The sense of vulnerability and fear — yes, terror — was palpable. In the hours and days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the consensus was that more deadly attacks were being prepped.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who then was running the criminal division at the Department of Justice, recalled the psychology of a stunned Washington power structure: “Having seen the World Trade Center collapse, your sense of what the limit is of bad stuff that can happen evaporates.”
He now wishes the country had “taken a deep breath.”
Exactly 20 years after the worst terrorist assault in American history slaughtered nearly 3,000 people, the architects of the U.S. response — the men and women inside the White House Situation Room and at the highest levels of the Pentagon, foreign service, spy agencies and Congress — can look back with relief that another large-scale attack on American soil never took place.
But that fact has often been used as a blanket justification for many of the most far-reaching, controversial and even harmful decisions made in the aftermath of the attacks — the vast expansion of the surveillance state; covert operations to kill or capture suspected terrorists, and in some cases torture them; and the invasion first of Afghanistan, where the attacks were planned, and then Iraq, where they were not.
Those two wars cost trillions of dollars and the lives of 7,064 American troops, more than double the number that perished on 9/11, and led to a crisis of military veteran suicides, totalling more than 30,000. Ultimately, many thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan perished in conflicts that were either launched in response to 9/11 or grew out of their consequences.
This summer, as the United States began to wind down its military operations in Afghanistan, POLITICO approached nearly two dozen of the most consequential architects of the post-9/11 world to ask them to reflect on the decades of war they helped wage and the domestic defenses they helped erect. We asked them what they think they got right and pressed them to speak candidly about what they would have done differently. Some of the most prominent players, among them President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who was both national security adviser and secretary of State, declined to be interviewed. But in all, 17 agreed to speak on the record. Together, their testimony offers a unique collection of unfiltered perspectives never before gathered in one place.
“Overreach” is a word they use often to describe a nation-building effort that notched tactical and even historic successes — like empowering women in Afghanistan — but also came to be seen as occupations that fueled more violence. Many of these former officials regret the nearly limitless scope of the “Global War on Terror” that lumped together often competing Islamic terrorist groups and outlaw nations that played no direct role in 9/11. And they rue the long-term damage to American standing in the Muslim world from seemingly unending military occupations and a morally and legally compromised terrorist detention system.
Taken together, the frank assessment of the principals of the 9/11 era offers the possibility of preventing some of the missteps of the past if the inconceivable should ever become real once again.
“Nations are like people,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who worked in the senior levels of the Pentagon after 9/11 and went on to be the top commander of NATO. “They get some things right, they get some things wrong. The measure of any nation is whether it learns both from the mistakes and the successes.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, John Negroponte was preparing for his Senate confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The hearing was presided over a few days later by Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “They whisked me through,” he recalled. Negroponte, who would later serve as ambassador to Iraq following the 2003 invasion, helped to shape U.S. counterterrorism policy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, first by securing passage of a U.N. resolution aimed at stanching the flow of funds to terrorist groups through the international banking system. It was also his job to inform the world body less than a month after the attacks that the United States was invoking its right to self-defense under the U.N. charter and invading Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. “We never got much blowback,” he said. He was also the U.N. ambassador when the U.S. made its case to invade Iraq without U.N. approval. He later became the first director of national intelligence, responsible for reforming an ill-organized — and often uncooperative — alphabet soup of spy agencies. Negroponte, 82, is now vice chairman of McLarty Associates, an international consulting firm.
He believes that the United States has become vastly more adept at counterterrorism operations over the past 20 years. But the nation’s most significant missteps over the same period have come from the inability to draw a clear line between necessary counterterror operations and riskier nation-building.
“Our [special operations] forces are so much more skillful today than they were 20 years ago, in terms of their ability to track down terrorists and our ability to integrate the various forces of intelligence, you know, surveillance, radio intercepts, human intelligence and so forth. It’s much more efficient today than it was back 20 years ago.”
“I think the real issue is counterterrorism versus nation-building. And that’s where the line got crossed and where the strategy I think got crossed sometimes, almost inadvertently, because our strategy was not clear. What did we want to do in Afghanistan? Did we just want to punish the Taliban and kill as many al Qaeda as we could? Or did we also want to help them build their nation? We kind of slipped into that role in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And then all of a sudden we had a much larger situation on our hands than we had previously reckoned with. Once you get into nation-building, you get into pacification. You get into a much larger expenditure of all kinds of resources.”
“The signal error, if you will, of the [Bush] administration was going into Iraq. Many people were apprehensive about that.”
