Washington, DC – On the cloudless morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Marcel Lettre and a few coworkers at their Park Avenue management consulting firm in New York began hearing that the nearby World Trade Center was on fire. Lettre went to the southwest side of the building where six others were gathered in an office with a view of the two towers.
“The two plane crashes had already occurred and the buildings were burning against a blue clear sky,” he wrote in notes to himself shortly after that day. “Once people explained to me that it had been two separate passenger planes, and with the weather being so beautifully clear, it seemed clear that there was no air traffic error.”
As he tried to call family members, an image of the Pentagon joined images of the towers on fire on a television screen in the office and they heard an announcement that the Federal Aviation Administration had grounded all planes nationwide. Soon a huge ball of smoke and glass exploded from one of the WTC buildings and Lettre and his coworkers realized the whole structure was collapsing.
Thinking there would be hundreds of casualties, Lettre, a former emergency medical technician with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Maryland, changed clothes and hit the streets to look for ways to help. Eventually he joined up with some New York Fire Department EMTs and they headed for the twin towers.
“On the street approaching the trade center area were perhaps a dozen fire vehicles — engines, a ladder truck, command Suburbans — that appeared at least temporarily abandoned. Some appeared fully out of commission with windows blown out, twisted pieces of metal, steel I-beams and large pieces of cement on top of them, everything completely blanketed in gray dust,” he wrote.
“So much [dust] covered the interior of a few police cars that they looked like they were cement sculptures of cars. Some of the doors were left open and some tires were blown. A city bus, abandoned, had lit up its emergency notice, ‘emergency … call police’ — a scrolling banner across the front.
“There was little sound — the dust, like snow, muffling all sound. Mixed in with the dust, thousands of sheets of white office paper were littered everywhere so that you were constantly walking on it, my leather-soled shoes alternately kicking up soft dust and then scraping across the dusty paper.
“In our minds,” Lettre wrote, “we were looking for some command center to report in to, or a triage facility, or someplace where people were treating patients … The [building] collapse had been a shocking and operationally paralyzing event to those initial responders, I realize in retrospect.”
15 Years Later
Today Lettre is the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the fourth person to hold the position. Nominated by President Barack Obama, he is Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s principal intelligence advisor. Lettre oversees the $17 billion military intelligence program across the defense intelligence components.
He’s also director of defense intelligence in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and DoD’s principal interface with the CIA and other intelligence community elements. He represents the department on intelligence and sensitive operations at the National Security Council.
Lettre says his work in public service and in the intelligence community arose directly from the events of that day in 2001.
“The experiences of 9/11 fundamentally influenced my career and have every day since,” he said in a recent interview with DoD News.
Before 9/11 he’d worked for a short time on foreign policy issues and around counterterrorism, but had decided to shift his career focus and spend some years in the private sector.
“When 9/11 happened, in the days and weeks to follow, I felt this incessant tug to come back into service in some form, as did as did thousands of others,” Lettre said. “So for me, there was a real sense of calling. Those events compelled me to try to find a way to serve back in foreign policy and [they] continue to motivate me and my service in foreign policy and the defense arena to this day.”
Threat of Terrorism
Lettre says he was one of millions of people who learned that day how powerfully negative a challenge terrorism is and how important it is for the United States to have a national and international effort focused on addressing the threat.
“It was brought home to millions that day that this was not a threat that existed in far-off places with no impact on the United States and some of our traditional allies, but that it could affect all of us at home as well,” he said.
The national effort that the nation then began — to work its way through how to counter the destructive threat of terrorism and how to address it at its root causes — was the big lesson taken away from the tragedy of that day, Lettre added.
“In the 15 years since 9/11, we’ve been … transforming our intelligence community to be more effective, and the single greatest dynamic that we’ve pursued in a more effective intelligence community is jointness or integrated effort, across the 17 organizations that make up the U.S. intelligence community,” he explained.
On 9/11, as the 9/11 Commission and others who studied those events concluded, the intelligence community had challenges pulling together a coherent intelligence picture that could warn the nation tactically and strategically, Lettre said, so most resulting efforts have focused on effectively integrating intelligence more seamlessly into operations.
“I think we’re far better positioned than we were in being able to do our part to protect the nation,” he said. “That said, there’s still a lot to do and the threats we face change every week and every month and we need to constantly be challenging ourselves to be vigilant about how to adapt and innovate to try to stay ahead of those threats and challenges.”
Lettre added, “I think we’re safer but not safe,” noting that Defense Secretary Ash Carter “has referred to counterterrorism in some ways less as a challenge and more as a condition that we will be facing in a multiyear way.”