Like many people in DC, I have very specific memories of where I was when the planes flew into the Twin Towers. My experience was a little different than most (anywhere except this town), as I was a senior analyst at one of the three-letter intelligence agencies at the time.
I was in my office when the first alert flashed across my computer monitor, informing us that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time the second plane hit, we were standing in front of a television watching what was happening with the rest of the world. I had been getting ready to drive to a 10 AM meeting with directors at the National Security Council in the Old Executive Office Building, but needless to say that didn’t happen.
Within the hour, we were told to evacuate. After the Pentagon was hit, senior management worried that there would be more attacks on government buildings. Intelligence agencies make good targets: you can leave the government deaf and blind with just a couple of strikes. But no one wanted to leave. Some volunteered to man the watch—the essential personnel who keep operations running after regular hours—to relieve those who had children, but no one on the watch accepted the offer.
We ended up staying home for several days. A lifetime, in intelligence work. Whether it was the right decision or not, it’s hard to say. I can tell you that in my office, the desire to remain on the job was palpable. No one wanted to let down the American people, or not be there to respond to the policymakers and military leaders who needed to make difficult decisions.
A lot changed after that day, and few worlds changed as drastically as the Intelligence Community. This blog post isn’t the place to debate whether or not those changes have been successfully implemented: that could be the subject of endless discussion. It is remarkable to see how much has changed in a community that traditionally changes very slowly.
A year later, I was detailed to the Pentagon, right around the first anniversary of 9/11. The office to which I was assigned had been in the wing that had been destroyed—but as luck would have it, they had been moved to temporary quarters in another wing a few weeks before the attack. So rather than having been wiped out when the plane hit the building, many of them helped get the wounded out, including one doctor who treated the victims on-site.
On the first anniversary, jets flew over the Pentagon as part of the commemoration. I was in a meeting with teammates who had been in the building, and you could see the terror pass over their faces as the low-flying fighters shook the Pentagon, remembering what had happened that day. You never expect a building as massive as the Pentagon to move but these people had felt it not once, but twice.
Ten years later, I’m no longer in intelligence, having recently separated to start a new career. This is one reason why I’m wrote this post: because I can, while my colleagues still working can’t talk openly about their personal experiences. I wanted to give readers a taste of what it was like to be inside the compounds when the planes struck, and to let you know about the commitment and courage of your federal workforce.