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An insider’s look at global war on terror

In a captivating memoir, retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers talks candidly about his career in the military, the unforgettable events of Sept. 11 and the global war on terror. With an insider’s perspective, he outlines the mistakes made by the White House, Pentagon leadership and the intelligence community. Here's an excerpt:My driver, Dan Downey, braked hard at the Pentagon River Entrance, and we jumped from the car. The steps were crowded with men and women fleeing the building, many still coughing from the smoke inside. Col. Matt Klimow, my executive assistant, stood near the door, waiting calmly with a notebook. As we entered, my senses were assaulted: People moved quickly through the smoky corridors toward the exits. Speakers in the ceiling blared repeatedly, “Evacuate the building! Evacuate the building!”

We ran against the flow of the crowd to the National Military Command Center off the D Ring. The NMCC has been portrayed in many fanciful ways in Hollywood films and television dramas, usually with overly dramatic lighting and stadium size screens projecting the flow of distant battle on land, at sea, and in the air. Although there is a certain Star Wars flavor to the Command Center, in reality the facility is a communications hub, a switchboard connecting the Pentagon, the civilian government, and the combatant commanders. Horseshoe shaped computer cubicles dominate the Current Actions Center, which is about the size of a basketball court. At one end is the NMCC deputy director of operations’ office, a windowless room with several desks, a conference table, and lots of telephones.

When we entered the Command Center, all the officers on duty were working calmly at their stations, despite the smoke wafting in through the ventilation system, the fact that the Pentagon had just been struck, and the distracting blast of the evacuation alarm.

Army Brig. Gen. Montague Winfield was the duty officer in charge of the center that morning. The smoke wasn’t as bad inside his closed office where he was participating in a conference call linking the NMCC, North American Aerospace Command (NORAD), and the White House, which had been under way since just before we arrived at the Pentagon.

We learned that there was apparently a fourth hijacked aircraft, United Airlines Flight 93 out of Newark, bound nonstop for San Francisco. Like the other planes, it had switched off its transponder, making it much harder if not impossible to track on ground radar.

A military aide in the White House relayed an important message. “NORAD estimates the aircraft is headed toward Washington,” Winfield said. “Vice President Cheney has forwarded the President’s authorization to go Weapons Free if that plane is confirmed hijacked and threatens the White House or the Capitol.”

Weapons Free, I thought — permission to shoot down the hijacked plane.

There were U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard fighters up as we spoke, searching for that Boeing 757 widebody, heavily laden with fuel. No one in the Pentagon knew how many passengers were on board, but I realized the President had made the right decision in authorizing fighters to shoot down the aircraft before it reached Washington or another city. I also thought of those fighter pilots who would be ordered to kill their fellow Americans along with the hijackers. Many of the Air National Guard pilots also flew for the airlines, which would make obeying the shootdown order that much harder. But as a young pilot myself, I’d learned that war was an unforgiving business that tested moral strength as well as physical courage.

General Winfield was doing a good job of managing the information flow and keeping the chain of command plugged in, linking the President (the National Command Authority), the Secretary of Defense, the combatant commanders, and the other relevant military and civilian organizations. So I went to find Secretary Rumsfeld. As I left the Current Actions Center, CNN showed the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsing in an avalanche of smoke and debris. The announcer said something about a possible death toll of ten thousand.

The smoke was thickening on the E Ring corridor. And it was almost as bad in the Secretary’s office suite. One of Rumsfeld’s aides told me he was “outside,” helping with the wounded. I left word that I was returning to the NMCC.

When I got back there was a period of confusion about the flight numbers of the hijacked aircraft known to have crashed and the one still airborne. This was exacerbated by a communication glitch making it impossible to speak directly to the Federal Aviation Administration on the secure conference call, but we did confirm that the FAA had grounded over twenty one hundred airborne civilian aircraft by then and had diverted all inbound overseas flights. Even though we still could not communicate directly with senior FAA officials on this secure circuit, we were confident they were working as fast as possible to clear U.S. air space. There was no alternative, however: Terrorists who could hijack aircraft so readily could probably also eavesdrop on unsecured phone lines. At this time, it was tough to judge the full scope of the danger we were facing, so the conference call had become an “air threat” call, which followed priorities and protocol that I knew well from my days in command of NORAD in Colorado Springs.

