Eight years ago I, like the rest of America, was shocked by the events of Sept 11th 2001.  The attacks changed our Nation, and for me, it was personal.  At the time, I was serving as the Military Assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

I had joined the Secretary of Defense’s team on July 1st, and it had been a rollercoaster ride the entire way.  We had first struggled to fill the numerous high level billets for political appointees in the Pentagon, doing an enormous amount of work with less than half of the people we needed.  President Bush had given Secretary Rumsfeld a mandate to bring the Department into the 21st Century, and he set about to apply all he had learned in 25 years of business since his last stint as Secretary of Defense to the experience he had used that time.  Controversy swirled.

The much talked about friction between the Secretary of Defense and the senior military leaders was real.  However, in my opinion (based on my first hand observations vice rumors), it was due to the very different style which Donald Rumsfeld used.  The previous Administration was very solicitous to the uniforms.  If they said, “Mr. Secretary, this is the best course,” he almost reflexively sign-off.  Not so with Sec. Rumsfeld.  He wanted to be convinced of the right way to go, he never simply “trusted” any expert.  He also cut down the size of meetings dramatically.  All the 2-3 star officers and colonels who had previously accompanied their 4 star bosses to meetings were no long allowed at the table.  This had several effects.  First, the 4 stars had to become the experts; they hated having to be so well prepared that they could answer all his questions, and the staffs hated the painful process of “prepping” their bosses.  Next, those officers now left out of meetings no longer had the inside scoop, which tragically was often leaked in the past.  They felt left out, and were very peeved.  I know this, because I was the one turning them away at the door, and it was rather uncomfortable.  Bottom line was that this added greatly to the myth that Rumsfeld doesn’t “listen” to the uniforms.  Actually, he listened all the time, just not to the guys who were later complaining.

All that changed on 9/11.  While transformation continued, we were going to war.  We watched the news with the rest of America as the first plane hit in NY.  We were as baffled as everyone else as to the cause (pilot error? heart attack?).  Then the second plane hit, and as soon as we realized it was not a replay, we began to move into action.  The Secretary had just finished up a breakfast with a group of legislators, and called for his closest advisors.  The Senior Military Advisor looked at me and said, “Steve, this will not be answered by Tomahawk missiles this time, it will take tomahawks like the one in your office, in the hands of your Green Berets to respond to this.”  I did not know how prophetic he was being.

I was sent by the Senior Military Assistant into our classified area with several senior staffers from our Policy team and the Joint Staff.  We began brain storming as to who could have done this and why.  It was clearly terrorists, but which ones?  Were there other attacks planed?  After only a few minutes, we felt an odd vibration, and the building seemed to shift slightly.  We all looked at one another with the “What the heck was that?” look on our faces.  I stood and said I would go and find out what had happened.

Returning to the main Secretary of Defense’s office, I quickly asked what has just happened, and was told by a shocked sergeant that a plane had hit our building.  I asked “Where is the Boss?” and was told that he had gone out to the crash sight.  Shocked, I said, “We are supposed to get him away from the danger, not let him go toward it.”  I grabbed an Non-commissioned Officer and headed out to find Sec. Rumsfeld.  There he was, at the site of impact, hauling a stretcher.  Against his desires and concerns for the people who had been hurt, we convinced him to return to the office so we could begin the Department of Defense’s response.

We began in the relatively small classified area on the 3d floor that belonged to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).  Rumsfeld’s first question was “Where is the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs (CJCS)?”  Gen. Sheldon was out of town, but Gen. Myers, the Vice Chairman (VCJCS) was downstairs in the National Military Command Center (NMCC).  The Secretary asked why he was separated from his military advisors, and was informed that we each had our own “areas.”  He frowned his soon to famous frown, asked where the better communications capabilities were located.  When he was told that the NMCC was better equipped, he immediately moved down to join the General.  There would be no standing on turf issues.

We were only able to stay there for about an hour, as smoke from the fire was soon filling the NMCC.  Several advisors counseled him to move to an alternate location away from Washington.  Rumsfeld refused, saying that the American people expect the defense of the Nation to emanate from the Pentagon, not “an alternate site.”  We were forced to move back upstairs to the 3d floor facility due to the foul air.  Gen. Myers and the key members of the Joint Staff accompanied the Secretary and his civilian advisors.  We were now locked it to a very long, difficult day.

As all this was happening, communications were established with the President, Vice President, and other key Cabinet officials.  Information came in with fits and starts, concerning the grounding of commercial aircraft, the crash in Pennsylvania, and our nascent response through NORAD.  This was brought home to me later, after talking to my wife.  She had come to the Pentagon that morning to have her first day as a volunteer in the medical clinic that cares for the leadership of the Department.  After we parted at 7:00 am, I did not see her until 4:30 pm.  She told me that while caring for the wounded and the responders, they had been told that another plane was approaching.  Everyone scattered, until they looked up and saw an America fighter plane streak overhead.  All the people cheered, and knew they would now be safe from further attack.  As we learned later, it was one of the brave Air National Guard pilots who took their post without hesitation, with no ammunition for their weapons.

All day long, we endeavored to keep the Boss armed with everything he and the VCJCS needed to properly advise the POTUS, and to direct the military assets of the Nation.  To be honest, I could not tell you what exactly was decided on that day.  I do know that the Boss had been spot on as to the galvanizing effect of staying at the building despite the ill advised warnings to leave.  He gave a news conference that evening, flanked by the VCJCS, and the two ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  It would be the first of many he would give over the next few years.  America no longer had just a Secretary of Defense – it had a Secretary of War.

Regardless of one’s position or feelings about other policy decisions made later by the Administration, that day, September 11th, 2001, every American should have been proud of how their leaders responded to the crisis.  As I finally departed the Pentagon at around 11:30 PM, I knew it was only the beginning of many days of difficult times, and even more difficult decisions.  Suddenly, my “office job” at the Pentagon had become the epicenter of America’s first 21st Century war.  As I look back today, at the moving memorial to the victims of the Pentagon attack, I will always remember how that spot looked eight years ago as I walked next to the man I will always think of as the Boss.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More