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A CIA Officer and Delta Force Operator Share Perspectives on 9/11

We started the OODAcast as a way of highlighting insights and lessons learned from leaders and decision-makers in the OODA Network.  Since March 2020, we have produced 80 OODAcast conversations that will long be relevant to anyone who seeks to sharpen their decision-making skills or gain insights into dynamic, competitive markets.

Many of these interviews are also with members of the intelligence community who have very personal and powerful professional stories to tell about the early moments of September 11th.  On this, the weekend of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we have curated some of these interviews – pulling threads and highlighting where these leaders were at the moment the first plane hit, the early actions taken by the CIA, and their personal and professional journey in the days, weeks, and years after the attacks.

Themes emerge throughout these interviews on topics such as leadership in a crisis, empowering your team and finding the right people to execute on a plan, clear decision-making while operating in a low information environment, situational awareness, preparation for a mission, how clearly the intelligence community warned of the pending attacks, the early preparedness of a response by the intelligence community, and the role the agency played in the success of the early stages of the campaign in Afghanistan.

In September of 2020, OODA CEO Matt Devost spoke to Gary Harrington. In a distinguished career of national service that included over three decades in top-tier special operations groups including Delta Force and then transitioning into the CIA, Gary was one of the first to deploy into Afghanistan after 9/11 and was at the tip of the spear in many locations including as a solo operator in high-risk venues like Yemen.

In May of 2020, Matt had a wide-ranging discussion with Congressman Will Hurd – a San Antonio native and Texas A&M Computer Science Graduate, Hurd never planned on being a member of Congress. Congressman Hurd was excited to spend his entire career serving his country by stopping terrorists, preventing Russian spies from stealing our secrets, and putting nuclear weapons proliferators out of business as an undercover officer in the CIA – until he realized that his expertise in cybersecurity and intelligence was sorely needed in Congress – the people charged with making informed decisions about how to serve and protect our country.

Day Zero – September 11, 2001

Congressman Hurd:   What I always remember  – because I was working Yemen almost through the entire summer of 2001 – I remember the feeling that many people had in the [CIA HQ] building like something’s going to happen, right? Something’s going to happen.

People would sleep in their cars because they were like we gotta figure out what’s going on. There was this nervousness in the building and all of us who had worked on those issues. We knew bin Laden, al Qaeda is a group that we were following prior to 1998 when you had the attacks in Africa. I’m in a [clandestine service] trainee class, we hear that the one building got hit. And we are watching it live on CNN. And we see the second plane hit. And all of us knew right away. This is al Qaeda. This is terrorism. And so the class was dismissed and it was hard to get back to my home in DC and DC proper. So I had to run-walk a couple of miles to get home.

Gary Harrington:   I was in the Fifth Special Forces Group. So I was leaving my house to go to the airport to go to Tampa and to help coordinate an exercise with Fifth Group, the Joint Special Operations Command in a foreign country working with a foreign government. And on the radio, I heard the news of the first plane hitting. I thought, wait a minute, this is odd. I had a few minutes to spare, so I pulled into a little tiny diner, turned their TV on in time to see the second plane hit. And instead of continuing to the airport, I turned the other way. And we just went to my office in Fifth Special Forces Group and we immediately jumped in and we started planning for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Day One – September 12, 2001

Congressman Hurd:  That night at four o’clock in the morning, I got a phone call from an old boss that said, Hey report at 0600 in the basement of the new headquarters building at the CIA in Langley. And I said, you know, yes, boss. And I became like the fourth, fifth employee of CTCSO – The Counterterrorism Center, Special Operations Division. This was the division that was prosecuting and overseeing the war in Afghanistan. So I was involved in that and basically doing whatever was necessary to help people out was my responsibility. But seeing what was probably the most effective intelligence/military operation in our history. And I always have to remind people when Kandahar fell in December of 2001, right:  75% of al Qaeda leadership was killed. All the Taliban was pushed out of the country. There were only 400 Americans on the ground, 300 Special Forces, 100 CIA, oh, and the world’s greatest Air Force. That was the invasion. With such a small footprint. And I think part of that was the preparation that we all did back in Langley in those early months.

Gary Harrington:   Then I went with the first of the Fifth Group to go to Afghanistan. I mean, to go to Uzbekistan where we launched out of and I coordinated with the agency. My job was to kind of facilitate the cooperation so that the Special Forces in the Army could resupply and support agency teams too because it was a big cooperation between the agency and special forces in the early part of Afghanistan. So I did that. And then I went into Afghanistan in late October 2001 and wound up going to an agency team that was in Jalalabad – which wound up being the team that went up to Tora Bora. So I was with another SF team that accompanied them and we went up and we were running the ops calling in the air for Tora Bora.

