Chad Wolf, who headed the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration between 2019 and 2021, said the 9/11 attacks had a “lasting impact” on his life.
Wolf, who worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill on Sept. 11, 2001, recalled in an interview with Fox News how he watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television before being evacuated from the Capitol.
“We were soon evacuated out of the office building where we worked, and in the park next to that building I heard the Pentagon had been hit and soon after heard the sonic boom of one or two fighters that were going to intercept Flight 93,” Wolf said.
“That morning [of 9/11] is still pretty fresh for me and had a very lasting impact on what I wanted to do professionally,” he added. “I felt that the U.S. had obviously been attacked that morning and wanted to play a role in how we responded to that. Now, I didn’t predict DHS at the time but I knew there would be a response to it and that life was going to change accordingly. And if I could play some small role in that, that would be great.”
Wolf would go on to work on legislation creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). He worked in 2002 for that agency, which was eventually folded into the eventual Department of Homeland Security. Wolf later headed DHS in an acting capacity starting in Nov. 2019.
Wolf said there was a different mindset working at DHS in the early days of its formation compared to today.
“We thought we were going to be attacked again,” Wolfe said. “We didn’t know if it was going to be in the aviation context or in another avenue, but there was a lot of activity to try and get all the apparatus within the federal government that were looking to various parts of the security trying to get them talking and collaborating.”
As for threats to the homeland today, Wolf said those dangers have “evolved,” noting that in the immediate days after 9/11 there was a focus on transportation attacks and weapons of mass destruction, with less focus on cybersecurity.
“While the [foreign terrorist organization] threat is still there, adversaries like China and Russia, I think, are maybe more so today than they were back then as well,” Wolf said. “Cybersecurity, I think some of the transnational criminal organizations and the Mexican cartels … I think we have a better appreciation for how they impact the homeland and what they do to Americans everyday.”
“I will say that the ability for an FTO like al Qaeda or an ISIS to conduct an event here in the homeland has been diminished over the years since 9/11,” Wolf added. “So a lot of the concerns we had, particularly after the ISIS caliphate was defeated, was not necessarily how they could strike the homeland, but what we do about foreign fighters leaving the battlefield and going back to Western Europe and then reaching the U.S. So you put in different screening and vetting mechanisms with allies and partners, different things you do to address the threat.”
On the recent events in Afghanistan, with the Taliban retaking control of Kabul, Wolf cautioned it’s an “unknown issue of whether or not they’re going to allow terrorism to again reconstitute itself, provide a safe haven and, if they do — and all signs point that they will — then I think the ability for foreign terrorist groups to reach the U.S. becomes a real threat, much like it was after 9/11.”
Asked what he will be thinking about Saturday, 20 years since the attacks, Wolf said there are two things he always keeps in mind every Sept. 11.
“One is that there are evil individuals and bad actors that want to do Americans harm, and that’s the reality,” Wolf said. “We don’t need to sugarcoat it, we need to be upfront with the American people that there are bad people that would like nothing less than to travel to the United States and kill Americans, and we need to own that. We need to make sure we recognize that and put in appropriate defenses.”
Secondly, Wolf pays tribute to those at DHS and other agencies in the intelligence community and federal government who work to protect Americans from harm.
“There’s a lot of people that go to work every day trying to protect the homeland, and they don’t get a lot of recognition,” Wolf lamented. “We don’t talk about them a lot, we normally only usually talk about them when something bad happens. But there’s a great many patriot Americans who just want to go to work every day, do their job and protect the country. And I always like to think about them on 9/11 as well.”