“I was disappointed at the time when we didn’t give [United Nations] inspections a chance. I consider that, at my level of responsibility, a serious tactical error. If they had given our inspection process more time, we might have ended up demonstrating that there were no WMD in Iraq to their satisfaction, but they didn’t have the patience.”
“History doesn’t stop, but the immediate cost, of course, was the lives of our troops that were lost. We thought it was going to be a cakewalk and it turned out to be a pretty nasty fight when we got in there. That was the loss.”
“While it was a costly error in my opinion to go in, the story’s not over. The one thing I would certainly beg of Mr. Biden is that he may have withdrawn from Afghanistan but please don’t withdraw the remaining effort that we have ongoing in Iraq. Let’s not make this a double whammy.”
Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11. He took over as chairman on Oct. 1, three weeks after the attacks and one week before the United States invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and hunt down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He was also Bush’s chairman of the joint chiefs when the United States justified the invasion of Iraq as part of the “global war on terror” by warning it was necessary to prevent another mass casualty attack using weapons of mass destruction. Myers, 79, is now president of Kansas State University.
“I think the reorganization of the intelligence community was one thing we got right. I think standing up Northern Command was one thing we got right. To have somebody thinking about the threats we weren’t thinking of at the time.”
The armed forces would ultimately be called upon to wage a global battle in Afghanistan, Iraq and on a number of other fronts in the Middle East, Africa and the Philippines, deploying in all around 4 million troops in the post-9/11 wars — far eclipsing diplomacy, economic assistance and other tools of statecraft to undermine extremist movements.
“I think the thing I would have done differently is tried to be more effective in promoting this idea of harnessing all instruments of national power. Obviously, I wasn’t very effective at that. I think if we had done that, then you wouldn’t have the military bearing the brunt of the action.”
“We were in a world where every problem was a military problem, and I don’t think in either one of those conflicts [Iraq and Afghanistan] that’s true. The real problems are much different. The military has to play a role, but it may not be the central role. And we kept trying to make it the central role.”
“Sometimes the task is beyond the capabilities you have in terms of understanding a lot of the other dynamics that are going on, not just the military dynamics.”
Frances Townsend was head of intelligence for the Coast Guard on 9/11 and was promoted to deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism and then White House homeland security adviser under President Bush. On the morning of the attacks, she was home with her newborn son in New York City and frantically trying to get in touch with a friend and former colleague, John O’Neill, who had recently become head of security for the World Trade Center. O’Neill perished in the attack. Townsend, 59, is now executive vice president for corporate affairs at video game company Activision Blizzard.
“If you asked me, ‘Would the Taliban be the governing body of Afghanistan and have the seat of Kabul 20 years after 9/11?’, I would have thought you were crazy. I find this particularly heartbreaking. The trillions of dollars and the American blood spilled. If I was a Gold Star mother, I would be a mess.”
“There are things now that I wish we had done, for sure. We should have been pushing Pakistan much harder. It was clear for a whole host of reasons to me that the Pakistanis said they were our allies but when it came to operationalizing that and intelligence sharing, not so much. I do fault the Pakistanis for the continuing strength … of the Taliban.”
“I think we lost another opportunity after the … raid that got bin Laden. That was a time when we had a moment when we could have really doubled down on [Pakistan] and pressured them. … But I do think this is a moment that we should take advantage of to apply additional pressure to Pakistan.”
The signature domestic security reorganization of the post-9/11 era was an ill-conceived overreach, Townsend said.
“I think that we made a mistake in … the authority we crafted,” she said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. “We took all these disparate agencies and put them into one place and then wondered why [DHS] didn’t operate as a single cohesive unit. It has always struggled with that. We wanted to have an agency that was uniquely focused on people and things that crossed our border. If that is what we wanted to do, that’s all we should have put in there.”
“What were we doing with the Secret Service in there? I could see the Coast Guard, you could see Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration. There were a lot of things you could have put in there. … Twenty-three agencies went in there. I think it was almost self-defeating to think you could integrate that many agencies, and I think we tried to do too much.”
And far too little attention has been paid to internal threats, she said.
“When I was in the White House, it’s not as though there weren’t environmental extremists and skinheads but it wasn’t a threat that came anywhere near rivaling the foreign threat. And as a consequence [domestic threats] got much less resources. If you asked me 20 years ago did I think [there would be] a domestic threat like what we’re facing with white supremacists [causing] things like Charlottesville and Jan. 6 — I never would’ve believed it.”
“And so, I find it frankly heartbreaking that we now find ourselves having to fight almost equally on two fronts because of the magnitude of the domestic threat. We don’t talk about it enough and part of that is people are afraid to talk about it because of the politics of it. We will be less effective against this threat if we can’t find common ground to devote resources, time and attention to the domestic threat and I really worry about that.”