So that was interesting. And just to try to work with locals and then you have all that focus on trying to get bin Laden, but then they were squirting out and escaping at night and we couldn’t seal in everything. And then, probably with help from the locals, a lot of the people escaped. I learned lessons there because that was Ramadan and we weren’t prepared for Ramadan and the Afghans would send soldiers forward in the daytime with no food or anything because it’s Ramadan. Well, then at night, they would retreat back so they could eat and drink. It was really difficult to try to take ground and hold ground. Next, I jumped from there to another place to go open up Khost.

So I jumped on with another agency team and this time we got on the ground in Khost. I learned my lesson to work out the logistics so that, you know, I did stuff like build out chow trucks that had the cooking and food, everything that we could take forward so that we wouldn’t have to retreat. After Khost, there were two warlords that were in a lifelong live battle, a lifelong feud. So they were threatening to kill each other and they were more intent on that than helping us track down al Qaeda up in the Khost region. So I came up with a plan to divide them and one warlord had most of his tribal ties to a place called Orgun, Afghanistan – right across the Pakistani border,  Waziristan. And so I ended up splitting them up and I led a team up to our Orgun where we opened up a new base in Orgun to work with that warlord.

So we did that. Then I got the message to join another agency team and prep for operation Anaconda. So then I did that. And then during that run-up to the Anaconda is that incident where we had been partially surrounded by Al-Qaeda happened. So that if you saw the movie 12 Strong, you know, a team comes in on top of an agency team and they are there a week or two weeks or three weeks, and then they’re out. I went in with agency teams and I would stay until we brought in SF. And then I would jump on another agency team and would go in and set it up and stay until you brought in SF. And then just kept repeating that. So for me, I went in and stayed five months.

Crisis Leadership:  The Role of Empathy and Grief

Congressman Hurd:  [Sharing a story about a crisis on campus while he was student body president at Texas A & M] – At the time George W. Bush was the Governor of Texas…I think George W. Bush was great at just comforting people.  It was just going and putting a hand on a shoulder or giving someone a hug or just saying, you know, we feel your pain. I like his ability to do that and make people feel comfortable with what they were dealing with at that moment was something that I, I haven’t seen many people be able to do such a thing.

And then I look at Ray Bowen, who was the president of Texas A&M at the time. Letting a 21, I think I was only 21 at the time, 21-year-old kid basically be the spokesperson during this crisis that had the entire national focus. But, I had an ability to articulate the importance of the tradition and try to talk about what we call the Spirit of Aggie Land there. He had the willingness to let a young kid you know, handle some of those responsibilities.

Matt Devost:  I hear are a couple of different messages there. The first is empathy, right?  Which I think president Bush carried forward around other national events, including 9/11. And the other being able to, I want to say, share the spotlight, but give a voice to others. To not try and consolidate the voice around an event like that and to just one person or one college administration, but to let the students have a voice as well. Right. It seems like it was important.

Congressman Hurd:  There is grieving individually and there is s grieving together. And that’s an important part of the cathartic moments. People deal with [grief] individually, but you also deal with it in groups and you have to think through that in any moment of crisis.

“You learn more from your mistakes.”

Matt Devost:  I feel like we glossed over a major segment of your career, 20 years in the Special Forces, including Delta Force. Are there any operations from that timeframe you can step us through that served as kind of a great lesson or you came out of a leadership skill or insight that you found valuable through the rest of your career?

Gary Harrington:  You learn more from your mistakes. So I think I was lucky enough to survive some mistakes. I think the biggest thought wasn’t “I might get killed.” It was, this is going to be really embarrassing when I have to explain how I got captured by the Iraqis sitting in this hole. But you know that didn’t happen. So, you know, that was one lesson and another type of lesson is in paying attention to your instincts and being aware of your surroundings. Also preparation.

“Never give up is a personality trait you can apply to anything.”

Matt Devost:  The Delta force teams are considered to be the most elite of the elite. So for people that are trying to operate elite teams that are kind of outside the military, what are some of the things that make Delta so successful that you would convey to somebody running an elite team of hackers or business leaders?

Gary Harrington:  Well, you know, I think one is that you select good people to start with and you have to select people of character.

There are some that get through no matter what we do, but you select good people and people that have heart and drive. One of the big characteristics they [Delta Force] looks for is never give up. And the whole selection process is designed to really push you mentally and physically so that a person that is the type of person that would give up, doesn’t generally make it. And then once you’re in, they train you very well. The operator’s training course is super, super-intensive, and you become very proficient at the skills. In Delta, you learn some different shooting skills and other things that are more nuanced, but it is still the basics of shoot move, communicate, but you do them to a very high degree of efficiency.  In Delta, your training is very realistic.

Delta relies on the people they recruited, the training they have, and their proficiency. They have to give a lot of trust to that individual. So to me, when I look at teams now and the occasions I’ve had to build teams, I’ve tried to do that same thing. I try to equip and support people well  – and I was very particular in who I recruited and threw out some that would surprise people. Then I looked within that organization:  where’s the right fit for people?  Some guys might be great as a security guy, but he really sucks as an Intel analyst. And so it’s moving people into the right position and giving them the freedom to make choices and make decisions and support those decisions. And you know, Delta does that.  It’s an NCO-driven unit, which is very unusual for the military, but it’s done that’s that way because they are so well-trained and prepared.

