September 11 2001 was without doubt one of the most extraordinary of the many remarkable days I spent with Tony Blair. I’ve printed below my diary entry for that day. Within it, I make the point that in the face of terrorist attacks, world leaders like to say these events will not make them change course. But the reality is that September 11 did change the course of history; of TB’s Premiership, and of George Bush’s Presidency, and much else besides.
It is entirely possible that at some point, even without September 11, there would have been war to remove the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We will never know. What we do know is that September 11 was a pivotal moment on the road to both, as what became known as the calculus of threat changed. Interesting to recall that on the day itself, even before we got back to London, TB was noting the possibility of rogue states arming terror groups as one of the issues that would have to be addressed.
As you may recall, TB was due to speak to the TUC. As I recall below, TUC General Secretary noted that it was on days like this that you realised just how much responsibility fell on a Prime Minister. As has been clear in recent days, the decisions TB took in the aftermath, first in relation to Afghanistan and later Iraq, remain controversial and, for many unpopular. But I thought it would be interesting for people to be reminded of the immediate context, and a detailed day of the account itself.
Today Tuesday September 11
I woke up to the usual blah on the radio about TB and the TUC speech, all the old BBC clichés about us and the unions, the only new thing GMB ads asking if you trust TB not to privatise the NHS. Peter Hyman and I went up to the flat. TB had done a good section on public-private, an effective hit back at the John Edmonds line. With the economy, public services, Europe/Euro and a bit on asylum which was really worrying, we had a proper speech. We sharpened it and honed it a bit. He was furious at the GMB ads, said he intended to give Edmonds a real hammering. We finished it on the train, were met and driven to the hotel. We were there, up at the top of the hotel putting the finishing touches to the speech when the attacks on the New York Twin Towers began.
Godric was watching in the little room where the Garden Room girl had set up, came up to the top of the little staircase leading to the bit where TB and I were working, and signalled for me to go down. It was all a bit chaotic, with the TV people going into their usual breathless breaking news mode, but it was clearly something way out of the ordinary. I went upstairs, turned on the TV and said to TB he ought to watch it. It was now even clearer than just a few moments ago just how massive an event this was. It was also one that was going to have pretty immediate implications for us too. We didn’t watch the TV that long, but long enough for TB to reach the judgement about just how massive an event this was in its impact and implications. It’s possible we were talking about thousands dead.
We would also have to make immediate judgements about buildings and institutions to protect here. TB was straight on to the diplomatic side as well, said that we had to help the US, that they could not go it all on their own, that they felt beleaguered and that this would be tantamount to a military attack in their minds. We had to decide whether we should cancel the speech.
There was always a moment in these terrorist outrages where governments said we must not let the terrorists change what we do, but it was meaningless. Of course they changed what we did. At first, we felt it best to go ahead with the speech but by the time we were leaving for the venue, the Towers were actually collapsing. The scale of the horror and the damage was increasing all the time and it was perfectly obvious he couldn’t do the speech. We went over to the conference centre where TB broke the news to Monks and Barber [TUC] that he intended to go on, say a few words but then we would have to head back to London. We would issue the text but he would not deliver the speech.
John Monks said to me that it’s on days like this that you realise just how big his job is. TB’s mind was whirring with it. His brief statement to the TUC went down well, far better than his speech would have done. We walked back to the hotel, both of us conscious there seemed to be a lot more security around. We arranged a series of conference calls through Jonathan with Jack, Hoon, David Blunkett. We asked Richard Wilson to fix a Cobra meeting as soon as we got back.
We set off for Brighton station. He said the consequences of this were enormous. On the train he was subdued, though we did have a few laughs when someone said it was the first and last time he would get a standing ovation from the TUC. Robert Hill was listening to the radio on his earpiece and filling us in every now and then. TB asked for a pad and started to write down some of the issues we would have to address when we got back. He said the big fear was terrorists capable of this getting in league with rogue states that would help them. He’d been going on about Bin Laden for a while because there had been so much intelligence about him and Al Qaeda. He wanted to commission proper reports on OBL and all the other terror groups. He made a note of the need to reach out to the British Muslim community who would fear a backlash if this was Bin Laden. Everyone seemed convinced it couldn’t be anyone else.