Retired Adm. James Stavridis commanded the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier battle group shortly after 9/11. He oversaw air operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq before being promoted to senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He went on to serve as the top commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013, when the U.S. and its allies had some of the largest numbers of troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Stavridis, now 66, is an author and a managing director of the private equity firm Carlyle Group.
“We failed to truly, deeply appreciate the distinct culture, history, linguistic complexity, the overarching challenges of conducting operations in Afghanistan as a foreign army. Those should have been obvious to us. This is a very, very difficult place for foreigners to come in and exert their will.”
“We should have learned from the war in Vietnam. Quite clearly we had … hubris, arrogance and we thought we could train our way out of it. We thought we could leave a competent, capable Afghan military.”
“We should have recognized that they were not going to be able to reflect the kind of military that we had. We should have trained them to be more like the Taliban, to be lighter, quicker, more lethal. Not dependent on major equipment, not dependent on exquisite command and control and high-level intelligence. We should have built a different force.”
“I have always believed that a more balanced approach, which includes not just military but diplomatic, development, culture and appreciation for the history, all of that together, sometimes called smart power, as opposed to soft or hard power, would have been a more holistic approach.”
Iraq, he believes, was not a mistake just in its execution but in its very conception.
“Should we have gone into Iraq? No. Because we went there on faulty intelligence, which told us that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program. That was a mistake. Nations are like people. They get some things right, they get some things wrong. The measure of any nation is whether it learns both from the mistakes and the successes.”
Douglas Feith was undersecretary of Defense for policy on 9/11. As the top defense policy official in the Bush administration, Feith played a primary role in the adoption of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” strategy that threatened military action against nations that trained or provided safe harbor to terrorists, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea. He was a vocal proponent of the Iraq invasion. Later, the Pentagon’s internal watchdog concluded that Feith’s office funneled questionable intelligence on the purported relationship between Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda to the White House that was not supported by American spy agencies. Feith, 68, is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a hawkish Washington think tank, and he remains unapologetic about the Iraq invasion.
“I don’t think there’s any question that if we had left Saddam Hussein in place the Iranians would have made an even bigger, faster push for a nuclear weapon, which might have triggered both Saddam and the other Arab countries to move more quickly to nuclear weapons.”
Feith said he thinks that the Bush administration, which was widely criticized for its approval of interrogation techniques that a congressional investigation later declared to be torture, should have involved Congress in decisions about interrogation and detention. The use of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where nearly 800 men have been held captive without trial at various times over nearly two decades, has been especially problematic. Thirty-nine men are still in custody.
“One that we should have done, or could have done differently, that might have been helpful: Early on, the administration could have reached out to Congress and gotten a statutory framework” on how to conduct detention and interrogation. “The argument that was made against me was ‘You know, interrogation and detention are military operations. The president does not need to go to Congress — should not go to Congress — [because] it would compromise the president’s powers as commander in chief.’”
“I think that the general sense that Guantanamo was unregulated, was lawless, was without a statutory framework, was very harmful to the United States, domestically and internationally. And we could have mitigated that harm by bringing Congress in. Congress would have owned it. It would have been viewed as more in line with the American system and American principles. Maybe it would have prevented some of the bad behavior.”
John McLaughlin was deputy director of the CIA in 2001. “All summer long we were seeing an upsurge in reporting of threats,” he recalled. “We had gone to the White House twice, in May and July, on about half an hour’s notice, to say, ‘The sirens are all blowing here. We are going to get attacked.’ We could not predict the time, target, or method.” Once the attacks had happened, he quickly became one of the architects of the covert war that the CIA launched to hunt down and kill or capture the leaders of al Qaeda. McLaughlin, 79, is now a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Well, I don’t think there were many options. I wouldn’t say [the covert war] was the right decision, it was just the decision. In other words, the military was not interested in doing it. It was in a way kind of natural to turn to the CIA at this point.”
“In that very initial phase, I think we did all of that right. We basically defeated the Taliban with the military’s help and we scattered al Qaeda and eventually wrapped them up, at least the 9/11-era leadership.”
The methods the CIA employed, however, would come to haunt the agency.
“We were under time pressure. This was in some ways a ticking-bomb scenario and quite literally. We had reports that al Qaeda had nuclear intentions, we had reports of bombs in New York City, we had reports of a second wave. We had the anthrax attacks and no one knew where they were coming from,” he said. “The Congress, I will tell you, in closed testimony, when we captured some of these people, the advice we got was: ‘Do what you have to do.’ In fact, it was almost shocking because we were trying to stay within legal parameters here.”
