Buffalo FBI Agent-In-Charge Gives Insight of September 11th
The morning of 9/11 started off as a beautiful WNY summer morning. I arrived in the office around 7:30 am for final discussions and briefings for a scheduled 9 a.m. meeting with Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco Diina and his commanding officers. There had been tension between the FBI and the Buffalo Police Department for the past two years over corruption investigations. Six weeks before, in July 2001, the investigations culminated with the arrest of six BPD officers on drug and racketeering charges. The covert investigation was over but there were remaining perceptions that Commissioner Diina and I had discussed in our one on one meetings. As a result I had agreed to meet with any and all of his executives to go over specifics of the investigation and tell them the case was over and no more covert FBI operations were ongoing. Our investigation had shown there was no systemic corruption in the BPD rank and file, but rumors abounded that, for example, the FBI 40 FBI undercover operatives throughout the city targeting corruption in the BPD. Totally false, there never had been, just one FBI source that successfully helped the FBI uncover the drug trafficking protection ring.
First Reports of Trouble Start to Come In
That morning, I drove to the meeting with my ASAC Stan Borgia and Chief Division Counsel Paul Moskal. As we were parking by the BPD, a radio report came across the radio that a plane may have crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC). Noting the clear skies, I was surprised and the initial report I heard said it was a small plane. I recalled immediately a history note of a B-25 bomber flying into the Empire State Building in 1945 or so on a rainy night, nothing at all like weather wise I was seeing that morning. We thought nothing special at that point. We arrived at the meeting, I sat down, began introductions as my pager and phone were going off, which I silenced. I noted ASAC Borgia took a call and then walked to the Commissioners TV to turn it on. At that moment in time, I realized things as we knew it would change forever. I immediately ended the meeting and directly returned to my office. The ten minute drive seemed like hours, listening to the car radio the confusion was obvious and heard another plane had went into the WTC.
Arriving at the Buffalo FBI office, I went directly to my office. The staff was moving quickly, a lot of activity going on, and was obvious they had already initiated our crisis management plan. Way ahead of me for sure and that is always a good thing for a leader. Managed chaos everywhere, but calm, collected and all business every place I turned. I was directed to an area of the office that was our crisis command center. Actually it is the large training area of the office that turns into the center when needed. The center was already organized according to the crisis management plan every FBI office if familiar with and drills once a year in addition to actual crisis events. Charts, timelines, active leads assigned, liaison section for calls from our law enforcement partners and information we were gathering on events occurring. First directives I issued related to my immediate concerns. I needed an immediate accounting for all FBI employees of the division. Where were they, if on vacation contact had to be made, if at FBI training somewhere outside the division find them and assure me all were accounted and safe. My SWAT team had been on training in Ohio and was already enroute back to Buffalo. Anyone out “on the street” conducting FBI business was immediately recalled to the office. I ordered, according to our crisis plan, deployment of our forward command center to our emergency relocation area and prepare in event of need to evacuate our building. We did not know if there would be other attacks and our building was on a list of sites that would possibly be attacked. By whom we did not know, but we were not waiting to find out. Employees with no direct assignments were streaming into the crisis area to watch and look for answers. It was clear I need to address the office. Fifteen minutes later, all hands in the building met. They were expecting leadership, answers and direction. I did not know what to say, how to say it, emotions were running deep. But, as the room quieted, I did what needed to be done. In the crowd I could read the emotions. Fear, anger, confusion, worry and shock. I know they saw all of that in me. I addressed the group, short and sweet. Did they see that in me? I told them I did not have facts at this time, FBIHQ was having an All-SAC conference call at 10 a.m. We needed to be ready for anything and we needed to be up to the task. We should expect long hours and security was the number one priority for the moment. It was clear we had been attacked and we should be ready for anything, even deployment to other areas of the state and country if needed. I told them to make sure their families were ok, reassure them if you can and be ready to respond if needed.
Report of Downed Plane in Southern Tier
One of the first of many issues came to my attention. We had received information a plane had crashed in the Southern Tier of WNY. We had no reliable information but just that a plane of some type may be down. I directed my evidence response team (ERT) to activate as we tried to determine validity. After about 15 minutes, we found out it was Flight 93 that flew into the ground at Shanksville, PA. I then contacted SAC Ken McCabe, FBI Pittsburgh who verified the incident and I offered FBI Buffalo ERT teams to assist if needed. Eventually, Buffalo ERT would respond to NY City. Our ERT team was one of the best, having experience as first responders to the USS Cole bombing and played a major role later in the Buffalo crash of Colgen Air Flight 3407.
