On the morning of September 11, 2001, my then-CIA colleague Rob was in Manhattan on the subway, headed to a 9 a.m. meeting in the World Trade Center. At 8:46 a.m., moments before he exited the subway, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the Center’s North Tower.
Rob exited the subway station only to be pushed back inside the train by a throng of people hysterically running down the stairs, fleeing the chaos after the first plane crashed.
Rob managed to get out at the next stop. Not a native New Yorker and having spent comparatively little time in Manhattan, Rob used the gigantic twin towers as a guide as he made his way back to the meeting he was still planning to attend. With dust in the air clouding his vision, he at first thought, like so many other eyewitnesses, that a small plane had accidentally crashed into one of the twin towers.
As he got closer to the World Trade Center, Rob encountered bystanders shouting about the first plane crash.
Rob was walking in between the two towers at the World Trade Center when United Airlines Flight 175, which had taken off from Boston’s Logan Airport with 51 passengers and 5 crew onboard, crashed into the South tower at 9:03 a.m.
A gulf of warm air shot down towards Rob’s body and sucked out all the oxygen around him. For a moment, he could not breathe.
Everyone looked up to the sky in shock as debris swirled in the air and covered their shoes.
Now there was no question that the U.S. was under attack — not in the Middle East or Africa, where our embassies and military had been targeted in recent years past, but at home in the heart of the world’s greatest financial center.
Rob watched with unimaginable shock and horror as people jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center’s upper floors. Policemen were putting themselves in harm’s way as they directed people to safety from the danger zone.
Rob had begun walking away from the site and moved to safety just minutes before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Walking north towards mid-town when the North Tower collapsed 29 minutes later, Rob was close enough to feel the impact and see the total destruction of one of New York’s most recognizable landmarks.
These images would be seared into Rob’s consciousness and set the course for the next two decades of his CIA career, during which he served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan, including a stint as station chief.
During the decade before 9/11, the CIA had faced budget cuts and hiring freezes. But a myriad of threats emerged on the horizon, none with a shorter fuse than al Qaeda. In 1993, al Qaeda operatives tried unsuccessfully to blow up the World Trade Center. In 1995, an alert Philippines Police officer disrupted the al Qaeda Bojinka plot to hijack and explode passenger aircraft. In 1996, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring a jihadist war on the U.S. In 1998, al Qaeda launched simultaneous truck bomb attacks that killed over 200 people at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. And in 2000, al Qaeda mounted a suicide terrorist attack against the USS Cole in Yemen.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was no talk of nation-building in Afghanistan, just delivering justice to the al Qaeda terrorists who had attacked our homeland.
Intelligence, starting with sensitive reporting from human sources, has always been the key to protecting our homeland in the 20 years since that awful day. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in April, CIA Director William Burns testified, “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish.”
After keeping our homeland safe by successfully targeting senior terrorists and severely depleting their cadre of foot soldiers over the past two decades, the U.S. left Afghanistan in dire circumstances. Absent counterterrorism pressure, this extremist Petri dish will once again grow like a cancer into a clear and present danger to our national security.
Director Burns’ admonition must have been extraordinarily distressful to the brave patriots in the nation’s intelligence community, always at the ready to serve on the front lines and in harm’s way. But knowing we remain in the crosshairs of our ruthless enemies, they will push on relentlessly with their increasingly complex, challenging, dangerous, and sacred mission.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.