“The CIA did not do this with any enthusiasm,” he said of the interrogation techniques. “The CIA knew at the time if it became public it would be controversial. It debated the ethics and morality of it and concluded that if we didn’t get information from these people who were not battlefield troopers — they were the top leadership of al Qaeda — that Americans would die and we would have the blood of Americans on our hands and that was not particularly ethical or moral. And if we didn’t get that information, we would be condemned for failing.”
But the expansion of the war beyond al Qaeda — the Axis of Evil strategy that targeted state sponsors of terrorism such as Iraq — was a mistake, says McLaughlin. In testimony to Congress at the time he raised questions about the extent of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
“I think, reflecting back on it now — and even at the time — I think that was not a wise way to think about this. I didn’t see a way to connect it to the war on terror. As time went on it became crystal clear to us there was no operational connection at all between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. There was no connection between Iraq and 9/11.”
“On Iraq WMD … that may have been one of the public rationales used by the administration, but I think that administration was determined to go to war with Saddam Hussein regardless, and that was a convenient way to explain [it].”
“I think the theory of the case, from their point of view, was that if you could go into Iraq, take down Saddam Hussein, demonstrate in a major Arab country democracy could take root, that it would be contagious in the Middle East. In 2011, when the Arab Spring happened, some people might have said: ‘Oh, it’s working.’ Of course, the Arab Spring didn’t take root anywhere except Tunisia and it led, in turn, to the civil war in Syria, the collapse of order in Libya. And the civil war in Syria, of course, turbo-charged the Islamic State. … Things have gotten worse.”
Retired Gen. David Petraeus is probably the most recognizable battlefield commander of the post-9/11 era. He served as the top general in both Iraq and Afghanistan, oversaw all U.S. military forces in the Middle East, and later served as director of the CIA. On 9/11, Petraeus was a one-star general serving in Bosnia as part of the NATO Stabilization Force after that country’s civil war. Petraeus, now 68, is a partner at investment firm KKR (KKR has a large stake in German media company Axel Springer, which has agreed to acquire POLITICO), and chairman of the KKR Global Institute.
“Has there been another 9/11? No. In fact, if you add up all the Americans killed by attacks that can be linked to Islamist extremism, there are no more than approximately 100 over the past 20 years.”
“Over the years, we just took out leader after leader and some of these that are overlooked were vastly more important than people realize.”
“The agency and JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] responded incredibly and carried out just innumerable operations. The problem is that so much of this is colored because of the enhanced interrogation techniques usage that was part and parcel of that CIA effort.”
Those interrogation techniques ultimately harmed the United States, Petraeus believes.
“What did we get wrong? Really, overall, enhanced interrogation techniques. Number one, they are wrong in a normative, moral sense and in terms of violating the Geneva Convention, to which we’re a leading signatory. Number two, they also don’t work.”
“That is a non-biodegradable. [They] very much damaged our reputation and it damaged our relationships with countries in which we had black sites,” the secret locations around the world where the U.S. held terrorist suspects. “The use of enhanced interrogation techniques in other places then found their way into, in a way, Abu Ghraib,” the Iraqi facility where U.S. soldiers tortured Iraqi prisoners.
Petraeus refuses to say whether he thinks the Iraq war was worth it — “That’s not one I ever answer” — but he is clear that it made success in Afghanistan less likely.
“You focus on Iraq very early on and so we never got ahead of the situation in Afghanistan, where of course the Taliban are shattered and al Qaeda is shattered. They’re all over in Pakistan and they gradually start to regroup. It takes them years to do this, during which we completely missed the opportunity to start building host-nation security forces in a serious way and start supporting host-nation governance.”
“We were running a massive, industrial strength security force development program in Iraq and this thing in Afghanistan is just sort of hand-to-mouth. We were always shooting behind the target.”
“We overly relied on drones in the effort in western Pakistan in 2009 to 2011. If you’re using them with the frequency that we were and the numbers [of civilians] that were being hit, you inevitably violate the most important question that should be on the wall of your operations center: ‘Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?’”
“The policy to fire the Iraqi army without telling them what their future was, and the policy of de-Baathification without an agreed reconciliation process, those violated that [goal] massively. That created hundreds of thousands of Iraqis whose only incentive was to oppose the new Iraq rather than support it.”
On the morning of 9/11, Michael Chertoff had been the head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice for three months. He was talking on his phone to his deputy on his way to the office when he learned of the attacks. He would go on to co-author the USA Patriot Act and in 2005 became the second secretary of Homeland Security. Chertoff, now 68, is a senior counsel at the law firm Covington and Burling and founder of the Chertoff Group, a security consulting company.
