Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was on his way to a business meeting in St. Louis seven years ago when his life was suddenly disrupted. Like thousands of other air travelers, he was diverted, and he spent three days waiting in Kansas City, Mo.
"The pilot came on and said both of the World Trade Center towers had been hit by aircraft and that every aircraft in the country was being grounded," Mr. Gates said in an interview Wednesday.
Mr. Gates did not know at the time that Islamic extremists were behind the attacks. The horrific acts of terrorism killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon and touched off an unconventional conflict that Mr. Gates asserts is gradually being won.
When he learned the facts, his "reaction was [al Qaeda] had finally succeeded in what they tried to do in the same place in 1993. I saw it as the latest in a series of attacks against us that included the first World Trade Center [attack], Khobar Towers [in Saudi Arabia], the [USS] Cole, the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya," he said.
"Being a historian, it seemed to me that the world was going to be very different," Mr. Gates said. "This was one of the first successful foreign-based attacks on the continental United States with significant casualties since the War of 1812, so 189 years, and that was a big deal."
Mr. Gates also did not imagine seven years ago that he would be called back into government service, decades after holding senior positions at the CIA and White House National Security Council.
On Thursday, he will preside at a ceremony to unveil a memorial to those who died at the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into one of the western sides of the building. The crash and the fire it caused killed 125 people in the building along with 64 on the jet, including the five hijackers.
President Bush will also attend the ceremony while both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will make a rare joint appearance at New York's ground zero.
"Tomorrow is obviously a very sober anniversary for Americans," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "The president thinks about 9/11 every single day when he wakes up and before he goes to bed."
Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri remain at large, probably in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Mr. Gates said, nevertheless, that "great progress" had been made.
"The reality is, we are getting a lot of [bin Laden's] subordinates and making it much more difficult for them to carry out operations," he said. "What American on September 12, 2001, would have believed or even hoped or prayed that seven years later, not a single successful attack would have been carried out against the United States subsequent to September 11?"
Other key measures of progress in the war on terrorism, he said, include major increases in domestic security defenses, international cooperation and the elimination of safe havens for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Al Qaeda sought to make Iraq the central front in the war "and they're losing," Mr. Gates said.In Afghanistan, "we won" in 2001, and the Taliban are still out of power. While acknowledging that challenges remain, he said that the fundamentalist Islamist militia does not control a single district.
Mr. Gates also praised foreign nations for their support.
"One of the things that has impressed me, coming back into government, is the range of international cooperation in going after these guys," he said. "The kind of relationships we had with other countries on this kind of a problem when I left government 15 years ago are dramatically different and broader today."
Earlier, Mr. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee that the drawdown of some 3,400 U.S. soldiers from Iraq beginning this month and the removal of about 8,000 combat troops in February are the beginning of the "endgame" for U.S. forces there.
"The continuing drawdown is possible because of the success in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity," Mr. Gates said.
He acknowledged that Iraq continues to face many problems, including the prospect of new violence prior to provincial elections, sectarian strife, Iranian influence and "the very real threat al Qaeda continues to pose and the possibility that [Shi'ite] Jaish al-Mahdi could return."
As the U.S. draws down in Iraq, it will send 3500 more troops to Afghanistan, Mr. Bush said Monday.
Mr. Gates said U.S. and allied forces are working there "to counter a classic extremist insurgency fueled by ideology, poppy, poverty, crime and corruption."
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that in cutting troop levels in Iraq and sending more forces to Afghanistan "we did not compromise one war for the other."
The four-star admiral called the conflict in Afghanistan "a complex, difficult struggle that will take time."
Without a broader international and interagency approach to Afghanistan, he said, "it is my professional opinion that no amount of troops in no amount of time can ever achieve all the objectives we seek in Afghanistan. And frankly, we're running out of time."
Afghanistan needs more than "boots on the ground," he said, including civilian infrastructure and a better system of government and commerce.
Thursday's ceremony at the Pentagon will mark the opening up of the building to ordinary Americans. The military complex has been largely closed to the public since the 2001 attack.
The memorial consists of 184 lighted benches over water arranged according to the age of the victims. The youngest was three-year old Dana Falkenberg and the oldest was John D. Yamnicky, 71.
The two-acre site includes a walkway that is aligned with the flight path of the hijacked jet. About 80 maple trees adorn the area. After Thursday, the memorial will be open seven days a week.
"The simplicity and the beauty [of the site] are just extraordinary," Mr. Gates said. "And I think the way it's laid out, is that I think it will encourage solitude. I think it will encourage people to ... get lost in their own thoughts, without having to crowd together as they do at so many of the other memorials around town."