KENT — Chuck Banks was waiting for a delayed meeting to start on Sept. 11, 2001, when he and some of his colleagues gathered around a TV watching the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Banks was three weeks into his new position as the deputy director of logistics for the Central Intelligence Agency and was in the directors area at headquarters in Langley, Va., when the smoke was billowing from the World Trade Center tower and planes in the air had been hijacked on their way to various locations.
“We had no idea what was going on as we huddled around. We saw a second plane hit the second tower, and at first we weren’t sure if it was a replay, but we learned that it was not; in fact it was another plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York. We knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was terrorism,” Banks said. “It was absolutely stunning and sobering to see all of this live. All hell broke loose for us then, because we learned there were more planes that were unaccounted for.”
Banks was speaking to a crowd in the FirstEnergy Auditorium inside Franklin Hall at Kent State University Tuesday night.
He recalled false reports of explosions at other buildings mixed in with accurate reports of the crash at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa. Then CIA Director George Tenet ordered the headquarters building at Langley evacuated as well, something Banks said had never been done before. Banks didn’t leave, and instead headed to the basement to set up his command post because his office was off-campus and he had nowhere to go. After calling his family members and hearing all of their voices, he went back to work and remained there for three days straight.
All the intelligence groups from the CIA to the National Security Agency had intel that something was going to happen that day, but no one knew what or when. Banks said, “all the lights were blinking red that Osama (bin Laden) was up to something” but there was no clear information. He added the CIA produced 40 daily briefs to the president that all stated bin Laden was up to something.
He said responding to New York City was the first priority and while the details are still classified, Banks said he had to send people to the city “right away.” The counterterrorist center and senior leadership team worked around the clock, and on Sept. 12, 2001, Banks said the CIA briefed then-President George W. Bush on a “plan to overthrow the Taliban and topple Al Qaeda,” including a pledge that CIA officers would be on the ground within two weeks. Cofer Black, head of counterterrorism, told Bush he would deliver Osama bin Laden’s head on a platter, and according to Banks, “he was dead serious.”
“[On] 9/11 we saw teamwork and tragedy among public servants like we had never seen before,” Banks said. “It was the largest loss of life in a single day of public servants in the USA.”
Sept. 14, 2001, was the first day Banks went home, and he said on the drive there he had to pull over and cry “to let go of the stress and tension and all that was that tragedy” before he could go in to see his wife and daughter.
As a logistics director, Banks joked he is a “smuggler” by trade and it was his job to move things discreetly around the world. The promise of getting CIA officials into Afghanistan was accomplished in 15 days on Sept. 26 when six CIA agents including Gary Schroen, equipped with guns, ammo, medical supplies, $3 million in cash and other supplies, landed at their destination. He said they were there to work with the northern alliance, who controlled roughly 10 percent of the county. The mission had the code name “Jawbreaker.”
Banks said the alliance signed on, 100 CIA agents and 300 special forces joined them in the effort to overthrow the Taliban and many of the large cities had fallen by November. However, finding bin Laden didn’t happen until May 2009. Banks said staff who worked for him knew about the mission in Pakistan but he himself did not know. He said after being miffed that he wasn’t aware of it, he knew that if the mission had been leaked, bin Laden would not have been captured, and he was excited to learn of the United States Navy SEALS’ coup.
Banks talked about today’s youth, and what he calls the 9/11 generation — those who are too young to remember the events of that fateful day. He talked about how life has changed — how metal detectors and body scanners weren’t a necessity at every airport, how families and friends used to be able to see each other to the gate or greet them upon landing. Banks said that just because the 9/11 generation can’t remember the events of that day doesn’t mean their voices don’t matter. He said he hopes students will consider careers in the service or as intelligence professionals in agencies like the CIA.
As he was talking to Kent State journalism students, he said the need has never been so great for young voices to step up and join the press corps.
“I’m not sure that free press protected by First Amendment rights has ever been more needed or more threatened,” Banks said. “I’m used to seeing journalists overseas who are threatened and free press threatened, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see that here in the USA.”
Banks was asked by KSU assistant professor Stephanie Smith to speak at Kent State about 9/11. Smith, a retired member of the CIA — and colleague of Banks — teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Communication Studies.
Banks said students can give back by teaching, leading, volunteering for public safety and, above all else, voting. He said half the nation did not vote in the last election and that needs to change. He also suggested students travel to gain perspective on the U.S.
Reporter Briana Barker can be reached at 330-541-9432, email@example.com or @brianabarker1.