The Bin Laden Hunters: Reflections from the Search
On Sept. 11, 2001, an executive assistant for then-National Security Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden interrupted a routine meeting in his office at Fort Meade, Md., to tell him that a plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers. Guessing it was probably an accident, Hayden went back to the meeting. “I still remember the day. A brilliant blue sky -- not a cloud. Comfortable temperatures,” he told National Journal. “I stayed up the night before watching Monday Night Football."
When another plane hit the second tower, Hayden quickly realized the U.S. was under attack. "Everything changed," he said. "In this regard, I’m not different than any [of the] 300 million Americans who were following the events that morning."
Hayden, who then ordered all nonessential personnel out of the NSA buildings, was soon faced with a new reality in the fight against terrorism. Members of the NSA’s logistics team were present when he visited a high-rise building that housed the counterterrorism center, where the mission was deemed too critical to be disrupted by an evacuation. “They were tacking up blackout curtains,” said Hayden, who would later become CIA director. “I had the thought: We’re tacking up blackout curtains in Eastern Maryland. Things are going to be very different in the morning.”
This was true for many of the officials who were in charge of protecting the country on 9/11, who would soon embark on a decade-long search to capture or kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Andrew Liepman, now the principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, received a phone call from his wife, who worked at the White House. Both Liepman, who worked at the CIA at the time, and his wife were worried their respective workplaces would be the next targets. Michael Chertoff, who would later become Homeland Security Secretary, spent the next 24 hours in the FBI’s crisis center, helping pull together information about the hijackers based on flight manifests and information phoned in from the airplanes themselves. Charles Allen, a former CIA officer who had been tracking the threat of al-Qaida even before 9/11, said the covert raid that killed bin Laden this May helped ease the mental stress he and other colleagues in the intelligence community felt after failing to prevent the attack on the U.S. homeland 10 years ago.
Photos from Getty Images, UPI, and White House. Music by Kevin MacLeod.
This article appears in the September 9, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.