We got back and before Cobra he was briefed by Stephen Lander, John Scarlett, [security services], RW. DTLR had closed airspace over London. There had been special security put around the Stock Exchange and Canary Wharf. The general security alert had been raised to Amber. Three hundred companies were being contacted to be given advice. Scarlett said OBL and his people were the only ones with the capability to do this. Neither he nor Lander believed other governments were involved. TB said we needed a command paper of who they are, why they are, what they do, how they do it. He said at the diplomatic level he felt the US would feel beleaguered and angry because there was so much anti-Americanism around. Lander felt the pressure on the Americans to respond quickly, even immediately, would be enormous. Afghanistan was the obvious place. Iraq, Libya, Iran, the Americans will be trying to find out if they helped in this. He said there were a lot of people sympathetic to Bin Laden, more than we realised.
TB said they will move straight away to the international community and their response. If I were Bush, I would demand the Taleban deliver him up. Scarlett and Lander were both pretty impressive, didn’t mess about, thought about what they said, and said what they thought. Scarlett said this was less about technology than it was about skill and nerve. Lander said this was a logical step up from the car bomb. Turning a plane into a bomb and destroying one of the great symbols of America takes some doing but they have done it and they have been able to do it because they have any number of terrorists prepared to kill themselves. TB’s immediate concern, apart from the obvious logistical steps we had to take, was that Bush would be put under enormous pressure to do something irresponsible.
If America heard the general world view develop that this happened because Bush was more isolationist, there would be a reaction. He felt we had to take a lead in mobilising diplomatic solidarity in the rest of the G8 and the EU. We had to start shaping an international agenda to fill the vacuum. He spoke to Schroeder who wanted a G8 meeting, Chirac and Jospin, who were not so sure, and then Putin who had a real “I told you so” tone, said he had been warning us about Islamic fundamentalism. TB and I both pressed Scarlett and Lander on why they were so sure there were no rogue governments involved in this. They said because Bin Laden was able to do it himself and that suited his purposes better.
We all trooped over to the Cobra meeting which was a bit ragged, but that was to be expected given what people were having to deal with. There were contingency measures that had gone into effect. Private flights had been stopped. There were no commercial flights to go over the centre of London. All small plane flights were being grounded unless they had specific clearance. Security was being stepped up around financial centres and major computer sites. The Met were raising numbers on visible patrols particularly at Canary Wharf, Heathrow and in the North London Jewish areas. We had upped protection on our premises in the Middle East. There was talk of moving some of the planes based at RAF Leuchars to London in the event of a hijack. Jack said the EU GAC was planning to meet. Geoff Hoon gave a briefing on what troops were where in the Middle East. TB did a very good summing up, first going through all the different measures that I should brief, then on the specific reports he wanted to commission, then on the importance of a diplomatic strategy to support the US. He said they would feel beleaguered and all the tensions that had been apparent before would now become more open, whatever the warm words around the world.
He asked Jack and Geoff to come through to Number 10, said it was vital that we worked up an international agenda that went beyond the US just hitting Afghanistan. He felt NMD would quickly rise up the agenda.
He intended to say to Bush that he should deliver an ultimatum to the Taleban to hand over Bin Laden and his people and then hit them if it didn’t happen. He had been reading the Koran over the summer. Mohamed had lost battles but there was a belief that if you died in the cause that you believed in then you went straight to heaven. That was a very, very powerful thing to work against. TB’s public words were very much in total support of the US. He said this was going to be a nightmare, as big and as bad as any we had endured. It was interesting that he had not asked GB to come back for the smaller meeting. I asked him why and he said because in their recent discussions he had been monosyllabic. The Israelis were making massive attacks on the terror groups. TB said we were going to have to work exceptionally hard on the international response. Bush was getting it in the neck for not being in Washington.
Everyone was in bed when I got home, and Fiona had fallen asleep watching it all on TV. I did a call with Jonathan to go over how much we would need to kick out of the diary in the coming days. Pretty much all of it, at least for a while. Jonathan said the Americans would be unlikely to let Bush travel – it was a bit much that he couldn’t even go to his own capital – but the fallout from this was going to need an awful lot of diplomatic activity. I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of the insides of planes, he said. I turned off the TV in the bedroom and went downstairs to channel hop while writing it all up. The TUC felt a bloody age ago.Some of the footage of the aftermath, clouds of dust and debris literally rolling down streets, was extraordinary. So were the eye-witness accounts. Gut-wrenching. What was amazing was that Bush, TB, Chirac and the rest were having to react and respond in exactly the same time frame, and with pretty much only the same knowledge of the incident as people watching on TV. The difference was they were going to have to make some huge decisions about it too.