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Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Securityby Richard B Myers
Just before 8:45 on the bright Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, I was waiting in the outer office of Georgia Senator Max Cleland on Capitol Hill. This was one of several scheduled courtesy calls before my Senate confirmation hearings as incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America's senior military officer. I had been Vice Chairman since March 2000, serving in both the Clinton and Bush administrations in that capacity.
Max Cleland and I got along well, and he supported my nomination. Like me, Senator Cleland had served in combat during the Vietnam War. He lost both legs and one arm in 1968 when a grenade exploded near Khe Sanh. I had flown 240 "fast" Forward Air Controller, strike, and Wild Weasel missions in modified F4 Phantoms, many against SAM missile sites in North Vietnam. We had learned a lot about war as young men.
We also worked well as partners in America's enduring yet flexible framework of constitutional government. The military is part of the executive branch. The President requests funding for Department of Defense operations, but Congress controls those funds — and reserves the power to declare war. Therefore the interaction between senior military and congressional leaders is a vital component of our democracy that ideally transcends politics.
Now, with both the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm — our "last" large combat engagement — ended more than a decade earlier, it was possible to
hope that there were no imminent major threats to our national security. But I also recognized that hope wasn't part of a senior military officer's job description. Under the oversight of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Hugh Shelton, the Joint Staff oversaw the preparation for worst-case war contingencies and the combatant commanders' myriad operational plans (OPLANs). The duties of the Vice Chairman are little known outside the corridors of the Pentagon. Beyond helping coordinate the OPLANs, one of my more exacting assignments as Vice Chairman had been serving as Chairman of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council — which was composed of the four-star vice service chiefs — who approved the requirements of weapons systems being proposed for procurement.
I also served on the National Security Council's Deputies Committee and as a member of the Nuclear Weapons Council. And I represented the Chairman on the Defense Resources Board — which supported the fiscal and personnel structure to the DoD's sprawling bureaucracy. In a large civilian corporation, I would have been the COO, the chief operating officer.
This was very demanding work, but good preparation to serve as the Chairman.
Even if I'd been so inclined, this workload left me no time for politics. But it wasn't just the burden of work: It was against regulations and our military culture for an officer to take part in political activity. This was especially true for a senior officer. And I had always believed that a military career and politics didn't mix. Interaction with the executive and legislative branches, however, was an expected and essential part of being Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Like many of his colleagues, Cleland kept a television set in his outer office tuned to a news network. The first thing I saw on the screen was a live shot of the New York skyline, revealed through a wavering telephoto lens. Black smoke poured from the closer of the two World Trade Center towers, already darkening the bright September sky. At the bottom of the screen, the crawler text announced that a plane had hit the north tower.
Must have been a light aircraft, I thought. Maybe on a sightseeing flight.
I entered Cleland's private office, and we chatted a few moments about the aircraft accident in New York.
He had started preparing a pot of tea, but we hadn't taken a sip when a staff person came in from the outer office and informed us that the second tower had been hit. We both knew the interview was over and started out to the TV to see the south tower erupting with smoke and flame.
Cleland looked pale. I suppose I must have, too. This was no light-aircraft accident, but certainly an act of unthinkable terrorist savagery. The only precedent I could imagine for such an attack was December 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor.
My military aide, Army Capt. Chris Donahue, approached us on the way out.
"Sir," Donahue said, "General Eberhart's on my cell phone for you." Ed Eberhart had replaced me as commander of the North American Aerospace Command the year before. Obviously his call was urgent. In this emergency, I had to forgo the luxury of a secure encrypted Red Switch phone and use Donahue's cell.
"Dick," Ed said. "We've got several hijack codes in the system, and I'm working with the FAA to order all aircraft in the national air space to land." Two of NORAD's responsibilities were protecting American air space from enemy aircraft approaching our borders and warning of missile attack.
"That sounds like a good plan, Ed."
NORAD's only role with respect to hijackings was to scramble planes to shadow the hijacked aircraft. The Command was not authorized to order fighters to shoot down civilian airliners. That authority rested with the President alone.
