Remembering The Sept. 11 Attacks

Audie Cornish talks to NPR's Tom Gjelten and Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and a writer for the New Yorker. Also, Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, marks the event.

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

We're now going to turn our attention back to the Pentagon. That's where a ceremony is going to begin shortly. It was at 9:37 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 77, out of Dulles Airport, slammed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 184 people.

I'm here with NPR's national security correspondent Tom Gjelten. And also, Steve Coll. He's a contributor to The New Yorker, and he is with us from New York.

Steve, I want to begin with you. How do you feel that the strike on the Pentagon changed the military? Because obviously, this has had an effect on them - maybe even different from what happened in New York.

STEVE COLL: Well, of course, it mobilized the military into what became two successive expeditionary wars. And in the struggle with al-Qaida that had preceded the attacks on 9/11, the military had not really been a major participant. They had been sort of reluctant to get involved in the complexity of Afghanistan's civil war and the Taliban rule there. And mostly, it had been an intelligence campaign that had been carried out. And the attack on the Pentagon started a new era in American military history.

And certainly, the mobilization and spending and doctrine and experiences that the Pentagon has led since then is really still defining - as to what military posture the United States has, and what capabilities it has, in the world today.

CORNISH: Tom Gjelten, how would you compare the differences before and after the attacks, in terms of the culture of the military?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, you know, Audie, in New York, after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Wall Street closed down. The New York Stock Exchange closed down. Financial activity close down. It was just the opposite at the Pentagon. The attacks really brought that building to life.

I remember even that very day, all of us had been evacuated from the Pentagon. The National Military Command Center, in sort of the bowels of the building, did continue to function. And Pentagon officials actually made a point of busing reporters back into the building at the end of the day, just to brief us and to underscore that the military - the Pentagon, the defense community - was swinging into action.

I remember the next day. I came back to the Pentagon where I was - where I had my, you know, that was my assignment. The building smelled of smoke. All the military personnel were dressed in battle dress. And from that moment on, it was really a changed place, because there was instantly a sense that the United States had to respond to these attacks, identify the perpetrators, take action against them. So it was really a call to action at the military that began within hours of the attack.

CORNISH: And I just want to remind people that we are actually waiting for the start of the ceremony at the Pentagon. There will be another moment of silence observed throughout the nation today - this one in observance of American Airlines Flight 77, which did strike the Pentagon.

Steve, you wrote a book, called "Ghost Wars," about the covert wars by the U.S. in Afghanistan before 9/11. Obviously, Afghanistan - we had troops in Afghanistan by winter of that year. Talk about how that legacy affected the invasion that took place weeks after the attacks on September 11.

COLL: Well, the United States did have some involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11. It was secret, as you say, and that was mostly led by the CIA. And it provided a basis for the United States to act in the first days and weeks after the attacks. Contacts that had been established in private were now ramped up, and a way was created for first, U.S. intelligence officers, and then with them, special operators from the Pentagon, to start to infiltrate into northern Afghanistan.

First, set the stage for a bombing campaign against the Taliban, after the Taliban refused to yield al-Qaida and bin Laden. And then eventually, for the Taliban's overthrow by military action. It was a very swift campaign. It was made more effective by these existing networks that the United States had quietly built up in the years before 9/11. But it was also a reckoning, in some respects, for the United States in Afghanistan because we had been there throughout the 1980s, arming and supporting Islamist militias, some of them with anti-American agendas. That had created a...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: And right now - Steve, I'm sorry to interrupt you - we're actually coming on the scene at the Pentagon. The ceremony is going to begin there shortly.

Tom, I was wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what the annual tradition has been at the Pentagon for celebrating the anniversary - or memorializing the anniversary of the attacks.

GJELTEN: Well, the Pentagon, of course, has - the memorial at the Pentagon - the plane hit the west side, as you say. And almost immediately - it came in the midst of a massive rebuilding effort at the Pentagon - and that effort was really accelerated after the 9/11 attack. And the west side of the Pentagon, where the plane hit, was very rapidly rebuilt. And so, as you say, each year there has been sort of progress made in that regard.

And first, the building was rebuilt. And then a memorial was put in place. And every year on 9/11, on the anniversary, there have been speeches and ceremony commemorating that day.

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