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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

‘Every phone started ringing’ — how 9/11 unfolded in Westminster

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It began like any other day in Westminster.

“Tony Blair had just gone down to Brighton for a speech, and I was looking forward to a nice, quiet day,” Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell recalls.

“The first attack happened, and I saw it on the TV screen opposite me. And at first people seemed to be suggesting it was a light aircraft, and a horrible accident. And then the duty clerk in Downing Street came rushing in to say there’d been another plane crash into the World Trade Centre. And I said, ‘no, no, don’t be silly. It’s obviously just the TV repeating the film.’ He said, ‘no, it really is another attack.’”

So began one of the most dramatic days the modern world has ever known.

This week, to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast features interviews with many of the most senior officials in Blair’s government of 2001, and asks them to relive and reflect upon the events that took place.

‘You don’t get a lot of time to think’

The immediate concern after the towers were first struck, Powell tells the podcast, was whether Britain might also come under violent attack.

“That was obviously the first reaction,” he says. “Could there be copycat attacks? You don’t quite know what you’re preparing yourselves against. But the police reinforced the streets — we got more police in Whitehall and places like that almost immediately. The transport secretary closed the airspace over London.

“You don’t get a lot of time to think. I remember having two phones in my ears the whole time… You don’t really have a chance for the whole enormity of it to sink in.”

One man who did instantly grasp the scale of what had happened was Blair himself, who spoke to Powell and Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson by phone before racing back to No. 10.

“His reaction was really interesting,” Wilson tells the podcast.

“He said, ‘Where’s [President] Bush? How’s he going to react?’ He moved immediately — and I was impressed — to the big picture: who did it and how is Bush going to react? And how do we influence Bush that he doesn’t do anything stupid? That was where he was immediately, on the phone.”

‘Pillar of black smoke’

Within an hour or two Blair was back in Downing Street and leading meetings of his top officials. One aide he was unable to contact, however, was David Manning, his most senior adviser on foreign affairs.

Manning had travelled to the U.S. at the weekend for talks with his opposite number, Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and was on a plane flying back into New York from Washington as the terrorists struck the twin towers.

GettyImages 1441539
U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice waits as U.S. President George W. Bush talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair early September 12, 2001 | Eric Draper/White House via Getty Images

“I was sitting in a window seat looking out over Manhattan, and I looked down and saw a pillar of black smoke,” he recalls.

After landing safely at JFK airport, Manning watched the horror playing out on big screens.

“I’ve often thought — what if I had been flying on from New York, to let’s say, the West Coast?” he says. “Of course it’s in your mind. You think, ‘how extraordinary that I have seen this and I have escaped.’ … Of course, you’re bound to feel ‘this could have been me.’”

Eventually the airport was evacuated and all further flights cancelled. Travel back into Manhattan was not advised. After a “surreal” night at a run-down motel in Queens, Manning returned to Washington the following morning for a meeting of top U.S. and U.K. intelligence officials at the CIA’s headquarters.

“I joined a meeting chaired by George Tenet, head of the CIA at Langley, which was a discussion between the American and British intelligence agencies, together with input from the military and so on,” he recalls.

“It was very clear joining them that the intelligence agencies were pretty certain this would have been an al-Qaeda attack, and that we would be looking for Osama bin Laden. They weren’t 100 percent sure — but there was not much time spent trying to decide whether it might be anybody else. They were pretty clear in their own minds.”

Already, in that first summit of intelligence officials barely 24 hours after the attacks, attention was turning to Afghanistan.

“I think they understood very early on we were dealing with Afghanistan,” Manning says. “Because clearly the regime had given Osama bin Laden sanctuary, and it was from Afghanistan — they were pretty clear — that this series of atrocities had been planned. And the question was, what did you do about that? How did you try to deal with what was now seen as a very potent threat?”

What would follow would be 20 years of bloodshed, and many more thousands of lives lost.

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