On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was strapped into a National Guard plane that lifted off into an empty sky from the Albuquerque airport. The scene was the same around the nation. Within hours after a 33-year-old Egyptian terrorist crashed a Boeing 767 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the FAA had stopped all air travel over the United States.
At 7 that morning, I was preparing to leave my hotel in Albuquerque when I heard the first report that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Only a month earlier, on the nomination of President George W. Bush, I had taken the job as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. I had traveled to New Mexico for a public debate with Governor Gary Johnson about drug policy.
My staff and members of my security team understood quickly that we wouldn’t be returning to Washington on a commercial flight. We went to the Albuquerque DEA office. We sent out word to all of the field divisions to work their informants for any hint of a further attack.
By the time we had secured a National Guard plane and pilot to take us to Washington, 29-year-old Arkansan Sara Low was already among the victims. Sara, a native of Batesville, was an attendant on Flight 11, the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center. Malissa White-Higgins, born and raised in Bald Knob, Arkansas, worked in human resources for Marsh & McLennan on the 99th floor of the North Tower. She died after the plane struck.
We evacuated the DEA offices in Washington, which were directly across the street from the Pentagon. Several DEA employees had seen American Airlines Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., nearly an hour after the first crash.
Navy Operations Specialist Second Class Nehamon Lyons, the third Arkansan to die on 9/11, was killed in the assault on the Pentagon. He was born in Pine Bluff in March 1971. He was 30.
As our plane entered Washington airspace that evening, a fighter jet accompanied us to a military facility. At the smoke-filled DEA headquarters, I gathered with my executive staff. I had been on the job for a little over a month, and my job was changing dramatically. The DEA was pivoting from the war on drugs to the war on terrorism. Our agents across the country were watching for any tip about another attack.
I went home about midnight.
A week or so after the attack, Attorney General John Ashcroft called a meeting of the Justice Department in the Justice Department Command Center. Attorney General Ashcroft said: “I’ve just been told by the President of the United States, ‘Don’t let this happen again.’ I’ve got to expect more from each of you. You’ve got to expect more from all of your people. You’ve got to work longer hours. You’ve got to work harder. We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure there is not another attack. We’ve got to change from prosecution to prevention. If you are not willing to carry out that responsibility, say so now, and get up and walk out.”
The terrorists and their sponsors hoped to destroy the United States. Although they killed nearly 3,000 people, our enemies learned that they had mistaken America’s kindness, generosity, and compassion for weakness. In the same way that many of our enemies before them have underestimated our strength, the attackers mistakenly believed that they could deliver a sharp blow, and America would falter.
The terrorists did, indeed, strike a grievous blow. But as the world knows, their mission failed. Utterly and completely.
The 9/11 attack brought out the best in Americans, from our next-door neighbors, first responders, elected officials, and law enforcement at all levels. Twenty years later, I am still amazed, but not surprised, at the dedication of DEA employees.
As the administration and the FAA talked about how to get our planes flying again, we knew we needed to enlarge our Air Marshal Program. I sent out a directive to DEA employees asking for volunteers to work as a sky marshal. We needed a hundred.
We got four hundred.
DEA employees lined up – a thousand deep. That’s a powerful message and a forceful discouragement to our enemies. When America is called to stand against evil, we will line up on the front lines a thousand deep.