Flying Back to Treasury on 9/11

I was in a hotel room in Tokyo when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Recently sworn in as Under Secretary at Treasury, I was part of a delegation to Japan that included Paul O’Neill and many reporters, including Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal. We all watched the tragedy on television. I got very close—it seemed like inches—to the TV screen. When the first tower started collapsing I looked up from the screen to see faces of horror, disbelief, for some reason noticing, and now remembering, Michael Phillips’ look of utter shock. No one knew it then but Michael would later do five tours in Iraq imbedded with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines and would write a moving book in 2005, The Gift of Valor, about a young Marine corporal, who sacrificed his life to save his fellow marines, a great American hero in what would come to be the global war on terror. The Marine, Jason Dunham, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2006.

We immediately cancelled our meetings in Japan and by the next morning—still 9/11 in the United States—we were on a C-17 military jet flying back to America. The plane ride back from Japan was eerie. A C-17 is about as long as a DC-10, but when you’re inside it seems much bigger and more cavernous—an “echoing belly” is how General Tommy Franks described it—designed to hold tanks and other large military equipment. The only passenger seats are straight-backed canvas jump seats bolted along the metal wall of the fuselage. Unable to lie down or even slouch in those seats, some of us simply spread out on the cold bare metal deck when we wanted to sleep.

To get back faster we had an aerial refueling over Alaska. It took place at night, though at that latitude and elevation it seemed like perpetual twilight. The Air Force pilot invited me to watch the refueling from the cockpit, and it was amazing—the most impressive combination of advanced technology, hand-eye coordination, precision teamwork, and raw nerve that I had ever observed.

The rendezvous with the tanker jet had been arranged when the flight plan was put together in Japan. When we got close to the designated time and place, the pilots started looking for the tanker, which was to fly up from a base in Alaska. They first located the tanker plane on radar. Soon after that, they got visual contact. The co-pilot said to me, “See it, sir? It’s right out there.” But I couldn’t see a thing except stars and the twilight at the horizon.

Our plane was to approach the tanker from underneath, and as we got closer to the tanker the small speck the pilots could see grew until suddenly there was this huge jet plane only a few feet above us. Our pilot was using a specially-designed joy stick with a monitoring device consisting of rows of lights that turned red or green depending on whether our plane was coming up at the right position relative to the tanker. It reminded me a lot of a computer game, but this was for real. These two huge jets were zooming through the dark at something like 500 miles per hour, so it was amazing to me, though seemingly routine to those pilots, that the planes were close enough to each other that I could see the faces of the guys in the tanker as they lowered the fuel hose and somehow got it to go into the opening in our fuel tank. After a while the tank registered full and the hose was pulled back in, the tanker disappeared into the night, and we headed home across Canada. As we flew into the lower 48 there were no commercial flights to be seen. The plane’s radar screen was nearly blank.

That remarkable night time aerial refueling would mark a watershed for me and my responsibilities at Treasury. It was the beginning of a much closer cooperation and coordination with the Defense Department and with the U.S. military. It was also the start of many completely new experiences that I could never have expected when I signed up for a job in Treasury. I suppose I could have gotten a little spooked being in that cockpit but I felt very calm, kind of resigned to a new purpose where I would be forging new teams to handle new tasks, and I would be relying on the expertise and experience of others—people like these pilots—and they would be relying on mine. I slept well that night on the steel deck. Months later when I would fly on other military planes—C-130 transports in Afghanistan, Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq—I would always feel just as calm, even at the times when it looked like I was in harm’s way.

When I got back to Washington, the city was on alert. DC was a logical place for another attack, and the secret service was particularly concerned about security around the White House and the adjacent buildings which included the Treasury. We planned for the worst case scenarios. We made lists of essential jobs that would have to be done if the Treasury was wiped out—running the $30 billion Exchange Stabilization Fund in case we had to intervene in the currency markets was an example. We visited the remote locations that we would live in if the Treasury Building was destroyed, developed plans for continuity of operations and continuity of government, and reviewed the order of succession. We cancelled the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank, which had been scheduled to be held in Washington on September 29th and 30th. Our intelligence experts expected large groups of protestors and a meeting with thousands of foreign financial officials, bankers, and press would have severely stretched the already overextended Washington security forces. And we had many other things to do.

Condensed from Global Financial Warriors

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