ANDERSON — Just as the East Coast was coming out of its slumber on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, John Pistole already had conducted an inspection and audit of a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Syracuse, New York, and was on his way to a meeting with a federal judge.
Shortly after 8:45 a.m., he received word a plane had struck the north towers at the World trade Center in New York City. Even though a previous attempt had been made by Osama bin Laden, leader of the militant pan-Islamic al Qaeda organization, the first plane didn’t set off any alarms, he admitted.
“Every once in a while, you hear about a near miss, a small plane.”
But when he arrived at the courthouse and learned a second Boeing 767 had struck the south tower near the 60th floor, Pistole knew it was not just an accident.
That event 20 years ago changed the priorities of Pistole’s employer and set much of the trajectory for the remainder of his career with the agency, which included serving as deputy director from 2004 to 2010.
“My first thought that came to mind is, ‘This changes everything.’ The mission of the FBI was going to change, but I had no idea how dramatically,” he said.
Pistole, 65, now president of his alma mater Anderson University, will be a panelist on domestic violent extremism Sept. 12 and 13 at a conference in northern Virginia sponsored by the homeland security experts group of which he is a member.
Up until that point, Pistole said, each of the 56 FBI field offices set its own priorities. For instance, the office in New York set organized crime and foreign counterintelligence as high priorities, while the office in Indianapolis was more concerned with white collar crimes, such as securities and mortgage fraud.
Robert Meuller, who later would be named special counsel in the investigation of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, had served as director of the FBI for only one week at the time of the attack.
"He did a complete change in saying we are going to have a top 10 priorities for the entire FBI and the 56 field offices,” Pistole said. “It was a whole different paradigm.”
Pistole, the FBI and other intelligence agencies spent the next decade supporting the military’s war on terror. This was done through its hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan until he was located and killed on May 2, 2011 by special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the dismantling of al Qaeda and the capture, trial and execution of Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein.
Pistole went on to testify at a couple of the public hearings conducted by the 9/11 Commission and before Congress about the changes made within the FBI. He also was one of the officials to approve a memo on the limits of interrogation techniques used on captives during the war on terror.
Pistole later became the direction of the Transportation Security Administration.
Because of the advances of intelligence in the Middle East, Pistole said, it’s unlikely the United States would be blindsided again by an event like 9/11.
“There have been a lot of successes with U.S. special forces and allies rounding up the leaders of al Qaeda,” he said. “Even before the capture of Osama bin Laden, most of the hierarchy had been captured, or detained or killed. So it’s really a fragment of what it was pre-9/11.”