by Gwen Moritz
Posted 9/11/2001 03:19 pm
Updated 1 year ago
So said former White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty in an interview early this afternoon with Arkansas Business. He drew on his experience in the Clinton White House after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
He would not speculate on the identity of the perpetrators of this morning's attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, nor would he suggest likely forms of retaliation.
"Your first thought is it's an act of terrorism by those who oppose the U.S. and our values. But we learned from Oklahoma City that it's not always a terrorist from foreign soil," he said.
McLarty said Tuesday's tragedies "greatly superseded" any of the incidents or threats experienced during the Clinton Administration, and he compared it instead to the attack on Pearl Harbor that dragged the U.S. into World War II at the end of 1941.
"I don't think any of us have ever seen [anything like this] except in a Bruce Willis action movie. It has that feel to it that it can't really be happening, and when you see a commercial airliner with passengers on board literally crashing into the World Trade Center, it's terrifying and beyond belief."
The White House, he said, was undoubtedly scrambling to coordinate response to the attacks.
"I think your first step is to establish immediate communications with all agencies to make sure that communications lines are open and flowing, so you know what's going on. And your real responsibility is to protect the President and Commander in Chief and make sure he is secure."
Although Washington itself was "surrealistic" after an aircraft crashed into the Pentagon, the level of activity in the executive branch "is extremely high," McLarty said.
"Of course you have some very, very experienced and trained and capable people with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, head of the CIA [and] Attorney General, all of whom are obviously taking responsibility."
Another urgent task would be working out a communications strategy for the country and the world to make sure "that any information you communicate is factual, that you send and display the right tone, that you don't make a terrible situation worse by saying something that is ill spoken or ill thought-out."
Part of the communication strategy would necessarily include the domestic financial markets. As chief of staff, McLarty said he had a "hot line" to the New York Stock Exchange.
"The stock exchange is shut down, and they would not have done that without calling the White House," he said.
While Secretary of State Colin Powell was in South America when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred, his office could be counted on to immediately begin communication with foreign governments, McLarty said.
"This is why when people criticize the importance and necessity of government — while some of the waste is certainly to be scrutinized — this is why we have capable, dedicated public servants from the President of the United States down to the local fire chief. And we appreciate them when there's a crisis going on," he said.
When asked how the U.S. intelligence community could have been taken unawares and four commercial airliners hijacked on the same morning, McLarty said, "I'm not an intelligence expert or a security expert ... I do think random acts of terrorism are very, very difficult to foresee and to know about ... but this obviously appears to be a well-coordinated effort and, regrettably, executed with some degree of experience and skill."
The offices of Kissinger McLarty Associates, McLarty's consulting partnership with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, are several miles from the Pentagon but near the World Bank headquarters, "which would be a potential target," he said.
"Washington is just sort of evacuated," he said. All public events have been canceled.
Early this afternoon, McLarty said he was on his way to his Washington-area home but "I wish I were still in Hope, Arkansas, where I was a couple of weeks ago."