Next, I got a call from Army Col. Matt Klimow, my executive assistant. As we spoke on Donahue's cell phone, the television showed pillars of black smoke erupting from the south tower.
"General," Klimow said in a calm, precise voice, "it looks like there's a major hijacking under way, and I recommend that you return to the Pentagon as soon as possible."
He added that the White House Situation Room had called at 9:16 a.m. to confirm that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles had hit the north World Trade Center tower.
"We're on our way back to the Pentagon now," I told Klimow.
As we raced away from Capitol Hill, my security officer took an urgent call.
"Sir," he said, "the Pentagon's just been hit."
I immediately called Matt Klimow back to verify the situation and was relieved when he answered almost at once. "People are running around shouting on the ERing corridor," he said. "And all the fire alarms are going off."
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, sir. It must have hit on the west side of the building, near the helo pad."
The Pentagon was such a massive structure that even the crash of an airliner might affect only a portion of the building. In the event of an attack, standing procedures called for the Vice Chairman to move to an alternate command post at a remote location — "Site R" — while the Chairman held the fort at the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon. But Hugh Shelton was airborne on his way to Europe for a NATO meeting and couldn't be back for hours. By law, as Vice Chairman, I was designated acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during his absence. And with NORAD and the FAA grounding all flights already airborne in the country and diverting incoming flights from overseas, Hugh might not be able to return — although I knew it wouldn't be easy to stop the combat-hardened former Special Forces paratrooper from heading to the heart of the action.
So my command post had to be in the burning Pentagon.
Looking down the Mall, I saw the cluster of government buildings near the White House. Instinctively, my gaze swept the sky.
"Sir," Matt added, "the White House advised that the combatant commanders will probably want to increase THREATCON as they see fit." In emergencies, the functional and regional commanders in chief had control to adjust the level of protection their forces needed in their geographical areas.
The THREATCON was the alert status that the regional or functional commanders — Central Command, European Command, Space Command, Pacific Command, and so forth — set to defend their forces and installations against terrorist or other threats. If terrorists were executing a complex and massive attack today, our isolated naval, air, and ground bases overseas might be especially vulnerable, so raising the THREATCON was essential. The THREATCON levels increased from Normal, through Alpha, up to Delta. In the next hours, I was sure, over one million American service members around the world would be at their highest level of alert.
Unfortunately, the senior military and civilian leadership in this country was stretched thin that morning. The Chairman was flying to Europe; President George Bush was in Florida, promoting his education initiative; and Secretary of State Colin Powell was in South America, so a significant number of the National Security Council were away from Washington.
At this point, the roles of the military and domestic agencies were being sorted out. Klimow added that the FBI had been designated the lead civilian agency in the crisis, with the military standing by as needed if the terrorist attacks involved weapons of mass destruction (WMD: chemical, biological, or radiological warfare agents).
There was only one current enemy that could have coordinated the suicide hijacking of three airliners, almost simultaneously crashing them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon: Islamic extremists — no doubt commanded by the alQaida terrorist movement. This was confirmed later in the day. These terrorists had tried to destroy the Trade Center towers with a massive truck bomb in 1993. Later in the 1990s, their growing organization had attacked American embassies in East Africa. In October 2000, an alQaida suicide boat bomb severely damaged the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, killing seventeen of her crew and maiming many more. AlQaida's leader was wealthy Saudi radical Usama bin Laden.* Now, as my government sedan sped down I395 toward the Potomac, it was virtually certain that bin Laden had found the means to export his extreme violence to our shores.
I asked Matt if the National Military Command Center was up and running, knowing I'd need to be where we had the appropriate command and control apparatus. It was. "We're coming in," I told him. "I'll use the River Entrance."
As the sedan merged with traffic onto the Fourteenth Street Bridge, we saw black smoke and orange flame rising from the far side of the dull gray Pentagon. I wondered about my friends and colleagues, about Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his staff. How many were still alive?
My thoughts were chaotic as the car raced over the Potomac toward the rising smoke. Then, a half-forgotten childhood memory flooded back. I had seen such a greasy black pillar of smoke before.
Copyright © 2009 by RMyers and Associates, LL C
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