At first Paul Wolfowitz mistook the tremors in the Pentagon for an earthquake. Such an event would have been rare in the nation's capital, but far more fathomable than what had in fact occurred at the opposite end of the building. It took a few bewildered seconds for him to connect the sudden pandemonium just outside his doorway with the events in New York he had seen on his office television less than a half hour earlier.
Uniformed officers entered the deputy secretary of defense's office and instructed him to evacuate immediately. Wolfowitz and his staffers hurried down the E Ring corridor. The entire Pentagon work force, thousands of them, assembled outside on the parade grounds. Black smoke swirled over the western side of the building where American Airlines Flight 77 had completed its path of destruction a few minutes before, at 9:37 on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Even when he was intended to be the center of attention, Wolfowitz cut an indistinct presence. He was fifty-seven and a father of three, recently divorced, a slight, fast-graying academic for whom certain big thoughts were all-consuming and everything else-manner of dress, posture, hair care, time of the next appointment, sleep-were relegated to afterthought. His default expression was one of mildly skeptical consideration, as if perusing the menu at an overpriced restaurant.
For the past three decades, he had been a sort of backstage eminence in the Washington hierarchy, an important man to more important men. That was about to change. But at this moment, Paul Dundes Wolfowitz was just another vulnerable federal employee standing under an empty blue sky with the ruins of his office building before him.
A half hour before, he had just concluded a breakfast in the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and nine Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee. At some point during the breakfast, Rumsfeld had predicted that, while Americans were currently luxuriating in peacetime, "an event somewhere in the world will be sufficiently shocking that it will remind the American people and their representatives in Washington how important it is for us to have a strong national defense." Rumsfeld was given to such proclamations, at once sage and lacking in utility. The remark did not take on any added significance a few minutes after he uttered it, when a military aide handed Rumsfeld a Post-it note informing the secretary that some type of aircraft had apparently struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Eventually, after several helpless minutes on the parade grounds, Wolfowitz insisted to his aides that he be allowed to return inside. They escorted him to the National Military Command Center, in the basement. Rumsfeld was already there, along with Richard Myers, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They were discussing United Flight 93, which had just crashed "somewhere northeast of Camp David," according to the Air Force's Northeast Air Defense Sector. At issue was whether to elevate the nation's threat level to DEFCON 3. Jet fuel fumes had overtaken the entire building. The command center was filling up with senior Army personnel whose offices had just been destroyed. Reports were coming in-among them that an explosion had taken place outside the White House. Recognizing that Rumsfeld was sixth in line to the presidency, military officers anxiously informed the secretary that he needed to leave the Pentagon. Rumsfeld refused.
Wolfowitz saw their plaintive expressions. He murmured to his boss, "You and Myers should really get out of here."
Rumsfeld ignored him. After a few minutes, the deputy secretary tried again. Then a third time.
The secretary then snapped, "No, you've got to get out of here."
Wolfowitz and his senior military aide were ushered to the helipad. Hovering for a moment over the ghastly spectacle of the acrid plumes rising from the nation's defense headquarters, the helicopter then moved quickly, seventy-five miles in forty minutes' time, cityscape giving way to the deep green ridges of Appalachia. They touched down at the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, also known as Site R, six miles from Camp David on the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line.
It was not yet noon when the deputy secretary was led into the underground nuclear bunker. He was shown a room with cots. There was no computer for Wolfowitz to use, only landline phones. He tried to call his children, but the cell phones in the Washington, D.C., Beltway had ceased to function.
At that moment, the deputy secretary of defense knew little more than the rest of America did. Soon the nation would be at war. Within a year and a half's time, that war would expand dramatically-beyond Afghanistan, the country that had harbored the 9/11 attackers, to a country nearly 1,500 miles away, Iraq.
In the months and years that followed, it would be almost universally stated-or, rather, overstated-that Paul Wolfowitz was the "architect" of this fateful expansion. Two facts belie this characterization. First, the decision to invade Iraq was one made, finally and exclusively, by the president of the United States, George W. Bush-whom Wolfowitz had known for only the past two years, and not very well at that. Second, Bush made his decision without benefit of an architect's blueprint; and, to the extent that there was such a document, it was not one that Wolfowitz would have drawn up.
