The Corner

At the White House Ten Years Ago

 

Ten years ago, on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, my domestic policy staff and I were preparing for our weekly 9:00 A.M. policy briefing with the Vice President. It was a brilliant and crisp Fall morning. I hardly ever opened the window in my office in the Old Executive Office Building, but I did that day to get some of the fresh Fall air circulating, instead of breathing the air being pumped out of the old Carrier window air conditioning unit.

As we were discussing the Social Security “lock-box” and other “important” issues of the day we were going to raise with the vice president, the television in my office was beaming in pictures of what we thought at the time was an unfortunate commuter plane crash somewhere in New York City. It looked like it had accidently crashed on top of one of the World Trade Center buildings.

We continued our meeting, while at the same time keeping a close eye on the television. Minutes later, to our utter shock, we saw the second jetliner careen into the other tower. We knew that America was under attack. We never met with the vice president that morning.

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Outside my office, there was a lot of commotion, with the Secret Service agents scurrying up and down the marbled hallway of the OEOB. I then heard a low-level rumble or boom in the distance outside my window, which sent chills up my spine. I didn’t know it at the time, but this boom was the sound of American Airlines Flight 77 slamming into the Pentagon just across the Potomac River.

I then went out into the hallway of my office, where an OVP staffer told me that one of the Secret Service agents had told him that another airplane was headed toward the White House, and that we should keep away from the windows facing the West Wing. Minutes later, the guards were screaming to everyone to “move” and “run” out of the White House complex.

As staffers were streaming out of the building, I noticed that everyone was looking skyward. It was utter chaos in the streets surrounding the White House, as people were scrambling to leave Washington. As I crossed the Roosevelt Bridge, I saw the thick black column of smoke rising above the Pentagon. I could even smell it. I thought to myself, “How could this happen in America?”

Early the very next morning, September 12, I went back to the White House, this time having to cross two–maybe three–security perimeter check points, instead of the normal one. All of the guards had their rifles ready. It felt like a war zone in the some middle-eastern country, rather than the heart of our nation’s capital. From what I could tell, every single person in the White House, from secretaries to senior staffers, went back to work that day. We weren’t ordered to come back. Many people were scared to come back. But we did anyway, because we wanted to be there to do everything we could to help President Bush and Vice President Cheney do their jobs for our country.

From that day forward, President Bush and his administration were singularly focused on protecting America from another attack. Ten years later, the world is still a dangerous place and the threats against us are as serious as ever. 9/11 taught us that we must cherish every day and live our lives to the fullest, but we must also remain vigilant and supportive of the robust security and national defense policies that President Bush set in motion to keep us safe.

Cesar Conda, formerly assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney, is chief of staff to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla).

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