Personal perspective

There are a lot of things my cousin Jack could probably tell me about his 35 years as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, but then he’d have to kill me.

We wouldn’t want that.

Actually, Jack’s not his real name, but he is my cousin. And he did work for the CIA from 1986 until he retired earlier this year.

He was there, at CIA headquarters, when the Soviet Union fell. He was there through two wars in Iraq and at the start of the war in Afghanistan.

And he was there for 9/11.

I haven’t actually seen him in quite a few years. We have a cousins’ text group that we communicate on, but until he retired, Jack — again, not his real name — could never discuss his employment, other than that he worked for “the government.”

But ever since he retired, I’ve been wanting to try get a story out of him. So as we approached the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I thought it would be interesting to find out what that fateful, awful day was like for him.

So he got clearance from the CIA to tell me, and my readers — without giving away any state secrets — a bit of his story.

First, let me tell you what I can about “Jack.”

He got his degree in geology and was planning a career working for the oil companies. But by the time he graduated, the economic conditions in the industry were such that there were “more geology graduates working as shoe salesmen than for the oil companies.”

So he took a job with the CIA as an analyst of oil and energy. It wasn’t particularly exciting work, he said, but it dealt with a topic that is strategic enough that some of his reports wound up in the president’s daily briefing.

By Sept. 11, 2001, he was working in the Executive Secretariat office, which provides “support” to senior CIA management.

From the way he described the job, it sounds something like that of a mid-level editor in the newspaper business. The higher-ups would request certain information, and his role was to find the right people who could provide such information and make sure it was delivered on time.


‘Just another day’

That terrible Tuesday in September started out like “just another day,” he said. He arrived at CIA headquarters across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., around 8 a.m. as usual.

He had a busy afternoon planned, but things started out slow that morning.

“We were just there getting ready for our day. And we had a TV in our office. It was just turned on to the news,” he said.

In those pre-9/11 days, terrorism was not the CIA’s top priority. That was about to change very quickly.

When American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., it was a complete shock to everyone in the room.

“We were pretty much like everybody else in America,” he said. “We had the TV on and saw that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.”

At first, though, they thought it was just a terrible accident. Then the other shoe dropped.

“I looked up and was watching it and they caught the second plane flying into the tower,” he recalled.

“That’s when it hit you, like everybody else. That’s not an accident.”

“Then it was just two hours of confusion and uncertainty. Nobody knew anything that was going on.”

About 10 miles away, less than an hour after the first attack in New York City, word came in that there had been an “explosion” at the Pentagon. That, of course, turned out to be another plane, crashed into the very headquarters of the U.S. military by terrorists, identity still unknown.

A few minutes later, there was a report of an explosion on the National Mall.

It turned out to be a false alarm.

But shortly after 10 a.m., a fourth plane went down in Pennsylvania, which, as it turned out, hijackers had intended to crash somewhere in Washington, D.C.

If terrorists were targeting buildings symbolic of American democracy, the headquarters of the CIA could certainly be on the hit list.

“Finally, I think it was around 11 o’clock, two hours after the (first) attacks, that the decision was made to evacuate our building and send everybody home,” Jack said.

“You can kind of imagine it was pretty chaotic.”

Cellphones were jammed, as was the parking lot. CIA headquarters is in a fenced compound in a wooded area, with only three exits. It took three hours for Jack to get out.

His wife, who also worked for the CIA, managed to get out before the traffic jam, although they weren’t able to get in touch with each other.

But by the next day, CIA headquarters was back in operation.

“It was very tense,” Jack said of the mood around the agency.


The aftermath

I suspect that’s putting in mildly. It was pretty tense where I was that day, too, in the newsroom of The Greenville News. I was an assistant city editor at the time, and we had to try to figure out how to put out an “extra” edition and keep our website updated with local reaction.

It was by far the most surreal day of my career in journalism. We kept wondering what was going to happen next.

To see those iconic towers at the tip of Manhattan crumble into dust, it seemed like the apocalypse could be coming.

On my way home that night, I saw cars lined up at gas stations, with people panic-buying, just in case.

There were already American flags waving from many cars, and people seemed to put political differences aside, at least for a time.

There was a feeling of unity in the face of adversity that I can’t quite see happening now if the nation were hit with another such calamity. It certainly didn’t happen when a pandemic came along last year.

But that day 20 years ago seemed to shatter a sense of security that we had taken for granted. For the first time since the War of 1812, a foreign enemy had attacked the American homeland.

