“Intelligence Matters” presents: Remembering 9/11 with Winston Wiley

In this special episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Stephen Hadley, the CIA’s most senior analyst on 9/11, about his experience on that day. Wiley and Morell discuss the CIA’s pre-9/11 focus on al Qaeda how the agency immediately surged resources to counterterrorism efforts after the attacks occurred. They also discuss recent developments in Afghanistan, including the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.  

Ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Morell will curate a series of conversations with former senior American officials who had notable proximity to the tragic events of the day and its immediate aftermath. Morell, who served as President George W. Bush’s daily intelligence briefer and was traveling with the president on the day the planes hit the towers, will also share personal reflections and new details about the CIA’s race to provide answers and protect the country from further terror attacks. The series will launch the week of August 9 and run for five weeks, with its first episode premiering on August 11, 2021 and its final episode running on September 8, 2021. 

On learning of the attacks: “I’ll never forget the phone call I got as I was parking the car from my secretary and letting me know that there had been, first one, and as we spoke, a second crash into the World Trade Center. I sensed immediately the dramatic changes that that would put on us as a nation, let alone an agency, or for us as individuals.” 

Tracking al Qaeda before 9/11: “We’d been worried about al-Qaeda as a group from back to the middle of the previous decade as they grew. While I was still in CTC, the creation of virtual stations to manage the effort against al-Qaeda, I think was the beginning of a large and growing effort…We tried to do everything we could to add resources, both analytical and operational to that effort; it was by far the largest effort for the center and yet not as large as the effort that we devoted to some nation state issues. That changed after 9/11. It was a big effort, but not the most substantial one. After 9/11, that changed. 

Kabul falling to Taliban: “I’ve been you know, I’ve been gnashing my teeth and listening to my stomach juices growl all morning long, it’s, you know, it’s a historical moment. It will change us. I hope not in a completely risk-averse way, but we’ve got to get smarter in what we do in events like this. It’s a tragedy.” Download, rate and subscribe here: iTunesSpotify and Stitcher.

Intelligence Matters transcript: Winston Wiley

Producer: Oliva Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Winston, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It is very good to have you on the show. And much more important than that, it is very good to talk with you again.

WINSTON WILEY: Good to talk to you.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Winston, given that we have so many currently serving intelligence officers who are listeners of the podcast, I wanted to mention before we talk about 9/11, one thing that perhaps you don’t know or perhaps you do know, but you had a significant impact on me and on my career. And one thing in particular comes to mind to me, which is you gave me a piece of advice once about career management that not only turned out to be true for me, but turned out to be something that I would repeat over and over again to officers who worked for me. And I don’t know if you remember that or not, but we were on a trip together to Hawaii. And I had just given some horrible career advice to an officer who worked for me. And in mentoring me, you told me that assignments, job assignments outside the chain of command, the ones that take you away from just being focused on the next step in the management ladder are the ones that really matter in a career and are the ones that actually build the breadth that one needs to be a senior officer and that are the jobs you’ll actually remember, you know, in retirement someday.

I really took that to heart. And for me, that became being George Tenet’s executive assistant, running the PDB staff, briefing the president, serving overseas. And I just wanted to let you know and to let all my listeners know who are thinking about how to manage your career, that that advice was was incredibly important to me and I think should be important to them.

WINSTON WILEY: Oh, well, thank you for remembering that. I don’t remember in as much details as you just made. It’s consistent with what I believe and what I tried to do. Sometimes it’s misinterpreted as careerism or jumping from place to place. I saw it as an opportunity to get spread across the range of activities that our agency afforded us and a job the chance to do that better. So my time in CTC and then coming back to be ADDI and ADCI for Homeland Security was kind of true to that. And I and I tried to share that with as many people as possible. And I’m glad you found it useful.

MICHAEL MORELL: I listened. I actually listened. So this is a this is a great transition, Winston, you know, because there’s so many young officers who listen to the podcast and because there’s so many students who listen to the podcast and who are thinking about their future career trajectory.
Before we talk about 9/11, I’d love if you could give us a kind of a synopsis of your career up to 9/11. We’ll talk about your career after 9/11 later. But but if you could share, how did you end up at the agency and what different jobs did you have there leading up to 9/11?

