On Saturday, it will have been 20 years since I received a phone call from a Defence intelligence analyst shortly after the first plane flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8.46am New York time (it was 10.46 pm in Canberra). I watched the horrific events unfold in real time until the early hours of the next morning.
That's when I started getting calls from journalists asking who the perpetrators might be. It was obvious to anyone working in intelligence that the only terrorist organisation with that kind of capability was al-Qaeda, but few journalists back then had heard of the group.
I should mention that at the time I was director of security intelligence in the Department of Defence, but former secretary Tony Ayers had given me permission in 1996 to run a course on terrorism in my own time at the Australian National University's Centre for Continuing Education (I had taken an interest in terrorism since working on Palestinian terrorism in the Joint Intelligence Organisation in the mid-1970s). Mine was the only public course in Australia on terrorism, which meant that back then I was the only person outside of government agencies who had a public profile on terrorism.
I did media interviews until about 9am, then got a call from Defence saying "No more interviews and come in to work" (I was actually on leave at the time). I stopped returning media calls with a backlog of at least 50 voicemails. My recall to Defence wasn't due to me saying anything Defence objected to, but because defence minister Peter Reith had told the department in January that he would be the only one to talk to the media on any defence topic.
At 5pm that day I went to an interagency Specific Incidents Task Force (SITF) meeting, and another at 8pm. A major concern was pinning down the number of Australian casualties. There was uncertainty about survivor numbers, in part because phones were still active under the debris of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Around 85 Australians were unaccounted for, with two confirmed killed on the planes.
We were reliant on media and embassy reporting, because under the Five Eyes arrangements intelligence collection against our partners was not permitted.
The following day I attended three more SITF meetings. The Defence hierarchy had ordered military bases to be placed on "Weathercock Amber" alert, although it couldn't be justified from a threat perspective. The Defence Security Agency was under pressure to write up the threat to match the alert level, but the analyst concerned steadfastly refused to do so.
Amber required civilians to be excluded from military bases, but civilianisation of military positions (particularly guards and cooks) as a cost-saving measure meant that many bases couldn't operate without them. The practical solution was for base commanders to disregard some of the Amber requirements - so it became known unofficially as a "Claytons Amber".
Public misinformation about the level of casualties in the US was rife, with the American media saying about 4600 had died in the World Trade Center. The Australian unaccounted-for figure was then at 95.
The eventual official casualty figures were 2977 victims killed, including 10 Australians, plus the 19 hijackers - of whom 15 were Saudis. In fact the toll was higher than 2977, because of the number of unidentifiable illegal immigrants such as cleaners who were killed at the World Trade Center (this total still exceeded the number of victims from the "infamous" Japanese Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 that killed 2403 American servicemen and civilians).
The loss of life could have been much worse, given that up to 19,000 people worked in the World Trade Center complex. Ironically, Ramzi Yousef's vehicle bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 had led to a range of improved evacuation measures that enabled most of the occupants to be gotten out quickly.
Visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard was stuck in Washington, D.C. as civilian flights within the US had all been grounded. At the same time, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark was stuck in Melbourne because Ansett workers wouldn't let her Air New Zealand plane leave (Air New Zealand owned Ansett, and up to 16,000 Ansett workers faced losing their jobs after Ansett was placed in voluntary administration).
Ministers like to create the perception they're the ones running the country, and everything hinges on their leadership - but in reality the Australian and New Zealand public services run the countries more efficiently when there isn't political interference. Ministers' most important role is providing the financial resources for the public services to operate!
Anyway, when Prime Minister Howard got back, he was keen to show leadership at this time of alliance crisis. He gave a rousing Churchillian speech in Parliament on September 17, in which he focused on the 9/11 tragedy, the fight ahead, the shared values involved, and the importance of ANZUS.
Following a meeting of cabinet's National Security Committee in Sydney, Howard announced a range of counter-terrorism measures that probably impressed the general public, but caught Canberra-based security agencies by surprise - as the measures had not been requested, and now had to be justified and resourced.
Regardless, 9/11 worked well for the Coalition in an electoral sense, with Howard returned to office in the election on November 10. Intelligence agencies prospered too. ASIO has done particularly (but justifiably) well from counter-terrorism, going from 584 staff and an annual budget of $70 million in 2000, to 1980 staff and a budget of $550 million today.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and a former director of security intelligence at the Department of Defence.