Admiral Richard Mies, now retired, was the commander of a nuclear submarine before working his way to the top post of the United States Strategic Command. Even in that high-pressure, high-profile position, nothing quite prepared him for what faced he and his staff at STRATCOM on September 11, 2001.
Terrorists attacked New York and Washington. Commercial air traffic shut down. The military was put on its highest level of readiness since 1973.
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Before the day was over Admiral Mies had started, and then abruptly halted, a nuclear warfare training exercise, and then suddenly found himself providing a safe haven for President George W. Bush when it was unclear if anywhere in America was secure.
Until this interview with NET News, Mies had never shared what occurred that day inside the highly classified confines of the Strategic Commands Command Center, deep below ground outside of Bellevue, Neb. Here is an extended excerpt of that conversation.
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RICHARD MIES, retired admiral with the U.S. Navy: I was the commander-in-chief of U.S. Strategic Command at the time. I assumed that responsibility in 1998, and so on 9/11, I was the commander-in-chief. The Command's responsibility, in general, was the command and control of all the nation's strategic forces, in support of the President.
Stratcom had very little responsibility with regard to terrorism directly. Our principal responsibility was strategic deterrence of potential nation-state adversaries.
Command and control of our strategic forces is to ensure those forces are always capable of supporting the President and any option he may select, and always being ready to perform their missions. Stratcom's role primarily deals with intelligence warning and attack assessment, if appropriate, to advise the President. Ensuring that the systems are there and in place, and (that) the forces are ready to support the President 24/7.
BILL KELLY, NET News: You were practicing the use of a lot of these capabilities in that first week of September. What was the nature of the exercise?
MIES: We were on an annual exercise known as Global Guardian, which was about a ten-day to two-week long annual exercise intended to exercise our strategic forces to make sure that they really can execute the plans as designed. They serve a tremendous purpose to give a young sailor or sailorman an opportunity to do some of the things they would be required to do in a national emergency. This was a lengthy exercise because we only conduct it once a year. We were playing a scenario against a fictional adversary? who was, we presumed, preparing to attack us. Consequently we were elevating our readiness status to a heightened state of readiness. We were preparing bombers to potentially launch, if required. We were getting submarines that were in port ready to go to sea. Those are the kinds of preparations (underway) during this exercise.
KELLY: Including the use of nuclear weapons.
MIES: Well, including the use of live nuclear weapons in terms of allowing the people to train on them and give them some practical experience, but with very, very rigorous controls.
My role as a Commander is to ensure that all the elements are in place, but you can image, it's just like an orchestra, and you have a very, very large number of people involved, not just at the headquarters, but at the component commander level where the submarine elements are preparing their forces to go to sea, receiving exercise messages and are able to understand those messages. The bombers are at our main bomber bases and you're giving the crews a chance to practice uploading the nuclear weapons onto the aircraft and then download them. Those kinds of things. You're playing with a lot of the elements of what ultimately would be the nuclear Command and Control System in support of a national emergency. You are playing with an exercise Secretary of Defense, not the real Secretary, an exercise President.
KELLY: You were ready to go to war that morning?
MIES: We were ready to respond to a potential attack from a hypothetical adversary. We weren't sure. We had intelligence indicating that they were preparing to attack us. We were positioning our forces to be ready to offer the President the ability to respond in a wide variety of ways. A lot of our Command and Control systems that, in peacetime, are normally not on alert were at a much, much higher state of alert and we had a number of aircraft, manned control aircraft that were airborne that were simulating their wartime roles.
KELLY: Walk through how your day started on September 11th.
Department of Defense
Admiral Richard Mies when serving as STRATCOM's Commander
White House Pool Photographer
The only known footage of President Bush's visit to Offutt Air Force Base, September 11, 2001
KELLY: This is not something that would ordinarily concern you at that point, other than almost a point of curiosity.
MIES: There was no reason for alarm. We had no external intelligence indicators that gave us any indication that we were under attack. Certainly from a Stratom standpoint, there was nothing. No intelligence we had to indicate that there was any reason for concern at that point in time.
KELLY: When did you learn about the second plane?
