I am working on something new.
September 11 Revisited
I was the Charge of a medium-sized American embassy in Asia. The Ambassador was back in the US, and barely missed getting on one of the hijacked flights. It was early evening local time. My wife and I were at the gym at a five-star international chain hotel; I was on the treadmill watching, with no particular interest, the nauseous BBC world news show that was on the gym's sole TV set. The news reader, a pompous and vaguely east Asian woman whom I recall as looking much like a Vulcan from the old Star Trek series, suddenly grabbed her earpiece, and said there was a report of a small commuter plane hitting a World Trade Center tower in New York. She prattled on about something else, then suddenly the image cut to the smoking tower just as the second plane hit. Along with millions of other people, I watched on live TV as hundreds of people were brutally murdered. A lot of confused reporting began; much cross talk, some silly BBC criticism of US air traffic control and of the NY fire department for responding too slowly.
The gym trainer, an Aussie expat, came up to me and said, "How can two planes hit the same place?" I remember telling him, almost without thinking about what I was saying, "It has to be deliberate." It suddenly dawned on me, after I said it, that, in fact, it must have been deliberate.
I got off the treadmill and went to look for my wife; I pulled her out of her aerobics class, and said "Something is up. We have to go." I had the bodyguards take us home, and I called our head of security. He was frantically trying to get some logical story out of Washington, but either could not get through, or got contradictory accounts of what was going on: some sort of attack on the Pentagon; a car bomb outside the Congress; another one outside the State Department; and on and on. I told him to get the country team together (heads of section) and to heighten our own security at the Embassy as we could be facing a worldwide attack on US facilities. We all met and talked, and talked, and talked, and could get nothing useful out of Washington.
Adding to the confusion was that the Assistant Secretary of our regional bureau, a political appointee close to a prominent Senator, had run, and I quite literally mean run, with her aide, screaming, yes, screaming, out of her office, into the garage, gotten into her car, and had headed home. She had abandoned her post at a time of great crisis. The amazing thing was that weeks later, she laughingly told the story herself with no sense of shame or of how that imagery could affect those around her. But then this was the same one who, just a few days earlier, had fired an extraordinarily talented Foreign Service Officer, one of the most knowledgable people I had ever met when it came to South Asia, because he did not seem to take her seriously. Ah, yes, leadership in action.
The Embassy went on high alert; the next morning I had to tell the Embassy employees what I knew, which was very little other than what was on the news, and to reassure the local-hire staff that, whatever happened, we would not cut and run out on them. They would be looked after. Afterwards, I remember telling my security chief, "Don't make me a liar on that promise." He nodded.
Endless requests for press interviews; briefings of other embassies and the local government; lots of confusion; condolence calls and visits from all over the host country; all sorts of false rumors and threats. In subsequent weeks, we got hit with a barrage of fake anthrax powder letters; telephoned bomb threats, and so on.
Finally, the word came. Revenge was in the offing. I got instructions to contact the President of a neighboring Muslim country to which our Embassy was also accredited. I was to get permission for US warplanes to overfly his country on the way to bomb Afghanistan. We needed his OK right away, so there was no time to travel and meet him face-to-face. I called him on the phone, and had one of those one-minute conversations that make years of Foreign Service life worthwhile. I remember the conversation vividly.
"Mr. President, we need your permission for our bombers to fly through your national airspace on the way to targets in Afghanistan. We need it right away."
"Would we know when your bombers are flying through our airspace?"
"Your air traffic controllers in [the capital] might pick them up."
"I see. Would my public know that your bombers are there?"
"Not likely unless there is some sort of accident or emergency landing."
"I see. If I say 'no' what happens?"
"Mr. President, we are going to get justice for 9/11. You are our friend. Please help us in this small way."
"So if I say 'no' you are going to go anyhow, right? Please, no diplomacy. Tell me the truth in plain words."
"Yes. We are going to go anyhow."
"Ok [laughing] then I will say 'yes' to your planes. Please tell President Bush that I approve."
"President Bush will be very grateful."