Matt Devost:  Excellent. That’s good insight. I love the aspect of never quit. I mean, I think that is true with some of the best hackers that I’ve met.

Gary Harrington:  That is a personality trait you can apply to anything.

Matt Devost:  That’s why I think some of the dynamics that make the Delta teams so successful can be applied to other areas, whether it’s cybersecurity or other business dynamics.

“You have to make decisions with imperfect information.”

Matt Devost:  So one thing you already touched upon with regards to lessons during your 10 years in the CIA is that leaders have an obligation to understand those things that they’re leading. Is there anything that you learned as a leader coming out of that decade in the CIA that would be good to share with the audience?

Congressman Hurd: You have to make decisions with imperfect information. You’re never going to have a total picture so you have to be comfortable with that. And then you have to think:  what is that threshold where there is a no, where there was a go or no-go? And are you getting enough perspectives? The thing that always concerned me is I’m always worried about groupthink.  I don’t want somebody agreeing with me just because they want to agree with the boss.  I want to make sure there are people that are always challenging and always questioning information. And I think that’s valuable to make sure you are getting a full perspective. I would say the CIA is great because we have some amazing databases, right? Like we collect information on everyone and we do the small stuff well every time.

Matt Devost:  But then also the quickness of making decisions, that’s something that I’ve observed even working with business leaders is that they constantly are trying to wait for the perfect moment or the perfect data in which to make a decision.  But you reach this compression timeframe where the decision needs to be made based on the data that you had, right? Once you wait for perfect data, it would have been a decision that was too late for you.

Gary Harrington:  If you are vigilant and you are watching, you start picking up those early signals and the more you’re not distracted, the quicker you can pick up the early signals. Then you have an evolving matrix of decisions. And the earlier you make a decision, the less dire the consequences are generally…it’s great to get information, but then you need to be willing to make those decisions.

“Some of our skills in the national intelligence apparatus have atrophied when it comes to Great Power competition.”

Matt Devost:  There is a key thematic that I wanted to touch upon. You mentioned being in the CIA prior to September 11th, the sense of urgency. I was running the Terrorism Research Center at the same time. Obviously, we were writing all these proposals going into the government and they were being turned away. You have the infamous briefing at the White House:  George Tenet, Cofer Black, and Rich Blee kind of giving that imminent sense of warning: We’re going to be hit, it could be on American soil. Now, that we’re almost two decades later, do you think that we’re any better as a nation at ingesting and kind of acting on that sense of warning that’s coming from the intelligence community? Regardless of who’s the president at the time?

Congressman Hurd:  I absolutely think we are. And I would say what in what I refer to as horizontal sharing of intelligence amongst other federal entities, it improved drastically from 2001 when 9/11 happened to 2009 when I left and it’s even improved since I’ve left. some of those silos have been broken down and the kinds of co-op on the ground, in the field – that level of cooperation has always been great. The problem usually occur when he got back to Washington DC. And you see those, those headquarters elements, whether it’s from, you know, CIA or FBI working closely together, or the CIA and Special Forces have always worked tightly. I think that’s probably the closest working relationship within the federal government. So I’ve seen it improve dramatically.

I actually think one of the concerns that we deal with now is this notion of a Lone Wolf attack. And the only way you deal with that is what I call improving vertical sharing. And that’s the federal government with local law enforcement.  How do we improve that little tidbit of information on someone that you don’t have a dossier on and get that information to the right hands? I think that is the next area of intelligent sharing where we have to improve in order to be better.

Now, some of our skills in the national intelligence apparatus have atrophied when comes to Great Power competition. We’ve gotten good and improved going after an individual cell within terrorism but answering those big macro questions – the plans and intentions of Putin or the plans and intentions of the senior Politburo member within the Chinese communist party. We got a lot of areas of improvement there. And how do you do this in an environment where the US competitive advantage in information in all domains, right? Land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace where our competitive advantage is decreasing, right? And so these are the issues that we have to be thinking of.   And then when it comes to cyber-intelligence we have to be sharing quicker and better and faster. I think we can’t think of that the same way as the intelligence we get on the plans and intentions of a senior leader. So those are some areas that we need to improve. But the silos and the problems that we saw in 2001, I haven’t seen any of those. And now I serve on HIPSCI – The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence – and this is always something that I’m focused on because those intelligence failures have been something that I’ve been around during those times.

Watch or Listen to the Full Interviews:

OODAcast: Gary Harrington on Leadership Lessons from Delta Force to the CIA

OODAcast: Congressman Will Hurd on AI, 5G, Cybersecurity Risk and Geopolitical Risk


Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.