WINSTON WILEY: OK. Well, you know, how did I wind up with the agency is pretty easy. I was born into it. My dad was not in O.S.S. but was a charter member of CIA when it was formed in ’47. And the time I was born to, you know, rush forward, you know, up into college years, I went to American University and took a part time job that exposed me to clerical and and helpful work. But it kind of made me part of the family.

I then went into the service and came back in 1972 and went into the career training program, frankly, anticipating that I’d have a career in operations. But I found my interim assignments and the Directorate of Intelligence immediately fascinating and impactful and signed on to be an analyst in the old Office of Current Intelligence that morphed into the new structure that the agency took on, the directorate of intelligence took on in the late 70s, and by 1980 I found myself in the office of the Near East and South Asian Analysis as research director and executive officer, among others for the great late Bob Ames and Helene Boatner.

Worked for them until 1985 or so. Then I went to the Office of Global Issues as a deputy to David Carey, who later became executive director of the agency. I worked for Dave four or five times. And got my first division assignment running the International Issues Division in OGI. And I did that for five years. I was asked to take a tour on the IG staff for a year, came back to that in 1990 to work for Bob Layton and the Office of Near East South Asian Analysis, as head of the Persian Gulf Division. And that’s where I was when on the day Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991.

Worked through 1992 on running Persian Gulf Division and found time to look for another job after five years at NESA and was asked to become the deputy in the in the Counterterrorism Center. The center was the first of those having explicit leadership teams of a senior ops officer and a senior analyst. And I got to work with Steve Ahr as his deputy for two years. Steve moved up to be the chief of the NE Division and I took over as chief of CTC. And brought on a very capable deputy from the ops side, so we continued the tradition of having one ops one intel, just in this case, we reversed the order.

And I spent five years building a program, it’s hard to imagine how small the counterterrorism effort was in the early 1990s and how it grew through the 90s, but only exploded after 9/11, and which is where I found myself then as associate deputy director for intelligence.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Winston, you were the deputy director for intelligence. You were in charge of all the analysts. You were the agency’s senior analyst on 9/11. Can you just very briefly explain to people what is that job and what was a typical day like for you?

WINSTON WILEY: Well, the deputy director for intelligence, as it was called at that time, is responsible for organizing and producing the intelligence product that the agency puts out. We write the first draft and put to bed the President’s Daily Brief, for most of the drafting for long term analysis and heavy part of the load in doing national estimates and both drafting and coordinating those.

In the counterterrorism arena, we had a substantial but not huge analytic presence embedded in the counterterrorism center to do traditional analytic work, as well as a cadre of analysts doing targeting and other operational support or bringing the tradecraft that they develop in the DI. And my job, along with my two two immediate deputies, was to make sure that we got the right resources to the right people and valued the product and maintained its quality and tried to grow as much as possible.

MICHAEL MORELL? Winston, given that the jobs you had, particularly to your time in CTC and then of course, you couldn’t ignore it as as deputy director for intelligence, al-Qaida was was a focus of yours, I know. And I’m just wondering sort of how worried were you about the group in general prior to 9/11 and how worried were you in particular that summer, given all the warnings that we had in the spring and early summer? How were you thinking about that?

WINSTON WILEY: Well, we’d been worried about al-Qaida as a group from back to the middle of the previous decade as they grew. While I was still in CTC, the creation of virtual stations to manage the effort against al-Qaida, I think was the beginning of a large and growing effort. Really with almost every passing season, we used the analytic presentations of the director to push on the leadership, both the size, the scope and the potential significance of al Qaeda as a group.

We tried to do everything we could to add resources, both analytical and operational to that effort, it was by far the largest effort for the center and yet not as large as the effort that we devoted to to some nation state issues. That changed after 9/11. It was a big effort, but not the most substantial one. After 9/11, that changed.