MIES: I got a second call from my command duty officer, who informed me that we had a second plane that hit the World Trade Center. And at that point, it was obvious that we were, to some degree, under attack, and this was not an accident. I immediately proceeded to the Command Center. As soon as I got to the Command Center, I terminated our exercise and shifted our focus to stand down our strategic forces from what they were doing and to posture them in a far, far more secure way. At that point in time you had no idea, no awareness of, how extensive this attack was and how far-reaching it might be. You wanted to position your forces so they're as invulnerable and as survivable as possible.
KELLY: You had B-52 (bombers) lined up on the tarmac (at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.) with live nuclear weapons on them at that point.
MIES: We did. Well, they weren't live. They were unarmed. But part of the issue was to as to stand down from that exercise, to move those weapons back into storage as rapidly as possible and to disperse the aircraft so if the base should come under attack for any reason - which wasn't all that likely, but you're dealing with an unknown emergency.
We certainly had practiced the more traditional approach, that if your bases were under attack, how you could launch and disperse your forces for survivability reasons in a very, very prompt way. And so in that sense, yes, we had practiced it, but not for this scenario.
KELLY: How did you learn about the strike on the Pentagon?
MIES: I was in the Command Center at the time, and we were tuned into CNN. All of the screens in the Command Center were activated for different purposes. One of them was focused on national news. We were clearly on a loudspeaker with the National Military Command Center. When the plane hit the Pentagon, we knew fairly rapidly. I don't remember the exact specifics, but we knew almost immediately that a plane had struck the Pentagon.
KELLY: For a roomful of military people, the hit on the Pentagon had to have changed the tone in that room with a personal sense of urgency about this day.
MIES: I think there was a far, far larger concern about not just the attack on the Pentagon, but how many further attacks could we anticipate, and how do we position ourselves and react to them in a way that provides as much protection as necessary. There were a lot of efforts to scramble aircraft and position them in ways to provide some degree of protection. At the same time, you had four relatively coordinated attacks, three successful in a very short period of time. About an hour and a half. It was very, very chaotic and confusing in those early moments to really grasp what was happening, and to get our forces positioned in a way to respond to that. I give great credit to the North American Air Defense Command, and particularly the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and their ability to ultimately deal with the situation that was totally unconventional and not been rehearsed, exercised, or anticipated to this degree. The ability to essentially bring down all commercial and private aircraft within about two hours was a pretty miraculous undertaking.
KELLY: During that 90-minute window, what is Stratcom's role? What are you providing the defense community at that point?
TIMELINE: 9/11 at Offutt Air Force Base
Prepared by NET News
A minute-by-minute review of the events of September 11, 2001 through the eyes of personnel at STRATCOM and Offutt Air Force Base
KELLY: The President leaves Florida and there was a role with Stratcom both in assisting his travel, getting him to Barksdale ... do you recall if there was a request for airborne refueling for Air Force One before he got to Barksdale?
MIES: We knew that the President had gone airborne. We didn't know where they were going. We had talked to the White House situation Office. A good friend who we work closely with in the Department of Defense ... was in the White House Situation Room at the time. We recommended that, if they wanted to, they could route the President to Offutt and we would be prepared to support them. We learned he landed at Barksdale (Air Force Base). They refueled (Air Force One) there. He had a large number of media people on board. I think most of those people were left in Barksdale, and then the plane went airborne again.
KELLY: So when do you learn that he's heading for Offutt?
MIES: We learned, I think, about a half hour out that the President was going to come to Offutt. I think the principal reason that Offutt was the logical place for the President to come is that Stratcom is a large communications hub for our national command and control systems. It was a logical place for the President to come if the Secret Service was not willing to let him go back to Washington at the time.
I wanted to make sure that the appropriate provisions were taken for the President. We didn't know at the time how long he was going to stay. We coordinated with the Wing Commander at Offutt to secure one whole area for them to stay overnight if necessary. So there were pretty wide-scale preparations going on anticipating that the President might come, without knowing for sure, even before we got notice that he was coming.
KELLY: What do you remember about the President's arrival, and were you actually in the car with him? What do you remember about his arrival in that drive over?
MIES: I left the Command Center with my driver to go out and meet the aircraft. You have to appreciate, there wasn't gonna be a lot of pomp and ceremony. When the President arrived, our job was to meet him and bring him into the Command Center as rapidly as possible.