Still, it was Paul Wolfowitz who, more than perhaps any other American, had spent the past decade crusading for the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein-lending an otherwise beleaguered cause both intellectual brawn and moral ballast and, finally, a political path to realization. That same path would begin on September 11 with Wolfowitz's small error in judgment about an earthquake-and then, a few hours later, with him alone and in the dark, miserably sequestered somewhere inside a mountain, an early prisoner of war starving for information.
Late that evening, he would let the intelligence analysts back at the Pentagon know exactly what information he was seeking.
Outside the mountain, a country trembled.
The attacks had come when all was orderly and ordinary: a Tuesday morning, millions on the streets and in the offices of Manhattan under a lidless blue sky. The first plane, the one that plowed into floors 93 through 99 of the World Trade Center's North Tower, was an astonishing spectacle. New Yorkers stopped in their tracks to gape at it. Gray smoke poured out of the tower, progressively darkening. Fire truck sirens screeched from every direction. For sixteen minutes, the city remained baffled and shaken, but for the most part unafraid.
At 9:02 a.m., with millions of Manhattanites and nearly every television station around the world fixated on the flames leaping out of the North Tower, a second plane materialized from nowhere. Faster and lower than the first plane, it burst into the South Tower. In that instant, tragedy was unmasked as something far worse. Debris spewed out of the buildings. A man jumped from a window and hurtled one thousand feet.
The men and women charged with reciting the news of the day to TV viewers across America were at pains to convey meaning to the live images. Their sentences were spare and futile: "Oh, my goodness." "That's absolutely inexplicable." "It looks like a movie." "This looks deliberate, folks." "What we have been fearing here for the longest time has come to pass."
All traffic stopped. The subway trains stopped. Cell service stopped. The taxis disappeared. More bodies dropped out of the two flaming buildings. From the wreckage, hundreds upon hundreds of office workers staggered uptown or over the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, covered head to toe in ashes. Crying, screaming, the wailing of sirens. A monstrous white cloud rose up as the South Tower crumbled to the ground. Then the North Tower collapsed. New York's skyline was decapitated.
Meanwhile, reported sightings of the next calamity were spreading from coast to frenzied coast. Rogue jets screaming toward the White House and the Capitol. A car bomb detonating at the State Department. No visual images, no proof-perhaps they hadn't happened? But something had; and, it now seemed inevitable, something else would. Who would dare say otherwise? That wide-angle spectacle of a great city under siege was like a winged monster that had swooped down from the skies and swallowed up America's adolescent sense of imperviousness.
Now anything was possible.
The first time Paul Wolfowitz had ever been a witness to history, he was pulled to Washington rather than away from it. He was nineteen and a sophomore at Cornell University on the evening of August 27, 1963, and he had convinced fellow classmates to board a bus carrying mostly African Americans and drive all night from Ithaca to the capital. They arrived the next morning at the Lincoln Memorial. Standing in the back among nearly 250,000 strangers, Wolfowitz could plainly hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his ÒI Have a DreamÓ speech. Having recently read KingÕs ÒLetter from the Birmingham Jail,Ó the brilliance of his message that day did not astonish Wolfowitz so much as the oratorÕs elemental power. One man, it suddenly seemed to him, could make the earth tilt.
Wolfowitz's father had not particularly approved of this road trip. Though Jacob Wolfowitz was a Polish ŽmigrŽ whose family had been decimated during the Holocaust, he was also a disillusioned left-winger and leery of King's fellow travelers. As always, the young Wolfowitz listened respectfully to his mathematician father, then went his own way. He chose political science as his vocation. On campus he organized against fraternities that discriminated against blacks. At Cornell and later at the University of Chicago, Wolfowitz fell under the spell of Cold War-era academic giants-Allan Bloom, Albert Wohlstetter-and at some point during Reagan's presidency he decided that he was a Republican. In his fundamental conviction that governments should intervene to preserve social justice, however, he was and would remain, in his Cornell classmate Fred Baumann's words, "a bleeding-heart liberal."