MICHAEL MORELL: OK, Winston, can you walk us through the day of 9/11 for you? I know you did not plan to come to work that day. Can you walk us through it for us?

WINSTON WILEY: Well. Indeed, the the morning of 9/11 found me at BWI Airport, putting my youngest daughter on an airplane at nine o’clock in the morning on her way to California only because she was taking her cat with her did she not take an earlier flight that would have had her in the air over the United States as the attacks were going on.

I’ll never forget the phone call I got as I was parking the car from my secretary and letting me know that there had been, first one, and as we spoke, a second crash into the World Trade Center. I sensed immediately the dramatic changes that that would put on us as a nation, let alone an agency, or for us as individuals.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I suppose you knew immediately that this was terrorism?

WINSTON WILEY: Yes. I knew it in my bones. It didn’t require me to sit down and ponder. A single incident into the tower, perhaps an accident. A second, no sir. You know, I can’t imagine that anyone thought otherwise.

MICHAEL MORELL: And immediately al-Qaida?

WINSTON WILEY: It would have to have been at the top of the list. A coordinated attack with at the first two, and then it didn’t take that long to realize that there were more planes aloft the world that represented a threat with the attack on the Pentagon and later understanding what happened in Shanksville. There just weren’t very many groups that could muster the the resources, the training, the tradecraft to be able to do that.

MICHAEL MORELL: So what happened at the airport as the word started to spread?

WINSTON WILEY: Surprisingly, very, very little. When I went from the parking lot into the building, the local television sets were showing smoke coming out of the buildings and but they were continuing to process tickets for people to go into the waiting areas and in fact, trying to go find my my wife and daughter who were at the gate.

At that point. I was directed towards the security guy who told me I needed a gate ticket, which turned out to be – I went back to the desk and turned out to be a simple ticket stub with the words ‘gate ticket’ written on them by hand. An unimaginable difference and level of airport security in those days compared to what happened in the immediate aftermath or even this afternoon, if you were to go back out to BWI

MICHAEL MORELL: And did you you got to the gate and did you put your daughter on that flight or -?

WINSTON WILEY: I got to the gate. And I had told them, you know, ‘You guys aren’t flying today.’ The word had come out, the airport was being shut down and all flights were canceled. I was pushing against an open door.

MICHAEL MORELL: And you took them home. And did you come to work then?

WINSTON WILEY: Well, I took them home. But you can imagine what the traffic was like on – we went over to back over to 95 to try to take them home. And that was just a solid jam. I turned around and went to the Baltimore Washington Parkway and took that down. It took a lifetime of living in the Washington area, knowing back roads to get to places.

All along the way, there were fire trucks, you know, overtaking me, coming from lower Pennsylvania, Delaware, other places like that heading towards towards the Pentagon fire. And I guess to be on site took me probably three hours, four hours to get back home and then back over to the agency where I rejoined my deputies and George and others.

I was in touch by phone. The team knew very well what to do, if nothing else. I mean, you probably remember that we there had been a fire a few months before that had forced us to look at how we dealt with emergencies and we’d actually set up an alternate site to work on them on campus. And the team fell back on that. And, you know, we were able to both produce intelligence and provide support. I think we took pretty good care of supporting the director during that period. Leave it to him to decide.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Winston, in the days immediately after 9/11, what were you focused on? Were the kind of things you had to do?

Well, I’d say it was part of the overall effort that was led by by the director to make sure that we responded in as thorough and aggressive way as we could. What that meant principally and, you know, from my point of view was what could we do to more quickly create more analytic capability focused exclusively on al-Qaida and its supporters?

We had been undertaking a review of what our structure and resources were, led by Marty and that provided us with the raw material to look in a pretty granular fashion of what we were doing and how much and how many of us were doing that for each account in the directorate.

