The Circuit

Reacting to the Attacks

In the wake of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, the federal government rapidly switched into high gear Sept. 11, using some of the newest technology in its arsenal to fight terrorism. "This has been war-gamed and planned," said one former federal security official. "It wasn't just thought up this morning. And that's why you saw evacuation plans popping out so quickly."

Within 20 minutes of the first plane crash into the World Trade Center, the U.S. Customs Service in suburban Virginia was on high alert, and agents were setting up facilities to mobilize people and to communicate. "Our biggest problem was nobody can move because nothing is moving," said Charles Armstrong who runs the Customs modernization program. At U.S. land borders, Customs agents carefully checked people, vehicles and packages, but despite early reports that the land borders had been sealed, officials said they were always open.

As citizens across the country rushed to contribute whatever they could on a personal level to recovery efforts at the Pentagon and in New York, the supply agency for the federal government opened its warehouses and connections to those in need.

The General Services Administration provides all forms of information technology and telecommunications products and services, and the agency was doing everything it could to provide the necessary equipment to help get the Pentagon back up and running, one agency official said. GSA's Federal Supply Service also provides essential non-IT products that are being used, including body bags, the official said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency registered 2.3 million hits on its Web site Sept. 11 in the aftermath of the attack, said Marc Wolfson, agency spokesman. The agency also was receiving hundreds of e-mails from people expressing concern and wanting to help in some way, he said.

Most of the brass from the Department of Veterans Affairs were in San Diego attending a conference on veterans' benefits when news of the attacks broke. VA Secretary Anthony Principi delivered a speech to the conference. A short time later, the Secret Service came and left with the secretary, said Guy McMichael, acting undersecretary of the Veterans Benefits Administration, who accompanied Principi to the conference.

Meanwhile, in New York, a chief information officer with the VA issued a nationwide call for emergency phone access cards that give federal officials the ability to interrupt a telephone call and quickly get access to a phone line. VA officials nationwide promptly e-mailed their card numbers to New York because "the cell system is the first to go in an emergency," according to one VA official.

John Tritak, director of the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, was scheduled to give a speech at the World Trade Center Sept. 12, the day after the towers crumbled. Tritak, of course, never left Washington, D.C.

Finally, one federal IT executive noted with bitterness that the worst attacks on U.S. soil are almost sure to provoke Congress to appropriate more money for security. "What else do you need?" he asked. "Two World Trade towers fall to their knees."

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