John D. Ashcroft
As I recall, it was a very nice day. We left Washington relatively early, in one of the smaller aircraft that's provided for travel for Cabinet officials. We had just crossed western Michigan, maybe breaking out over Lake Michigan, on our way to Milwaukee. I pointed it out to the staff, and I said, "There's Grand Rapids." I have a particular affection for Grand Rapids, Michigan, because the river comes right through the middle of town. If you go there, you see people fishing right in the middle of the city.
We were just a little past that when we received word, from either the pilot or some of the security people on the plane, that we should place a call back to the Command Center of the Justice Department. I don't remember who I talked to. I was told that the towers had been hit. I immediately made the response, "We need to get back to Washington." But, apparently, we had inadequate fuel to turn around in the air. I turned to the staff and said, "Our world has changed forever."
We landed in Milwaukee. And, literally, you could see the world was different. It was just the kind of security surrounding the plane. We had the refueling operation. We weren't aware of the full extent of the tragedy, and we weren't sure whether we could come back. After we were back in the air, we spent some time in a holding pattern until we could be attended by a military fighter jet. I believe I said, "We have to be prepared to act and to protect America in whatever way possible and to resolve and curtail this disaster."
"The president made it very clear ... that he didn't want this ever to happen again."
The first sight of the city was the smoke rising from the Pentagon. That's a very, very distressing thing. It's not only the nation's capital, but the headquarters of our ability to defend ourselves. And it had been struck.
I was not yet aware of the complete details of the disaster of the Pentagon. [He points to a photo taken during his confirmation hearing; it includes Barbara Olson, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson.] Barbara was on the plane and had called her husband twice from the plane. We were with the Olsons-less than a week before-at their home. We lost a very good friend, and Ted lost a wonderful, wonderful wife.
I'm not sure just when I heard about Barbara's death. You know, there was this litany of calamities. There were lots of things going through my mind. You're trying to assess how to respond-what can be done, how to limit the potential of additional harm. I was interested in where my wife was. When I landed, she was there to meet me.
I immediately went to the Strategic Information Operations Center. We were working on gathering as much information as possible about any airplanes that were still question marks. Those early moments were filled with con- ference calls-identifying passenger lists, identifying who might have been responsible on the airplanes for this kind of tragic activity, trying to answer questions that we had ourselves about what actually had happened. I stayed there for the next 60 days, practically. I wouldn't spend a day in the Justice Department for at least two months.
The president made it very clear in the earliest moments of my opportunity to meet with him that he didn't want this ever to happen again. He let me know that that was a substantial charge to me-that I should do everything possible that this should never happen again. Every once in a while, you find yourself lapsing back into pre-9/11 sort of thoughts, and that's good. We want to return to normal, but we never want to let our guard down.
This interview originally appeared in the August 31, 2002 edition of National Journal.
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