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9/10: The Day Before
Comments () | Published September 7, 2011

Politicians were arguing over whether the country could afford Bush’s tax cut, enacted earlier in the year. Some thought we needed another tax cut to jump-start consumer spending.

In Leesburg, Tim Hardison reported for his shift at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center shortly before 8 AM. Contrary to what people saw in the movies, the real action in air-traffic control wasn’t in towers at airports—it was in the Federal Aviation Administration’s 22 regional radar centers. At Washington Center, Hardison and 400 others handled flights from the middle of West Virginia east to the Atlantic Ocean and from New York to North Carolina.

Air-traffic control was like a relay race. Once a flight departed one of the region’s three big airports, it was handed off from the tower to a controller in Vint Hill, Virginia. When the plane was above 23,000 feet and 40 miles away from the airport, Washington Center took over. Just as in a baton pass, controllers were in contact with only one other person—or one center—at a time. Washington could talk to New York, New York to Boston, Boston to Washington, but there was no easy way for all the controllers to talk to one another at once.

As long as an airplane stayed on course, none of this posed a problem. In the event it went astray and the pilot was unresponsive, controllers usually assumed that the plane was having navigational or communications problems. They would monitor and track the aircraft and notify surrounding facilities, and if they were unable to reestablish contact, military aircraft could intercept the plane and try to make visual contact with the pilots.

The intricacies of domestic air traffic were well known to Jim Wilding, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who spent the morning bounding around a convention center in Montreal. He was attending the annual meeting of the Airports Council International-North America. On September 10 and for the next couple of days, the director of nearly every airport in the United States was scheduled to be in Canada.

Among the most pressing concerns the directors discussed was how to cut down on jet-engine noise in neighborhoods near airports. Wilding was in the midst of a major airport construction project. Work had wrapped up a few years earlier on a new terminal at Reagan National. Now, at Dulles, crews were moving into high gear on an extension of the main terminal. Included in the plans was an underground train to replace most of the outdoor “mobile lounges” that moved passengers across the concrete expanse of the airport.

Wilding was looking forward to the improvements. But one critical component was beyond his control. Airlines, not airports, managed the outside contractors who checked passengers and their baggage before they boarded. In the previous seven years, a series of federal audits had found serious flaws in the screening system, yet there were few improvements.

Like a lot of his colleagues at airports across the country, the private screeners didn’t give Wilding much confidence. But he didn’t have an easy answer for the problem.

***

Back in Washington that Monday morning, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to jar the Washington news cycle out of its summer haze. At 9:30, he joined Air Force general Richard Myers, the President’s nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before a bank of TV cameras and reporters to declare the start of a new war—on the Pentagon bureaucracy.

“In this building . . . money disappears into duplicative duties and bloated bureaucracy—not because of greed but gridlock,” Rumsfeld said. “Innovation is stifled—not by ill intent but by institutional inertia.” Proving that his campaign to cut $18 billion in defense spending wouldn’t leave out headquarters, Rumsfeld said he would slash Pentagon personnel by 15 percent.

Meanwhile, Peter Bergen, a journalist and terrorism analyst, was working on a breaking story out of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah Massoud, the political and military leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, had reportedly been attacked by suicide bombers posing as journalists. There were conflicting accounts about whether he had died. Massoud was a moderate Muslim and a potential US ally. If he were killed, it would strengthen the Taliban’s position and that of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, which had been given safe haven in the country.

After contacting sources, Bergen was confident Massoud was dead. He was preparing to go on CNN, where he was working part-time as a terrorism analyst, to explain the importance of the assassination to viewers for whom Afghanistan’s bloody factionalism was not only hard to understand but of minor importance.

Bergen was one of the few Western journalists to have seen al-Qaeda’s leader up close. In March 1997, he’d produced the first television interview with bin Laden. Sitting in a mud hut in the mountainous Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, bin Laden drank tea and, in a barely audible voice, excoriated America’s policies in the Middle East.

A few weeks before the Massoud attack, Bergen had obtained a copy of a videotape in which bin Laden gave perhaps his clearest distillation of al-Qaeda’s philosophy. He condemned the presence of US military forces in Saudi Arabia and “the Arab rulers [who] worship the God of the White House.”

Next: Joe Biden unknowingly predicts a terrorist attack

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