The Day It All Began - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Day It All Began

The Day It All Began

By John McLaughlin

Former CIA deputy chief John McLaughlin was at the eye of the storm on Sept. 11, 2001. Here’s what it was like. 


Because on the day that changed America forever, our senior contributor was at the eye of the storm. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. 

It was about 10 p.m. when I finally turned to my computer to write. I was on the seventh floor at CIA headquarters, where I had been serving as deputy director for 14 months. I typed a single sentence, a memo to myself: “Nothing will ever be the same.”

Sept. 11, 2001, was by any measure the most eventful day of my brief tenure. In my memory, that day is a blur of emergency work, and the rest of that week could easily comprise a book. But some memories, personal and professional, remain vivid.

The hijacked planes hit the twin towers at 8:46 and 9:03 a.m. and the Pentagon at 9:37. Around 10 a.m., we moved out of our headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, to an adjacent structure; we assumed that our building was also a target. The only officers left behind, until we returned early that afternoon, were those of our Counterterrorism Center; they continued to monitor incoming reporting on the situation.

Our initial reaction to the attacks was basically, “So that’s it.” All summer long, we had been monitoring an upsurge in threat reporting, anticipating an attack and seeking to thwart it. We had warned of the growing danger both in public testimony and in private meetings at the White House. But we did not have hard intelligence on the specific timing, target or methodology of the attack. So while we were surprised by specific events of the day, we were not surprised that an attack had finally occurred.

Within about two hours, we confirmed that al-Qaida was the attacker. One of our analysts had burst into our temporary office with a copy of the manifest from the aircraft that hit the Pentagon, and we recognized two names — Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi — as people we had been tracking overseas and knew to be al-Qaida.

All parts of the national security apparatus were scrambling to grasp what had happened and to keep government on an even keel.  Much of this is well-documented publicly — the White House bunker, confusion over whether our military should shoot down any unidentified aircraft, the president’s address that evening.

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President George W. Bush with Vice President Dick Cheney and senior staff in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.

Source The U.S. National Archives

Behind the scenes, we were doing what is always the first task in any national security emergency — developing an accurate picture of what is happening and what might happen next. I recall at least one closed-circuit secure video with the president around 3 o’clock that afternoon. Officials from the White House, the Department of Defense and the Department of State were also on the screen. Everyone laid out what they knew and what they thought. I recall the president’s reaction: “Start rallying a coalition against terrorism — we will find them and destroy them.”

Naturally, Congress was clamoring for information. The next day, Wednesday, the White House sent me to Capitol Hill along with the FBI director and several other officials. We appeared in the well of the House of Representatives to brief any member of Congress who wanted to attend; the House was nearly full. At that moment, reports were coming in so fast that anything said in a briefing would be subject to revision within minutes or hours, so I kept it simple: Here’s what we know, here’s who we think was responsible, here’s what we worry about next.

This was well received and Congress invited me to return the next day with an update. At this point, we could not rule out further attacks. A congressman asked if the Capitol itself could be a target. At the precise moment I said yes, an alarm sounded, and there was a stampede to get out of the House — emblematic of the atmosphere in those days. I never did learn why the alarm went off.

By then, we knew the president wanted the national security team to meet at Camp David on Saturday, and we were working hard on an assessment of the situation and an aggressive counterterrorism plan. By the time CIA Director George Tenet, Counterterrorism chief Cofer Black and I got to Camp David early Saturday morning, we were prepared with a plan for attacking al-Qaida in dozens of countries around the world. The president listened to our plan, along with proposals from the Defense Department and other agencies, and told us all to show up in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Monday.

When we arrived Monday, the president crisply issued about a dozen orders, parceling out duties to each department. Among other things, he was ready to deploy forces to Afghanistan to take on al-Qaida and the Taliban. Referring to our plan, he said he expected the CIA to be the “first in.”

With that charge, we rapidly pulled together two teams and inserted them into northern Afghanistan, where they hit the ground just 15 days after the 9/11 attacks. They linked up with the Northern Alliance, Afghan foes of the Taliban with whom we had maintained close ties for a number of years. Working with our Afghan allies, the CIA teams began collecting intelligence and preparing the way for the arrival shortly thereafter of U.S. Army Special Forces. By November, Kabul fell to the U.S. effort — and, as they say, the rest is history.

The subsequent months and years brought dramatic changes to the CIA: new resources, new authorities, a closer integration with the U.S. military and an entire generation of officers socialized in war. It also brought new dangers. When an officer is killed in the line of duty, the CIA carves a star in the marble wall of its headquarters lobby. There are more than 130 stars; more than a third of them have been carved since 9/11.

So the sentence I wrote on that chaotic night 20 years ago may be the most prescient thing I’ve ever written. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nothing has been the same — for the CIA or for the United States.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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