First Meeting With Director Mueller
The first FBIHQ conference call was now pushed off to 1030. As I was connected to the call the tone was somber. A role call began of offices and SACs. Each and every SAC responded and you could hear the sadness. Then, for the first time, Director Robert Mueller spoke. I had yet to hear him speak, talk to him or even know much about him. As you recall, he had just become the FBI Director the first week of September 2001. As he spoke, you could hear his leadership in crisis. The briefings began. Atta, Hanjour, Jarrah, Mihdar, Hazmi. Sitting there it was clear that issues I had to deal with were minor compared to the SAC’s of NY City, Boston, Washington Field Office, Baltimore, Miami, San Diego, Pittsburgh and FBIHQ. Within two hours of the attack, we had identified most of the hijackers, where they came from, where they lived and on and on. What was clear was not prevented the attack. That would haunt the FBI for years to come and to this day. That in and of itself led to arguably the biggest transformation of the priority mission of any government agency: prevent another terrorist attack. PENTTBOMB (Pentagon/Twin Tower Bombing) became the official code name for the investigation. All in all the Buffalo Division over the next 60 days would cover over 4,000 investigative leads, operate a command center for 24/7, deal with the realization one of our Agents lost a immediate relative in the WTC, deal with a second threat from Anthrax and six months later an FBI analyst assigned to the CIA would discover one of the names key to our Lackawanna Six case was a card carrying member of Al Qaeda. This would put Buffalo right in the center of the war on terror.
Tight Security at Local FBI Office
The day never ended. Leads were already coming in and we were responding. I had our SWAT team deploy to our building perimeter and had our surveillance team start to conduct counter surveillance around the radius of our building looking for any signs we were being watched, photographed or anything suspicious. Calls were coming in from many law enforcement agencies, concerned public officials and even retired FBI Agents asking to help. We actually had two FBI Agents on vacation visiting in Buffalo come down to the office to help. Calls from the public flooded our switchboard and command post. As an afterthought, I was asked by Erie County Commissioner Joel Giambra to attend his security and law enforcement meeting. Initially we were not invited but BPD Commissioner Diina insisted Giambra ask me to attend. I did, provided a detailed briefing of what I knew, reassured that we had no direct information Buffalo or anywhere else in WNY was a target. He then had a press conference attended by his personnel, BPD Commissioner Diina and other politicians. I was asked to address the media. As I took to the podium, I saw the same look on the faces of the masses of reporters, county employees and the public that I saw in the faces of my FBI Buffalo personnel when I addressed them.
Working Around the Clock for the Next Three Months
I felt helpless for most of the rest of the day. The work that needed to be done was being done flawlessly by the FBI Buffalo employees. I took hourly briefings on operations, had at least three more FBIHQ conference calls that day. I started to send employee’s home to rest since many would start shifts at midnight. We would go around the clock for the next three months. I left the office around 1:30 a.m. of now 9/12, got to bed around 2:30 and was up at 5:00 a.m. ready to begin another day of what I had no idea. In the shower that morning it was the first time to really reflect on the events of the day. It was very difficult to put up a strong front. The loss of life, the anger, the fear, the emotions, yes the emotions. I was overcome with emotion and not ashamed to admit I shed more than a few tears in the solace of my condo. But, like we are expected to do, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go back for more and more and more. I needed coffee and to make matters worse, the coffee shop at my favorite Wegmans where I was a regular customer at the coffeshop had no coffee made yet. I felt I was going to lose it again if it were not for the wonderful employee there at 5:45 a.m. who looked at me, saw the look in my eyes and came up and just hugged me. Some people just know and nothing had to be said. She made me my own cup of coffee. For the first time in the last 24 hours I felt we would get through this tragedy and be better for it.
FBI Remains Focused on its Mission
Ten years have passed and the FBI is a different organization, much for the better. Through all the controversy of not preventing 9/11, changing how the FBI focuses on terrorism and the collection and use of intelligence has been extremely positive. It is a new generation of FBI. The oversight of the FBI since then has been controversial, demanding, misunderstood and far from over. But what is needed is the oversight, the questioning of tactics, the need to make sure the FBI remains focused on its mission and priorities while respecting the rights of every person in the U.S. I have always said the FBI is not a perfect organization, no organization is, but is if pretty damn close.
Peter J. Ahearn Sr.
FBI-Special Agent in Charge (ret)