My immediate, almost immediate conclusion was that we needed to double and redouble what we were doing and providing CTC analytic firepower. And I remember thinking, ‘better to overshoot than to undershoot in responding to that,’ and we put together a plan, I think within a week, to make the largest reallocation of resources in the directorate’s history. We basically took a chunk out of every office and subordinated them to CTC and created an Office of Terrorism analysis and a fully capable standalone office, you know, embedded in the counterterrorism center.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, in fact, you moved, I think, a couple of hundred, if not 300 analysts.

WINSTON WILEY: I was dodging. I was avoiding naming numbers.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. And I remember entire teams. Right. Teams working on one issue or another were grabbed in whole and taken.

WINSTON WILEY: Well that was my strategy there was that, rather than grab X hundred people at random and move them, that we move branch units with their leadership as one. They wouldn’t physically move, they would just be resubordinated. We asked the office directors to figure out which branches that ought to be. And I gave them target numbers and said, pull one or two people back, hold one or two people back to continue to do the work on the original target countries and then directed a move to very senior and experienced officer to take over the Office of Terrorism analysis and to build a structure out of that.

But the idea was essentially, we moved units as a whole with their branch chiefs and in some cases I think more senior officers so that, you know, they were used to working with each other, they were used to the leadership and try to make that transition as smooth as possible. There were a few people startled by this, but there was more even excitement at the possibility of weighing in in the immediate aftermath of this crisis than there was resistance.

MICHAEL MORELL: One of the other things that you had to do was to help the FBI stand up its new analytic capability. The president was asking much more of the bureau than had been asked previously, and they turned to CIA for help in. And you provided it.

WINSTON WILEY: Well, I’d been able to develop a pretty good relationship with the FBI counterterrorism folks during my time in CTC, we’d even gone as far as swapping deputies for a while. And, you know, they did, in fact, come looking for help.

It was, frankly, a heavier lift to get people to go down to the bureau to to work as analysts. That was not seen as being directly helpful as moving to the CTC. But we did in the end find a dozen or so folks that went down and helped them set up their first analytic capabilities.

It’s hard to build a structure from next to nothing. The analytic culture and the analytic focus that our friends in the bureau had, had been completely different than than our experience was. So it was with they needed manpower, they needed some advice, and we had to try to make it not appear as if we were the pros coming in telling them how to do their business.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, yeah, and then I think one of the probably, you know, biggest issues we had post-9/11, as you well know, was a deep concern about follow-on attacks, which I think a lot of people really don’t understand the degree of concern we had. Can you talk about that a little bit?

WINSTON WILEY: Yeah. When you asked earlier what we were doing in our day to day, we had always tried to be focused on the latest threats and conscious of the fact that, you know, we would need to go deeper, we built analytic structures, a threat matrix and teams of of analysts so that every single threat report that we got, no matter how apparently far fetched, would be chased to ground..

Many, many, many, many, many of these were probably without basis, but we had no ability to be confident of that short of doing the work. And I think that one of the big changes after 9/11 is that nothing was dismissed as being too small. But that is a labor intensive task.

MICHAEL MORELL: So sometime after 9/11, George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence at the time, asked you to take on a new senior assignment, to create a new position. Can you talk about that a little bit?

WINSTON WILEY: Yes, in June of the following year, the director asked if I would stand up a position, called the Associate Director for Homeland Security. By then the White House had decided that there would be a full-time department, a cabinet level Department of Homeland Security and wanted to make sure that there was the same kind of focus on supporting the creation of that department as there would be on any other major intelligence issue.

As ADCI, he asked not that I assume line responsibility for all the support to Governor Ridge in the Department of Homeland Security, but that I use the background and knowledge that I had in the intelligence community and my relationships across the community to bring what we could to that effort. I added one deputy from the ops directorate at CIA, another deputy from NSA, one from DIA and one from NSA, and we could and did react by being able to reach straight to leadership in those departments to make sure that new intelligence, new threat warnings, the decision to reallocate resources in the direction of one area, the other could be done seamlessly and help the director manage his community responsibilities.