“A lot of people don’t remember how many other things occurred on that day that we thought were potential attacks. A transponder went off on another plane. We learned soon thereafter it was a mistake. We were talking to the State Department and all of a sudden the alarm went off and we thought someone had put a bomb in the State Department. It was just a false alarm. There were rumors going around about taxi cabs with bombs in the trunks being parked in front of federal buildings. None of this was true, but it is easy in retrospect to believe that we knew at the time what the extent of the threat was but we didn’t. Having seen the World Trade Center collapse, your sense of what the limit is of bad stuff that can happen evaporates, and you start to wonder: Could it even be worse?”
“The immediate objective of preventing this from happening again succeeded. Another consequential effect, which we are still seeing the reverberations of now, was the decision to then go overseas and take the battle to the enemy.”
“I do think in terms of geographic scope it would have been sensible to take a deep breath. I think Afghanistan made sense, although I think we might have been a little more clear about defining what success was. Certainly, Iraq arguably was too far, particularly because, again, what does a win look like? I do think that the failure to envision the consequences is probably the biggest flaw in the way we dealt with some of the issues over the last 20 years.”
The failure to craft a detention system that was connected to the justice system has had some of the most profound consequences.
“One of the things I think was a deficiency was the handling of detainees, in terms of how to adjudicate them.”
“The Defense Department was very protective of its jurisdiction over that process and my recollection is [that it wasn’t] particularly interested in hearing what the Justice Department or prosecutors had to say about how you make cases. … It is great to incapacitate the terrorist and put them in lockdown, but what next? And the fact we still haven’t had a complete trial in 20 years and [9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is still sitting there and we haven’t had a final judgement suggests to me that there was insufficient thought up front about how this plays out.”
Andrew Card was the White House chief of staff on 9/11. He famously whispered into President Bush’s ear during an appearance at a Florida elementary school to inform him that a plane had hit the second World Trade Center tower. Card, 74, who served as president of Franklin Pierce University from 2014 to 2016, is now mostly retired and sits on various corporate boards, including Union Pacific railroad and Draganfly, which manufactures drones.
“There were mistakes made on faulty intelligence and intelligence that was not as robust as it might have been with regard to Iraq and not only going in the way that we did. But some of the decisions that were made as you had to meet the challenges of helping create a climate where they could have a government.”
“What we did about the Baathists and the bureaucracies, and we had [Defense Intelligence Agency] intelligence that was flawed that said that when we came in, some in the Iraqi army would wave the white flag and follow behind us and help direct traffic and keep the bureaucracies working and that didn’t happen. We learned that we didn’t have good human intelligence. We had relatively good intelligence from the technology sector but with regard to the expats from Iraq, many of them were spinning tales and we didn’t know that they were spinning tales. … Ahmed Chalabi [the Iraqi exile who provided much of the since discredited intelligence to U.S. officials] probably wasn’t as truthful as the intelligence was giving him credit for at the time.”
“I think it was good to remove Saddam Hussein and good that the U.N. acknowledged that there had to be consequences if you weren’t going to comply with U.N. resolutions, but I don’t think that we created the right kind of climate to build a government of the people, by the people and for the people of Iraq.”
Tom Daschle of South Dakota was the Democratic Senate majority leader on 9/11. He played a primary role in shepherding through Congress the Authorizations for Use of Military Force to go after global terrorist groups in Afghanistan and beyond and invade Iraq, as well as passage of the Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security — all of which he supported. Daschle, now 73, runs his own D.C. lobbying firm.
“I was sitting in my office with John Glenn,” he recalled, referring to the late astronaut and senator from Ohio. “The first plane hit the World Trade Center and ‘I said, look at that, a plane crashed.’ He said, ‘I can guarantee you that was no pilot.’ I’ll never forget that was the first comment. And he was right.”
A year later, Congress gave the Bush administration its pre-election wish: a congressional resolution to go to war with Iraq. Daschle regrets the decision.
“We should have not authorized the use of military force but we did,” Daschle says now. “The administration was really pressing us to get it done before the  election. I have regrets about how that was done. I think many, if not most people, share those regrets today. The costs in lives and treasure that we have experienced both in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of those actions are ones that we all have to take some responsibility for.”
“I wish we would have been more deliberative on the Patriot Act and the authorization of the use of military force in Iraq.”