“People forget about how scared people were,” Jack said, looking back two decades. “Especially working at the CIA and living in Washington — is there going to be another terror attack, and what might it look like?”

Air traffic shut down in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but when it resumed, “It was a very unsettling feeling” to see planes flying low over CIA headquarters on their way into Reagan National Airport, he said.

Sept. 11 “fundamentally changed the focus of the CIA” to counter-terrorism, Jack said.

That focus may be changing again, with the 20-year war in Afghanistan finally coming to an end, he said.


The longest war

My cousin served under seven presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Joe Biden. Now, as a private citizen, he can give his personal opinion on America’s longest war from the perspective of having spent his entire career in the heart of our nation’s spy agency.

“To me, there was never going to be a victory parade out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Every foreign power that has gone into Afghanistan, it has gone the same way.”

The culture there is too complex and, well, foreign, for most Americans to understand, he said. But there was a chance things could have gone better early in the war, he believes.

“I think there was a very narrow window of opportunity at the very beginning, right after we pushed the Taliban out of power in 2002, to set up some kind of governmental structure that accounted for the Afghan culture,” he said.

“The Taliban knew they were beaten and were willing to negotiate,” he said.

The George W. Bush administration refused to negotiate, passing on what my cousin believes was “a slight chance” to establish a government that might share power among the various factions within the country.

“Once that opportunity was never pursued, I think it was inevitable what was going to happen. It was just a matter of when,” he said.

After pushing back the Taliban, even after killing Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — in Pakistan — 10 years later, the war dragged on, under its own inertia, Jack said.

“There’s a lot of inertia in the government. When you start doing something, it’s hard to stop — especially when you’re spending a lot of money,” he said.

I lost track of how many times I had to go to the far runway of the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport to cover the arrival of a flag-draped casket of another local hero who gave his life for his country in Afghanistan. Interviewing their families was among the most difficult of my assignments.

Biden has been criticized, and “probably rightly so,” for lack of planning to get everybody out of the country, my cousin said, but no one expected the Afghan government and its military to “evaporate” like it did.

It was pretty clear, though, that the Afghan forces, realizing they couldn’t win without the Americans by their side, started “cutting a deal with the Taliban” as soon as they heard a year ago that the United States, under an agreement made by former president Donald Trump, was going to pull out, my cousin said.

“What are you fighting to the death for, to support a government that people see as corrupt?” he said, describing the mindset of the Afghan military. The Taliban, on the other hand, were fighting to drive out what they saw as an occupying foreign force, he said.

A withdrawal in May, as planned by Trump, would have faced those same conditions, my cousin said. And a surprise withdrawal in January that the former president tried to execute would surely have been chaotic had he gone through with his 11th-hour order, he said.

Jack noted that after losing the election, Trump, who had promised to end the war, put out an unexpected presidential memo ordering all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by Jan. 15 — within a week of Biden’s inauguration. But the Pentagon, caught off-guard by the move, balked, Jack said.

“I’m pretty sure Trump is sitting there saying in terms of Afghanistan, ‘I’m pretty glad this didn’t happen on my watch,’” my cousin said.

As to whether Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for terrorists, “time will tell,” Jack said. But the Taliban, being as pragmatic as they are rigid in their ideology, probably will try not to let that happen again, he said, given what happened to them after 9/11.

Jack said he couldn’t comment on the CIA’s assets and capabilities to ferret out terrorists “over the horizon” as Biden suggested.


Never forget

But — although the CIA is a big government bureaucracy, it does have “a certain nimbleness” that the Department of Defense doesn’t have in dealing with the nation’s enemies, Jack said.

“In a lot of ways, the CIA led the government’s fight against terrorism,” he said. “And a lot of people worked incredibly hard, incredibly long hours. A lot of people spent too much time at work and not enough time with their families.”

Such is the nature of duty in times of crisis, in service to the republic we too often take for granted.

Some CIA employees gave more than overtime and exertion in these past 20 years. At headquarters, there’s a Wall of Honor, memorializing those CIA officers who died in the line of duty, my cousin said.

And 9/11, he said, “really demonstrated to me” the CIA motto: “We accomplish what others cannot accomplish, we go where others cannot go.”

“The CIA, especially after 9/11, did a lot of incredible things,” he said.

I think the fact that there hasn’t been another 9/11 in the past 20 years testifies to that.

Sept. 11, 2001, is a day that few of us who lived through will ever forget. I know I won’t.

And I’m sure my cousin, who watched so much history unfold during three and a half decades at the CIA, will remember much more than he’ll ever be at liberty to tell.