One of those priorities was guarding the President of the United States aboard Air Force One, which was en route from Florida to an air base in Louisiana. NORAD had scrambled a fighter escort for the plane and now ordered a wide area AWACS airborne radar surveillance plane up on the West Coast to search for intruding or hijacked aircraft in that sector.

I also recommended that all American military commands and units worldwide go to THREATCON Delta, the highest alert level. Officially, this meant, “A terrorist attack has occurred or intelligence has been received that action against a specific location is likely.” Terrorists had staged major attacks in New York and Washington. Although we did not yet have reliable intelligence on when and where they would strike next, it seemed likely that they would.

After 10:00 A.M., an Air Force officer working in the White House told us that Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley had requested the implementation of “continuity of government measures.” These were taken only in the gravest of emergencies, and most recently had been expected to meet the Cold War threat of nuclear attack. But those had been training exercises; this was real.

The measures included establishing a survivors’ core of key federal government members. A rotating staff of around 150 senior officials from every cabinet department would be sent to two secure underground bunkers within driving or helicopter flight distance of Washington. Their families and loved ones could only contact them through a “sterile” toll free phone number.

Another element of the emergency plan was launching the National Airborne Operations Center. This was a high technology command, control, and communications center carried aboard a converted Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Some in Washington considered it an expensive, unnecessary relic of the Cold War, but with the capital itself now under imminent threat, it was clear that NAOC was still a useful part of the inventory. I asked Matt Klimow to verify that the plane was airborne.

NORAD now confirmed that there was an Air Force combat air patrol over Washington. If ordered to do so, the fighters would shoot down any hijacked airliner threatening structures and people in the city.

While the conference call proceeded, the CNN picture showed another horrible telescopic image: The north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed from the upper floors, the tall building’s sides billowing out like a flimsy cardboard box on a bonfire. The mushrooming cloud of smoke and dust evoked a nuclear explosion. I wondered how many thousand people trapped in that burning tower had just died.

Information reached us by a variety of routes — NORAD updates, National Security Council and FBI intelligence reports, and forwarded FAA data, which was still slowed by our lack of a direct secure channel to the agency leadership. At 10:17 A.M., we got word that the blip image of the aircraft that the FAA had assumed to be United Flight 93 had just disappeared from the radar, eastbound over southcentral Pennsylvania. This could mean several things. Was it flying so low that radar couldn’t see it? If so, was the plane still a threat to Washington? At this point we didn’t have answers to these questions.

A report from the Military District of Washington announced that almost every government office in the capital had been evacuated and that many people were leaving the city on foot. The CNN image of this flood of evacuees soon appeared on our TV screens.

This was a nightmare, and we didn’t know when it would end. But at 10:21 A.M., United Airlines confirmed that its Flight 93 had crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Unless there was another hijacking before all the flights still airborne landed, this first phase of the terrorist attack had apparently ended. But we couldn’t be certain what was happening overseas or if the terrorists had held more aircraft, large or small, in reserve for a second wave — or if they had options other than airplanes in the execution stage.

Confusion rose and fell. Fractured, unconfirmed reports reached us from the intelligence community and the Secret Service: A civil aircraft was down near Camp David (false report). ... a car bomb had exploded near the State Department, raising the question of where the nearest biochemical protection team was located (false report) ... three commercial aircraft were “squawking” Mayday distress calls (false report) ... the fighters responding to the situation that were not under NORAD control did not have a clear understanding of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) for hijacked planes. In other words, the country was at war again, and the fog of war was descending.

Added to this situation, acrid smoke started filling the operations floor of the NMCC and was thickening to the point that it was potentially hazardous.

But we now had a secure video teleconference scheduled, linking the Defense Department’s civilian and military leadership with the rest of government. The NMCC facility for secure teleconferences was a tiny room with a thick, airtight door. This protected us from the smoky operations floor, but the space was severely cramped. Somehow we found room for Secretary Rumsfeld and Steve Cambone, Rumsfeld’s lanky special assistant, myself, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Torie Clark, General Counsel Jim Haynes, and Vice Adm. Ed Giambastiani, the Secretary’s military assistant, with Matt Klimow jammed into a corner, taking notes. By now, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had reached Site R, from where his image appeared in a small box at the upper right-hand corner of our screen.