After five years' worth of assignments in the Far East policymaking bowels of Reagan's State and Defense departments, Wolfowitz received his first plum assignment. In March 1986, he became the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, less than a month before Reagan was to visit the country for the first and only time in his presidency. Wolfowitz would later term it the best job of his life. It was not simply that the ambassador threw himself into Indonesian culture: learning the language with the help of his driver and with flash cards he took with him to interminable meetings; attending receptions for local authors; winning third place in an Indonesian cooking contest while his then wife, Clare, an anthropologist, took up Javanese dance. Indonesia was also his first experience as a Jew living in a predominantly Muslim country.
"Ambassadors are supposed to be careful about falling in love with the country," he later said. "But I admit that I did nevertheless. And it was partly because they're very hospitable and were very friendly to me, but mostly it was because I saw a remarkable religious tolerance, which, it was already clear to me at the time, was becoming a major issue for our era." At the same time, Wolfowitz could plainly see, in the wake of the toppling of the shah of Iran in 1979, the early stirrings of Islamic extremism. Even as the ambassador stood up for the rights of Indonesian journalists under the repressive Suharto regime, he worked quietly to send some of the country's young scholars to American universities so that they might gain exposure to moderate interpretations of Sharia law.
The job was also Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz's personal introduction to power. Unlike other diplomatic postings, where one's duties consist chiefly of chaperoning big-shot visitors, he had become the American face in Indonesia. Years after his assignment had come to an end, in 1991, a colleague would recall walking with him down the streets of Jakarta and seeing everyday Muslims flock to the Jewish public servant, exclaiming, "Mr. Ambassador! Mr. Ambassador!"
Recalled the colleague, "They revered him."
Though Wolfowitz would describe his three-year tenure in Jakarta as Òlife-changing,Ó it was his next job that began to define his career. In early 1989, he was confirmed as the George H. W. Bush administrationÕs undersecretary of defense for policy, the third most powerful position in AmericaÕs largest government agency. His new boss, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, admired WolfowitzÕs creative thinking. But another quality would make just as lasting an impression. As Cheney would recall more than a decade after he hired Wolfowitz, ÒHe was tenacious. Sometimes heÕd come in and IÕd throw him out. It never fazed him. HeÕd come back the next afternoon and hit you again. That was invaluable. He had enough conviction and enough self-confidence that even if heÕd come in and heÕd triggered a negative reaction from me, it didnÕt bother Paul.Ó
As it was for President Bush and Secretary Cheney, Wolfowitz's chief foreign policy preoccupation was the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and management of a new post-Cold War order. The invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi Army on August 1, 1990, had gone largely unforeseen by the intelligence community. On February 24, 1991, following months of diplomatic entreaties, and with the help of an international coalition of thirty-five countries that included armored divisions supplied by Syria and Egypt, Operation Desert Storm entered its ground assault phase and proceeded to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. One hundred hours later, Saddam Hussein agreed to a cease-fire.
At the time, the decision not to follow the retreating Iraqi troops into Baghdad, thereby allowing Saddam to remain in power, was not controversial. Secretary Cheney supported Bush's decision to withdraw. So did Undersecretary Wolfowitz. The widely held assumption was that the Iraqi dictator would surely not survive this international humiliation-particularly given that U.S. commanders had finished off the one-hundred-hour war by bombing every structure that had buttressed Saddam's power base, including Baath Party headquarters in Baghdad.
Wolfowitz was nonetheless horrified by what transpired within days of the cease-fire agreement. On February 15, 1991, days before the ground assault in Kuwait, President Bush had publicly urged "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." The long-oppressed Shiite majority took Bush's words to heart. They commenced an uprising near the southern city of Basra on the day of the cease-fire. The next day, March 1, Bush at a news conference repeated his earlier sentiment: "I've always said that it would be-that the Iraqi people should put him aside."
The undersecretary for policy argued to Secretary of State James Baker that the United States should do more than stage a pep rally for the insurrection-it should enforce a demilitarized zone in the south. The American commander of Desert Storm, Norman Schwarzkopf, maintained that such a plan lacked military value. Baker sided with his victorious general. A few days later, Saddam's military made use of the helicopters they had been permitted to keep in the cease-fire agreement, proceeding from the sky to massacre the dissidents by the thousands.