“We rushed to pass [the Patriot Act], again giving the administration just enormous authority. And I regret that we were as willing to delegate that responsibility without more checks and balances. There have been efforts, and successful efforts, to address those issues over the last 20 years. But I think almost everyone acknowledges we made mistakes in how it was drafted and just what impact it had over time. And I think that’s going to continue to be an ongoing responsibility. But it’s also an ongoing challenge, because finding that balance as new technological capabilities arise, as circumstances change, we’re going to have to continue to ask whether the current statute needs continued reform.”
“The Congress has, by default, given more and more opportunity for international [military] engagement to the president, in both parties, over the years. We could always have eliminated funding, we could have done a number of things to prevent this ambitious agenda. But that didn’t happen, at least not to the extent we … could have prevented it from happening.”
Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general, served as commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and also the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, when then-President Barack Obama approved a “surge” of an additional 40,000 troops to beat back a Taliban advance. Eikenberry, now 69, is a senior adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense. On the morning of 9/11, Eikenberry, who was serving on the Army headquarters staff, was in a meeting in his office with another officer on the third floor of the Pentagon when a hijacked airliner crashed into the floors below him.
“I felt a shock, and the major and I had our heads thrown against the wall. … I was looking out the window and it just suddenly turned orange. By the grace of God, that side of the Pentagon … was the first one to be renovated and part of the renovation was putting [in] mylar … a shatterproof glass. … Had the Pentagon not been renovated on my side then there would have been huge casualties, including myself.”
“I opened a door that would lead down the steps [that] I thought would get us out and flames came up the steps. So we went in the other direction. … The smoke now was so thick that it was getting very difficult to breathe. … Then we heard this sudden roar. That roar was the collapse … of that section of the Pentagon, where the aircraft had hit. … We had crawled over that fault zone. We got to the center of the Pentagon, down into the courtyard where everyone was assembling. It was only at that time that I had learned that the World Trade Center had been hit. … I had no idea what kind of war it was, but I knew we were at war.”
The relatively quick shift from focusing on Afghanistan to Iraq contributed to the long-term failure of the “war on terror,” Eikenberry said.
“That’s not to say after 9/11 there was a detailed plan to invade Iraq but I think there was probably a sense of some of the civilian leaders that we wanted to, in quick order, deal with Afghanistan and then pivot and put the main effort against Iraq. Failing to get bin Laden then put this effort [in Afghanistan] at great, great risk and it plagued us for many years to come.”
“So those sets of decisions that were made about not putting a large amount of ground forces into Afghanistan, leads to bin Laden getting through the dragnet. Can you imagine, let’s say on Nov. 15, 2001, we’d gotten news from Afghanistan that bin Laden had been captured or killed and his lieutenants who were with him were all captured or killed, do we think 10 years later we’d have 100,000 troops fighting away in Afghanistan?”
The Afghanistan mission failed because it wasn’t clear what the mission was, he said.
“The contradictions in the mission were so great that I think no matter who the top diplomat was, who the top military commander was, who the top of the development assistance program was, that we could [not] accomplish what we were being told to accomplish.”
“Perhaps the best political solution would have been for the United Nations to make it a protectorate for about five or 10 years, but protectorates went out with the League of Nations, so that wasn’t an option. And the decision was made to create a strong central government model. It was a very centralized, French kind of system.”
Joshua Bolten was the White House deputy chief of staff for policy on 9/11. He would later run the Office of Management and Budget and eventually become White House chief of staff during George W. Bush’s second term. Bolten, 67, is now president and CEO of the Business Roundtable.
He thinks that Guantanamo Bay was a black mark on the country’s reputation but says there were few alternatives. Guantanamo “has clearly caused the U.S. damage internationally and it would be great to close the book on it, but no one has come up with a better answer of what to do with dangerous combatants seized on the terror battlefield.”
But he praised Bush for making the FBI into more of a terrorist attack prevention agency rather than an entity just focused on finding people who had already committed crimes. “I remember [Bush] directly addressed [FBI director] Bob Mueller who had been on the job only a week before 9/11 and said, ‘Basically your job just changed. You’re accustomed to catching the bad guys after they do bad stuff. Now your mission includes preventing the bad stuff from happening in the first place.’”
Bolten also rejects the criticism that DHS has proved to be too sprawling an entity. “It would be a whole lot worse if we’d left things the way they are. The department was exactly the right thing to do. There’s reasonable arguments about some of the elements,” he said. “But having a department whose secretary wakes up every day with the preoccupation of how to protect the United States, that’s a big step forward — instead of having it be part of the portfolio of the attorney general and the secretaries of transportation, treasury, agriculture and energy.”
