Oct. 2, 2013

The United States Secret Service–the law enforcement agency responsible for protecting the president and the White House–had a critical role to play in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Various accounts, however, reveal that it was inexplicably slow to react to the crisis that day. Secret Service agents only appear to have acted with the kind of urgency we might reasonably expect more than 45 minutes after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center and more than 30 minutes after the second plane crashed.

The Secret Service’s slow response meant some high-level individuals the agency was responsible for protecting were allowed to remain at unsafe locations throughout much of the duration of the attacks, and so could have been killed or seriously injured if their locations had been targeted.

The Secret Service was also alarmingly slow to protect the White House–a building considered a likely target for terrorists–which meant the people there, including some key government officials, were left in danger throughout the attacks. It only ordered the evacuation of the White House about an hour after the attacks began.

In this article, as well as examining the Secret Service’s apparent failure to adequately protect the White House on September 11, we will look at the experiences of three individuals–Vice President Dick Cheney, his wife, Lynne Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice–and consider how the Secret Service appears to have failed to sufficiently protect them.

The Secret Service protects America’s “most visible targets,” which include the president, the vice president, and their families; the White House complex; the vice president’s residence; and other buildings in Washington, DC. [1] It had an important role in responding to terrorism and was prepared to deal with terrorist attacks. A report by the Office of Management and Budget published in July 2001 noted that it was “responsible for protection of high visibility officials and facilities that terrorists might target.” [2]

Paul O’Neill, the Treasury secretary in 2001, said four months before 9/11 that in response to heightened concerns about terrorism, the Secret Service was carrying out “security operations that deter, minimize, and respond to these threats.” He added that it had counter-assault teams, a counter-surveillance unit, and counter-sniper assets that could “detect and prevent, and if necessary respond to, any and all terrorist attacks on the president or vice president.” [3]

Furthermore, the Secret Service was uniquely able to defend the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (the building next to the White House where most of the president’s staff works)–two buildings that should have been considered potential targets in the 9/11 attacks–since both buildings were protected by its uniformed division. [4] Additionally, the Secret Service’s emergency response team–a specialized unit within the uniformed division–comprised the “sharpshooters assigned to respond to any terrorist strike,” according to U.S. News & World Report. [5]

In light of the agency’s specific responsibilities, particularly those relating to dealing with terrorism, the Secret Service’s performance on September 11 appears to have been particularly poor.

Despite the heightened concern about terrorism around that time, Secret Service agents have indicated that they thought the first plane crash at the WTC was an accident, and they only realized a terrorist attack was underway and started taking action when they learned of the second crash.

Paul Nenninger, a special agent, was at Secret Service headquarters in Washington on the morning of September 11 for a meeting. He recalled that one of the last people to arrive for the meeting “announced that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center.” But, according to Nenninger, it was only after they learned that another plane had hit the WTC that the agents there for the meeting realized that “one plane could be an accident, [but] two was an attack.” The agents then “disbanded and went to various support roles defined by the day’s events.” [6]

Brian Stafford, the director of the Secret Service in 2001, was also at the Secret Service headquarters when the attacks began. He recalled that after he learned about the first crash, he “thought and hoped that it was an accident.” But, he said, “When the second one hit, we knew that it wasn’t.” [7]

After the second crash, according to Assistant Director Danny Spriggs, Stafford activated the Director’s Crisis Center. [8] The Director’s Crisis Center, located on the ninth floor of the headquarters building, was used to direct operations in emergencies. [9] Little has been revealed about what was done there to respond to the 9/11 attacks, however. Spriggs, who arrived at the Director’s Crisis Center at around 9:35 a.m., recalled that his “area of concern” while he was there was “the location of our protective details and the safety of our protectees.” [10]

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