My September 11th and Beyond at the CIA

September 8, 2011

Historian Mark Stout

On September 11th, 2001 I was a team chief, leading a small group of analysts at the CIA.  My part of the Agency did not work on terrorism.  Some of us knew a bit about al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden but as far I know none of my immediate colleagues were aware that the Counterterrorism Center had been issuing dire warnings all summer of a major attack.

 Not long after the attacks, the order came to evacuate CIA Headquarters.  I joined a large group of people milling about right outside the building.  People who had lingered inside kept trickling out with additional news.  Someone said that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department.  I had worked at the Department until only a few years previously and I had many friends there.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but by this time I was so numb that while I realized that my friends might have been hurt or killed, the thought did not disturb me as it should. 

 After a time, an Agency security guard came running out of the building, shouting at us to stop clustering around the entrance.  “This building has a giant target on it!” he yelled.  The crowd moved away and I found myself in the parking lot where I ran into the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia.  She and I had been trying for some time to get together to plan a conference about some important analytic issues.  Well, here we were, and a massive traffic jam on the compound precluded us from going home for a while.  We might as well have our meeting.  So she and I sat next to each other on the curb in the CIA parking lot and planned our conference while fighter planes flew overhead.  By the time we’d got our work done, the traffic had dispersed and we both went home. 

 That fall was very stressful, as it was for so many people, but several incidents stand out in my mind.

 Along with everyone else from the CIA, I was back at work on September 12th.  The management team of my group had its regular morning meeting in the group chief’s corner office.  I remember our deputy group chief wrapping his tongue carefully around the obviously unfamiliar syllables, “al qay-ee-duh,” while I sat and looked out the big glass windows and wondered what it would look like if an airplane flew through them.

 Starting that very day an endless flurry of assignments starting coming down to every bit of the Agency, even those that had not previously dealt with terrorism, including my team.  Everyone pitched in, working long hours.  The Counterterrorism Center was flooded with more volunteers than it could handle, among them some of my analysts.  Many officers, again including some of my analysts, refused to put in for the overtime pay they were entitled to.  A directive from on high requiring them to take the money put an end to that. 

 Along with many others in my part of the Agency, I was cleared to read materials in the compartment containing US war plans for this new war on terrorism.  Sometime in September I learned that we were actually going to invade Afghanistan.  Boots on the ground in Afghanistan?  I was stunned.  For me, this only increased the pressure, the sense that my country was in serious trouble.  I certainly wanted Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda brought to justice and they were in Afghanistan, but I also knew a good bit about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and before that the British experience.  I wondered how this could possibly succeed and I wondered how many lives and how much money we were going to spend on a war in a landlocked country that had already defeated two great powers.

 Then the anthrax attacks started.  Every time I opened a piece of mail I wondered what I would find inside.  Trace amounts of anthrax were found on at least one piece of mail coming into the Agency.  Of course, the Agency soon implemented special security measures but that meant that our mail started arriving late and often mangled or melted in strange ways.  That was still unsettling in a different way.

 I think all of us had the sense that things were teetering on the edge of being out of control.  I remember a long conversation with an analyst I’d worked with on several projects.  His name was also Mark and he was one of the smartest people I knew, a real big-thinker.  Mark and I chewed over the strategic implications of what was going on.  In retrospect, it is clear to me that the pressure of all of these crazy events was badly affecting our judgment, but I didn’t understand that at the time.  Mark’s pessimism and mine fed off each other and soon we were speculating whether the United States might find itself forced sometime soon to threaten the use of nuclear weapons.

 Fortunately, that never happened.  The invasion of Afghanistan was successful, the Taliban regime fell like a house of cards and Al Qaeda scattered.  Anthrax stopped arriving.  Slowly things calmed down and we settled into the new normal that continues to this day, ten years later.

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