Paul Wolfowitz was the deputy secretary of Defense on 9/11, the second-ranking Pentagon official. He had just returned to his office after breakfast with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when the third plane hit the Pentagon and he felt the building shudder. “How did we let this happen? What could we have done to prevent it?” he recalled thinking. “And what could we do to make sure we prevent the next one from happening?” Wolfowitz served in the Pentagon until 2005 and would later be appointed to run the World Bank. Now 77, he is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Asked to name one of his proudest achievements, Wolfowitz, one of most prominent supporters of the Iraq War, instead cites the BioShield program. “We did get underway, I think in a very serious way, preparations to deal with an anthrax attack in the United States once it hit us. And I think to some extent we’re even benefiting today from things like the ‘emergency use authorization’ that enabled us to get not only vaccines but other things out quickly, under the Defense Production Act, in the face of this pandemic.”
He long ago resigned himself to the failures of Afghanistan.
“It was a mistake to think that this country that had really never had a central government in millennia — and for good reason when you look at those factors of terrain and human terrain, as they call it — to try to take a model from Japan or Germany or even Iraq under Saddam Hussein — countries that had had a strong central government for centuries. It wasn’t going to work. And I think we overreached at some point. I can’t say exactly when. I would say around 10 years ago. We became overambitious in military terms.”
Our cautious treatment of Pakistan, which provided a safe harbor for Taliban leaders, was a mistake, he said.
“I have believed for a long time, much more so today than ever, that we should have really put a lot of pressure on Pakistan to shape up and stop supporting the Taliban. I am not always sure why we didn’t do more of that. … I really believe that to this day we’re letting Pakistan get away with murder.”
But on the war in Iraq, he remains reluctant to accept blame.
“I think we did sort of creep into nation-building as somehow part of our mission, with a certain logic I admit I probably was guilty of espousing as well. Part of what we were dealing with was a Muslim world that was failing [and] that failure was allowing extremist Muslims to succeed.”
“The fact that we don’t know whether [there was] any connection [Saddam Hussein] had to al Qaeda doesn’t change the fact that this is a man who had had all those weapons of mass destruction, once upon a time at least. He did have weapons of mass destruction. I think it was a mistake, by the way, not to emphasize that we were trying to prevent him getting new ones, not that we had some magic intelligence that told us he had big stockpiles. That’s sort of where we tripped over our shoelaces.”
Trent Lott of Mississippi was the Senate minority leader on 9/11 and had just reached his office on Capitol Hill when he got word of the unfolding attacks in New York. “Tom Daschle was the [Senate] majority leader at that point. I was the Republican leader. I called him on our red phone and said ‘Tom, I think we’re the next target. I think you should order the evacuation of the Capitol.’ About that time my security detail kind of came charging in the door and said ‘We gotta get out of here.’” Lott, now 79, has been a lobbyist since he retired from the Senate in 2007.
“I always felt like in Iraq and Afghanistan — have a plan, what is your mission, how and where are you going in and how are you going to get out? And over the years I’ve gotten very concerned about trying to build a government or try to teach others to have a democracy like us. It’s been a very long, difficult process in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we reached a point after, I guess, about five years where we decided ‘Oh well, we’ll stop fighting and we’ll try to change their hearts and minds and convince them to be better people.’ And you know, 10 years later, here we are.”
“I think one of the lessons we should have learned is: When you send young men and women into harm’s way you better be very careful about how you’re going to do it. What is the mission, what are you going in there to do, and how are you going to get out? And when are you going to get out?”
“We stayed too long. I think we thought maybe we could change their hearts and minds. We didn’t really understand their religious beliefs … the way they recruited their young men. … We kept dragging on and on and on and on and on. I think we underestimated the people and the culture.”
“We didn’t look at the history of Alexander the Great, the British, the Russians, and yet we just drifted into this 20-year involvement. And now I think about the lives lost, and the people who have lost limbs [and] loved ones. It’s sad and you have to ask yourself, ‘What did we get for it?’ It has been pointed out, and I think it’s right: What we got for it is we haven’t been attacked again. We basically have been secure. That is a positive, I guess, that came out of all this. I hope we don’t get into any more of these long, drawn-out wars with no conclusion in sight.”
On Iraq, Lott said, the questions that needed to be asked had to do more with getting in than with getting out.
“I think we should have asked more about, ‘OK, where are these weapons of mass destruction? How can we deal with that? How can we destroy them?’ I’ve always felt like I didn’t raise enough questions about the intelligence.”
“I hope that in the future our [congressional] leaders will be aggressive in dealing with the administration, with the presidents. Don’t just take their word for it. Try to have more input.”
