Remembering 9/11: Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)

By RealClearPolitics - September 7, 2011

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So, we're hurtling through the back streets and finally end up at Andrews Air Force Base, and I was able to get ahold of the vice president. Of course, the president was in Florida and then on Air Force One. The vice president said they got almost all of the planes down. There's a plane with its transponder not working -- a KAL flight that was coming across Canada from Korea that was supposed to land, and they couldn't make contact with it. And there were three planes coming across the Atlantic that they couldn't make contact with, but everything else was identified and down on the ground by that time. And, of course, they had the power to shoot down any airplane. They didn't want to do it, but they were trying to get these other planes down. And he said, "Well, you're going to an undisclosed location." So, the next thing I knew, I was in a helicopter, and we were flying to this "undisclosed location." I'm looking down, and flying across Washington, there's nothing moving. We go across the river and Reagan International Airport, and there's no planes on the tarmac. I look down. I look out the other side of the helicopter, and this blue-black belching smoke is coming out of the Pentagon, just covering the whole northern suburbs of Northern Virginia. Of course, it was a beautiful, crisp September morning. I remember that blue-black haze that was covering that whole suburban area.

We had the whole day out in this undisclosed location, and the members of the leadership ended up there -- [Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle] was there, [Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott] was there, [House Majority Leader Dick Armey] and [House Majority Whip Tom DeLay] were there. And we decided we were going to come back that next day. There was going to be a lot of work that we were going to have to do and get going again. . . . We didn't know what kind of issues we had to face. But we knew that we were going to have to get going. And so we found out that the president was going back to Washington at 6 p.m. And so we scheduled to come in at 6:30. So we had a couple helicopters that flew into . . . the north lawn of the Capitol at 6:30, and we were going to have a press conference, and it was set up for us to walk over to the east front Capitol steps. And as we did that, I remember [then-Rep.] Rob Portman coming over to me and he said, "You know, you need to make sure that what you say gives people some confidence that we're going to be back and get to work." And I said, "I've figured that out." So I gave my 20-second spiel. Daschle went first, I went second. I basically said, "We're going to be back to work tomorrow. We'll stand shoulder to shoulder and work to make sure this doesn't happen again." And as I turned around and walked back to the steps, there were about 150-200 members of Congress -- senators and House members and Democrats and Republicans just mixed. . . . That was kind of our backdrop. As we're walking back after we're done with our press conference, somebody broke out into "God Bless America." And it was just kind of a cappella. I remember when it happened, chills ran down my spine, and I said, "We'll be OK. This country will come together. We'll get through this."

And for the next, basically, nine months, we worked out of our offices. Both House and Senate came over and, on a bipartisan basis, solved a lot of problems. For instance, we had the whole airline industry that was grounded. Nobody would fly an airplane, and people were stuck all over the country. People were chartering buses to go from Memphis to Chicago and I can imagine all over just to get back home. This country does business and lives by flying around. So, we had to get the airlines flying again, but nobody would fly unless there was some kind of a terrorism insurance, that people were covered. So, we had to create this terrorism insurance, and then we had to -- nobody wanted to do it commercially because of the risk -- so the federal government had to underwrite it. So, we had to create this. And the same way with repairing buildings. Nobody even wanted to directly even think about starting to repair buildings without having some type of a terrorism insurance. Nobody would build an apartment or a high-rise or anything else. They wanted to make sure there was some security -- if they were attacked that they were not under some kind of lawsuit. And, so, we did all those types of things. And, you know, then we did the Patriot Act because we had to be able to do that. There were 20-something cells in the United States. We've got to find out who they were and where they were. And, so, the Patriot Act was designed to give law enforcement the same tools that they had to get the Mafia that they could get a terrorist. It wasn't popular, and there was a lot of fight in the Congress because the attorney general just wanted carte blanche, and I remember Jim Sensenbrenner, who was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "No, we're going to go regular order," and we did. But those were the types of fights that we had and the things that we had to do, but we had to get them done. And I remember going down to the White House the day after and telling the president, I said, "Mr. President, you need to come up to Congress and give an address to Congress and to the American people and just tell them what your vision is for the next couple months till we get through this." He said, "My staff's saying I shouldn't do that yet until we know more about this." I said, "Well, I think it's important." The next day he went up to New York and of course did the thing about "I hear you." But he did. Within the next week, he had a joint address to Congress which was nationally televised. I think it was probably one of the best speeches the president made to the Congress all the time he was in the office.

We worked every night for months in my office trying to make sure that we created the Homeland Security Act, the Safety Act. A lot of people had all these widgets and ideas about how to spot terrorists and being able to look at eyes as they came in and measure irises and all kinds of things. Stuff to measure anthrax or some type of gas in subways, and all kinds of little things that people were inventing, but nobody would do it because if it wasn't fail-safe, they were afraid that they would be liable. So we had this what we call Safety Act that gave kind of a liability bypass so we could start putting these things in place to make this country safer. For the next nine months we just worked almost every night. I remember up in the Lincoln Room, in my office, this place where everybody came. It was both House and Senate and Democrats and Republicans who worked together really on a great bipartisan basis.

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