At the time, the DCI had both CIA and community responsibilities, which is not the organization that exists at this point. And so with the creation of CTC those responsibilities more naturally fell on the community side. And, you know, I think even if you worked in that environment for a while.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Winston, maybe kind of jump jump around here, kind of big picture a little bit. You were retired when the U.S. government brought Osama bin Laden to justice on May 1st, 2011. What was your reaction? What was your reaction when you heard that?

WINSTON WILEY: Elation. Just, you know, when they broke into the broadcast, whatever I was watching, there was really only one thing I could imagine would bring the president to the news and, you know, I watched the words form on his lips and could not have been could not have been more elated.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then I want you to compare it to something else, I want you to compare it to the bringing of Mir Aimal Kanzi to justice. I think you were at Dulles Airport, along with Director Tenet when the FBI returned him to the United States from Pakistan. And maybe before you tell us how you reacted to that moment, maybe you could just tell our listeners a word about who he was and why why you were there.

WINSTON WILEY: Well, Mir Aimal Kanzi was the shooter in an incident that occurred on I think January 6th of 1993, right in the beginning of the Clinton administration where he shot and killed two of our fellow officers and wounded another three. That began – at the time I was the relatively new deputy director in CTC and that, needless to say, became a leading target for our work. And I was in CTC for five years after that. And every night before I left, I got an update on where we were in a worldwide hunt for Mir Aimal Kanzi.

Without going into the particulars of how he was found and brought back, the day did come in 1997 when the FBI was able to seize control and we were able to have him not extradited, but rendered back to the United States to be turned over to Virginia law enforcement and presented in courts here.

I was asked along with many others, if I wanted to go out to the airport to see him come in, I would not have missed it. I wanted the chance to see face to face somebody that had caused so much pain in the agency and had killed our fellow officers.

I saw him march by on the arms of Brad Garrett, the lead FBI officer for the entire five years, great officer who remains active in and pursuing criminals and other murderers. But Brad marched them from the Air Force plane that brought him into Dulles Airport, because it was in Virginia and in the same Fairfax County district that the crime was committed and over to the helicopter that took him to the prison and pursued the trial.

You know, now that you ask, you know, what was my reaction? It wasn’t elation at all. It was, you know, just, you know, disgust more than anything else, when I saw, ‘Wow, what a weaselly little character he was.’

MICAHEL MORELL: Winston, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask the following question here and you can choose to answer it to how you want, of course. We’re taping this the day after Kabul has fallen to the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan is over and the Taliban won. And I’d just love your reaction to what happened yesterday.

WINSTON WILEY: Michael, it’s too soon. I’ve been you know, I’ve been gnashing my teeth and listening to my stomach juices growl all morning long, it’s, you know, it’s a historical moment. It will change us. I hope not in a completely risk-averse way, but we’ve got to get smarter in what we do in events like this. It’s a tragedy.

MICHAEL MORELL: I’m Winston, maybe just one more question, and I wasn’t even planning on asking it, but earlier you talked about Bob Ames. Yes. And you talked about working for him when he was running the Near East South Asia office. And I would bet most of my listeners don’t know about Bob. And I was hoping you make it take a couple of minutes and talk about him and what happened. Since we’re talking about cheery things here in this podcast

WINSTON WILEY: Bob Ames was, you know, one of the leading ops officers in the Middle East, there is a book that was written by Kai Bird about him, ‘The Perfect Spy’ by Kai Bird. To all of your listeners who are at all interested in understanding an important part of agency history, that book is absolutely to be read.

Bob was, in addition to his skills and contacts as an operations officer, he was one of the most carefully read and analytical people I’ve met. He served as the national intelligence officer for the Middle East. And Director Casey asked him to take over NESA and one of the very few people that I recall, having served as both the director of a DI office and in a senior position. And as the cowbirds book lays out, he was on a trip to to Lebanon and was in the embassy when it was destroyed in a bombing that killed Bob and more than a half dozen other agency officers, as well as other people in the building.

His loss was huge. He was he was still a young man. I think he had the potential and vision and leadership to have risen to the top of the agency. And we lost him far too young an age.

MICHAEL MORELL: Winston, thank you so much for spending time with us today.