Ambassador Paul Bremer was a veteran diplomat who is best known for his appointment in 2003 by President Bush to head the Coalition Provisional Authority, where he served as the chief executive of Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion. It was his decision to disband the Iraqi army and bar members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from any future role in the Iraqi government, steps that many believe were responsible for fueling a sectarian civil war. Bremer was on the Delta shuttle from Washington to New York on the morning of 9/11 when his flight was diverted to Baltimore. “I was shocked but not surprised. I had chaired a national commission on terrorism which examined the evolving terrorist threat and our report to President Clinton and Congress in the summer of 2000 was that we faced a new threat from radical Islam, people who wanted to kill us by the tens of thousands, something we hadn’t faced before.” Bremer, now 79, is a professional ski instructor in Vermont and an amateur landscape painter.
His biggest regret is the implementation of the de-Baathification program, not the program itself, which he says “was a foregone conclusion that had been agreed to by people who were more expert than I.”
“The mistake I made is I turned the actual implementation of this very narrowly drawn decree over to Iraqi politicians, who immediately made it an element of their revenge against other Iraqi politicians. And that was a mistake. I should have found a way perhaps to get Iraqi lawyers or judges to implement it instead of Iraqi politicians.”
“I never thought of us as nation-building. I believed our job was to in fact help the Iraqis recover control of their own country, politically and economically. I believe the record shows we did that. We’ve now had five consecutive peaceful transfers of power in Iraq. No other Arab country can show a record like that. They have done all that in conformity with a liberal constitution that the Iraqi people drafted, not us, and the Iraqi people approved in a national referendum.”
Dan Bartlett was the White House communications director from 2001 to 2005 and shaped President Bush’s messaging during the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He was with Bush on Air Force One on 9/11. Bartlett, 50, is now executive vice president of corporate affairs for Walmart.
“The primary mindset for us was for the country to not get hit again. The viewpoint was if you’re inherently playing defense, you’re going to have a far greater likelihood of being hit again as opposed to playing offense. And it became kind of a line during the campaign or later that ‘I’d rather fight ’em over there than here,’ and there’s still truth in that.”
“Obviously, if we had known then what we know now about his lack of possession and access to weapons of mass destruction, the calculation would have been fundamentally different. That didn’t remove the fact that Saddam Hussein was a threat, he was a continued threat. Would we have mitigated that threat differently had we known that the threat didn’t extend all the way to having access and capabilities with the WMD that he either could deploy or provide to terrorist network organizations? Sure, that fundamentally changes the picture, but we didn’t have the luxury at the time to know that.”
Bartlett is critical of how the usual bureaucratic government turf wars hurt U.S. chances for a good outcome in Iraq early on in the war.
“The post-invasion planning and disagreements between DoD and State Department on who was in charge slowed our efforts at a critical time. Instead of galvanizing the gains made by removing Saddam Hussein from power, it contributed to destabilizing the environment that helped give birth to the insurgency.”
Joseph Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut, had run as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000. On Sept. 11, he was the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which would later be revamped as the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He led the effort in Congress to establish the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a separate National Counterterrorism Center, to oversee nearly two dozen law enforcement and security agencies with a role in domestic defense. He also co-sponsored the law establishing the 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan body that investigated the attack and law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ failure to prevent it. He was also a leading supporter of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in early 2003. Lieberman, 79, is now a senior counsel at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman.
“People ask, ‘Do you think a Gore-Lieberman administration would have went into Iraq?’ I would say probably not. But you have to really appreciate the mood at the time. There was this general feeling that there were all sorts of signals before 9/11 … during the ‘90s … that we didn’t respond to. We should have seen it coming and acted to stop it. So there’s no question that’s part of the feeling that was in the Bush White House about Iraq. … Maybe it was a step too far as you look back in terms of all of the costs.”
“You have to look forward with a kind of clarity and imagination about the threats that might come. But you also have to be careful not to fight the last war after it’s over.”
“We learned a lot of lessons about what we didn’t know about the Arab world and the Muslim world. We got pretty good at overthrowing Arab Muslim dictators like Saddam Hussein, but what to do next? We weren’t very informed, as was evidenced by our postwar policy in Iraq, which was a failure. Hopefully we’ve learned from that.”
“There was a memorable [section] in the 9/11 Commission report. The 9/11 attacks were enabled because of a lack of ‘imagination.’ It meant that we couldn’t imagine that people would do what al Qaeda did to us. But the truth is if we had looked at what had happened during the ’90s we could have imagined and should have imagined.”
“You’ve got to be careful not to always fight the last war.”