By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2006 – Adm. Edmund G. Giambastiani Jr., the most senior military officer serving in the Pentagon today who was present during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, recalls the painful irony of the day. Giambastiani, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's senior military assistant on Sept. 11 and remembers the significance of a Pentagon breakfast Rumsfeld hosted to discuss the Quadrennial Defense Review with congressional leaders.
The QDR looks ahead to future defense challenges to face the Defense Department and the nation, and Giambastiani remembers discussion of a potential surprise attack on the United States and the threat to be posed by non-state actors using asymmetrical warfare techniques.
As the meeting was wrapping up at about 9 a.m., someone passed Giambastiani a note informing him that an aircraft had slammed into New York's World Trade Center. Only after learning that a second aircraft had hit the second tower did Giambastiani realize that many of the theoretical events Rumsfeld and the senators had just discussed were unfolding before their eyes.
"There was a lot of conjecture. But when only one happens, you think it may be an accident," he said. "Obviously, a second tower was hit, (and) it was no longer an accident. Because you don't have two separate towers hit by two aircraft by accident."
Giambastiani and Rumsfeld both went back to their offices to work, keeping their eyes on television sets that showed the World Trade Center in flames.
Undersecretary of Defense Steve Cambone, who was a special assistant to Rumsfeld at the time, came to Giambastiani's office to discuss the Pentagon as a potential target and their course of action if it was attacked.
Minutes later, at 9:39 a.m., that attack came. Giambastiani heard the explosion in his office, on the far side of the massive Pentagon building, and felt the ground shake. He walked through his doorway toward the secretary's office, and his eyes met Rumsfeld's.
As Rumsfeld proceeded directly to the crash site, where he helped first responders triage those injured in the attack, Giambastiani went to the National Military Command Center to prepare it to become the Pentagon's command post for dealing with the crisis.
"We were working on air defenses and ... finding out if there were any potential further attacks," he said. "But we were also, frankly, starting to think about what the implications of these civilian aircraft attacks were -- not only on New York City, but also on the Pentagon and ... on Pennsylvania."
At about 6 that evening, Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who held Giambastiani's current job at the time but was acting in the chairman's job, held a Pentagon press briefing to discuss the day's events and answer questions.
"We wanted to send a message to al Qaeda, and we wanted to send a message to the American people and to the people around the world that they understood that (terrorists) may have attacked the Pentagon, they may have attacked the United States, but they would probably regret doing this," Giambastiani said.
Looking back five years later, Giambastiani calls the Sept. 11 attacks one of the defining events of his 40-plus-year military career. "Clearly there is nothing more galvanizing, nothing more dramatic than having an attack on the United States where you have 2,973 Americans killed," he said. "There is no other event in American history where we lost that many people on our soil in the United States, including Hawaii during Pearl Harbor."
Sept. 11 changed America in a lot of ways, Giambastiani said, "but it also brought out some tremendous strengths of the American people, and it brought out tremendous strengths from our servicemembers."
Giambastiani said he's been impressed by the commitment he's witnessed within military members since Sept. 11 -- a testament, he said, to the success of the all-volunteer force. "That's what I've seen since September the 11th, that's what our young people are like," he said. "And I just tell you, I am proud to serve with them."
He said he's also gratified that the Defense Department was already reshaping itself to deal with threats like the one it encountered Sept. 11.
Already on the table were ideas about establishing a command like U.S. Northern Command to focus on homeland defense and discussions about the best way to deal with non-traditional threats.
"We had enough foresight to understand that there were elements, either state actors or non-state actors out there, who would want to do harm to not only America, but any of our allies and coalition partners," Giambastiani said. "And (we were discussing), how could we move the Defense Department in a way that would bring us to be able to deal with these new realities?"