I took my driver and one FBI agent for security reasons, who sat in the front seat, and I was in the back. We went out to the aircraft. I picked up the President, escorted him into the back seat of the car. We had the driver take us back to the front entrance, which is only a few minutes away. I briefed him on what I knew and updated him. You have to appreciate that the bandwidth at the time in those aircraft was pretty restricted and so (Air Force One) didn't have the ability to see live television or those kinds of things to the degree that we have now. I wanted to ensure that he was fully apprised of the situation as best I knew it.
He was very very calm, controlled, concerned. I was impressed. He was very presidential. And he was obviously very interested and desirous of getting back to Washington, DC. Those are the things that really stick with me to this day.
KELLY: The decision was made to literally bring him in the back door in the emergency exit (of the Strategic Command Post).
MIES: I made the decision that it was senseless to go into the front entrance of our Command headquarters and then walk a large distance downstairs and underground and then come back through a tunnel into the underground facility, when that really is much more readily accessible by a non-traditional means, which is a fire escape right from the Command Center. So I had the driver just stop out near the front lawn in front of the building where the fire escape exit is and took the President down the fire escape because I thought that was the more appropriate path to get him into the Command Center as rapidly as possible. It's a good distance down. And it's not a frequently used pathway.
KELLY: Describe the scene and the mood in that room when the President would arrive.
MIES: We were in the middle of this exercise, and now we're standing down from the exercise, so there are far, far more people in the Command Center than normally would be. And all of the screens are energized and displaying various pieces of information. I think from the President's standpoint, it was probably pretty eye-opening, because in a sense, we were still getting ready to go to war against the hypothetical enemy, and I had a large number of people in the Command Center there that were carrying out their roles with regard to standing down from the exercise. A lot of people had shifted over to tracking the situation that was now the real-world situation with the terrorist attacks.
The President sat down and I briefed him on what each of screens was displaying. Gave him, as best I could, an update from the Command's perspective of what was happening based on what we knew. At that time there was still a lot of confusion and concern about hijacked aircrafts and whether the attacks had ceased or not. At the same time, we didn't have complete knowledge because we weren't privy to a lot of the communications that were going on between the FAA and NORAD.
KELLY: To the degree you can say, what would the President have been seeing on the big screen?
MIES: He saw right in the center a CNN display which was a display of international news and a lot of the replay of what was going on. One screen was a log of all the events that were occurring. Another screen had a list of potentially hijacked aircraft.
We probably only spent 15 minutes in the Command Center and then we proceeded into the video teleconference room we had set up. The President's principal purpose was to conduct a video tele-conference with the national level leadership, primarily the National Security Council.
KELLY: One of the photographs (released by the White House) of that day is you at the President's side in that room.
MIES: In the picture you see the President, Mr. Andy Card on his left and me on the President's right. We had a video teleconference operator in the room.
There was a lively and interactive discussion, which started out with a quick assessment of who might have been responsible. It was far, far too early to make a definitive judgment on that.
It was interesting from my standpoint that most of the discussion focused on the importance of and the desire of the President to get back to Washington, to reassure the American people, re-instill confidence in them and, at the same time, re-establish a greater sense of normalcy within New York.
KELLY: When do you find out that the President's leaving?
MIES: It was pretty clear at the end of the video teleconference. I think that the teleconference probably lasted 45 minutes to an hour. There is a decision made by the President with the Secret Service agreeing that it's safe to return to Washington. I think that was really important for the President. He was very strongly desirous of being back there. I think they were only on the ground at Offutt for maybe two hours at the most.
KELLY: Did everything work as well as you hoped it would?
MIES: I don't know if I hoped it would, because it's something we hadn't anticipated and we hadn't planned for, obviously. It certainly wasn't Stratcom's principal responsibility once the tragedy occurred. I think it's amazing that we were so successful as a nation.
It certainly didn't work perfectly, but under the circumstances, that it was a crisis that you had never ever prepared for or practiced or anticipated, I think it certainly in some ways worked far, far better than you might have anticipated. Again, Stratcom deserves no credit for that. That really leads to the larger thing about the response of our national level of leadership, the heroism and valor of the emergency responders, the firefighters and the policemen in New York and at the Pentagon and even the responders in Pennsylvania. How the system worked under a very, very confused and chaotic situation. And was able to accomplish those things in such a short period of time I think was pretty miraculous.
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