Again, the main issue under discussion was Rules of Engagement for NORAD to follow should there be more hijackings. The civilian leadership had their experts and a lawyer, we had ours. Some of us were developing bad headaches from the deteriorating air quality.

Back in the NMCC director of operations’ office, Ed Giambastiani, a veteran submariner with years spent submerged, announced, “There’s no clean air in this center. It’s filling up with CO2.” He told Matt Klimow to find a firefighter with an air monitor, while he searched out an alternative place to meet.

The doomsday bellow of the fire alarm, “Evacuate the building!” had finally stopped. Our eyes were starting to sting, some streaming tears, and Secretary Rumsfeld was hacking because he had breathed thicker smoke helping to evacuate the wounded earlier.

“Sir,” I told him, “I’m worried about the people outside this office supporting us, because the air is worse out there.”

Rumsfeld nodded. “We’re going to stay in here as long as we can.”

We tallied the preliminary casualty and damage to the Pentagon estimates — well over one hundred killed or missing, scores wounded, including many terribly burned — and the complete destruction of a large wedge on the western, “Navy Side” of the building.

“We need to have the press on board, to keep them up to speed,” I told Torie Clark. “It’s important for historical reasons and to get the word out. Don’t leave them behind.”

Secretary Rumsfeld asked loudly enough for everybody to hear, “What else could the enemy do?”

He was thinking ahead, engaging in Rumsfeld’s well known outside the box speculation.

“NBC,” I said. I didn’t mean the National Broadcasting Corporation. I meant nuclear, biological, and chemical—weapons of mass destruction.At noon, Vice Adm. Tom Wilson, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, confirmed what everybody at the conference table had already surmised: The attacks had undoubtedly come from al Qaida.Usama bin Laden and his al Qaida leadership were dug in deeper than ever in Afghanistan, still protected by the Taliban. Afghanistan was in the Area of Operations of Gen. Tommy Franks’s Central Command. Like Hugh Shelton, Tom Franks was overseas. Franks’s plane was on the ground at the Navy base in Suda Bay on Crete.

“Ask him to get back to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida, as soon as possible,” I told Matt Klimow. “I want General Franks to start looking at options for al Qaida.”

If the President and the Secretary ordered us to go to war in Afghanistan, we were going to have to do it before winter, and that didn’t leave us a lot of time in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

With that responsibility in Tom Franks’s hands, I turned to the others. “We need to keep asking, ‘What’s next?’ ”In the face of such a concerted attack, we couldn’t fall behind. I assured Secretary Rumsfeld that General Franks was now examining all options for al Qaida.

Reports from the combatant commanders around the world were coming in. Their bases and facilities were sealed tight at the highest possible alert status. No unidentified aircraft, vessel, or vehicle could approach any American military installation. At least our troops were protected. There wouldn’t be another USS Cole today.

But it was too late for many in this building. Matt Klimow arrived with an Arlington County firefighter in tow. The report was not good: The concentration of CO2 in some corridors was 88 percent, near deadly. The level in the NMCC was 32 percent. Oxygen in the NMCC was still a breathable 16 percent, but falling. When it hit 13 percent, the fireman urged us to evacuate. Ed Giambastiani brought some good news. He’d found a smoke free shelter, “OSD Cables,” a communications hub near the Office of the Secretary of Defense complex. We relocated there.

It was from here that I passed on the Secretary’s authorization for a partial Reserve call up, including fighter pilots, aerial tanker crews, and communications specialists. With the country suddenly at war, we would need all the help we could muster, and much of that help was in the Reserve and National Guard.

After noon, Air Force One landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where President Bush broadcast a brief message to the nation. The Department of Defense, he said, was taking all appropriate security measures, including putting the military at the highest alert level worldwide. The President asked for prayers for the thousands who had died and for their families.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

Excerpted from “Eyes on the Horizon” by General Richard B. Myers with Malcolm McConnell. Copyright © 2009 by RMyers and Associates, LLC. Reprinted with permission of Threshold, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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