers and communications and receive badges.
Rear Admiral Jake Jacoby, the Joint Staff Director for Intelligence (and my boss’ boss’ boss), was now on the watch floor and he turned to me and said, “Get a team moving [to the alternate site] now.” I called the Air Force colonel in charge of the “on call” team that day. His wife answered the phone. I asked to speak to him, and she said, “Just a minute, he’s out mowing the lawn.” When he picked up the phone he asked, “What’s going on, Bill?” All I had to say was, “Turn on your TV, sir.” Through the phone line I could sense him starting to comprehend. “Oh my God,” he muttered. Then I told him to start the recall tree for his team and get them moving to the alternate command center.
While I did not hear or feel the airplane’s impact, my then-wife was at our house in Alexandria, about 7 miles away. She is quite sure she heard the impact. It was a gorgeous, cool September day. She had the windows open and was homeschooling our daughters. There was a noticeable thud—unlike any normal street noise or construction activity she had ever heard. A friend called her a few minutes later and asked, “Is Bill okay?” My wife said, “What do you mean?” And then they had the “turn on your TV” conversation. She picked up the phone and called my office. The secretary in our office, which was located off the watch floor, had not seen me since I had left for the 8:30 meeting in the basement. Her first response to my wife’s query was not reassuring, but she quickly came and found me and said, “Call home!”
By that time, I knew I had to get to the alternate command site, so I asked my wife to quickly pack a bag with a change of uniform, t-shirts, underwear, socks, and shave kit and try to bring it to me. I would walk down Route 1 in Crystal City and meet up with her. As crazy and bizarre as that plan sounds, it’s what we did. The exodus of cars going south on Route 1 created a huge traffic jam, but there were no cars going northbound. We met up opposite the McDonald’s in Crystal City. She had the kids in the minivan and a bag for me. At every checkpoint coming up the road she showed her Navy reserve identification card and told police officers, “My husband is in the Pentagon and I have to get this bag to him.” It worked. We hugged and said goodbye, not knowing when we’d see each other again. (While we divorced nine years after 9/11, I am eternally grateful to my ex-wife for making that trek in the face of significant uncertainty and fear.)
I jogged back to the Pentagon’s south parking lot and met up with a civilian colleague named Richard who worked in the Alert Center with me. We got in his car to drive to the alternate site. As we rounded the southwest side of the building, we caught our first glimpse of the damage, and reality sank in further.
The Pentagon was built during World War II to endure bomb damage. It is a hardened building—actually a series of concentric rings that are more or less buildings unto themselves. The NMCC was located on the second floor between the C and D rings, just inside the River Entrance. It was a hardened, windowless facility within the building, which explains why I didn’t hear or feel the 757’s impact. While some of us relocated to the back-up command center, the NMJIC never evacuated. My colleagues remained at their desks, stood their watches, and turned over to the team that came on later that day—despite the smoke that filled the building, the fires that raged a few hundred yards away, and the threat of follow-on attacks.
My colleagues in the Navy Command Center, however—on the side of the building where the plane impacted—were not so lucky. I knew two people very well who perished that day. Lieutenant Darin Pontell and civilian analyst Angie Houtz both worked closely with me. Not a September goes by that I don’t think about them and feel both lucky and a little guilty that the terrorists did not fly that airliner straight into the River Entrance. If they had, Darin and Angie would be the ones remembering their fallen colleagues from 9/11—and I would probably be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Fate? Luck? God’s will? I really don’t know.
I stayed just one night at the alternate command center because the Pentagon fires were brought under control; but we kept watch teams at both locations until after New Year’s 2002. That fall and winter, I was part of the 9/11 intelligence task force that sifted through an incredible amount of information on al Qaeda and played a role in planning the military operations in Afghanistan that began in October 2001.
Over the past few weeks, I have been saddened to watch how the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has come to a close. The recent deaths of 13 U.S. servicemembers and some 60 civilians at Kabul International Airfield weigh heavily on me as we soberly mark the 20th anniversary of that horrific day. At the same time, the efforts of so many members of the military and other government agencies to prevent additional foreign terror attacks on U.S. soil have been significant, successful, and, often heroic. We hunted down Osama bin Laden and neutered al Qaeda. Now we must maintain vigilance and think ahead of other adversaries who would do us harm.
1. The NMJIC Alert Center was adjacent to and part of the National Military Command Center (NMCC). It housed the Joint Staff J-2 Intelligence watch teams, which worked closely with and supported the Joint Staff J-3 Operations watch teams