Oprah: Were you the first person to call the president after the September 11 attack?
Condoleezza: Yes. I was at my desk in the White House at around 8:45 when my executive assistant came in and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought, "What a strange accident." I called the president and said, "Mr. President, a plane hit the World Trade Center." And he said, "What a weird accident." Around nine, after I went to a staff meeting, my assistant handed me a paper that said a second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I thought, "My God, this is a terrorist attack."
Oprah: Was that your first thought?
Condoleezza: Yes. I went into the Situation Room and began trying to gather the National Security Council principals for a meeting, but Colin Powell was in Latin America. I remember thinking, "Is he in danger?" Then I turned to see a television report of a plane hitting the Pentagon. There was also a false report that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. Moments later someone came up and said, "Get to the bunker. The vice president is already there." Before I left, I talked to the president again about whether he would come back to the White House. We didn't want him to because Washington was under attack. When I got to the bunker, it occurred to me to call my aunt and uncle in Birmingham and say, "Tell everybody I'm okay." Then I began calling other governments to make sure they knew the U.S. government was up and running, and I began tracking plane tail numbers so we could ground civil aviation.
Oprah: Did you feel personally threatened?
Condoleezza: It didn't occur to me to feel threatened. Maybe I felt threatened subconsciously, because I called my family. But I just felt like we had a lot to get done.
Oprah: I'm sure those of you in high places were aware that something like this could happen.
Condoleezza: We had been doing a lot of work in the administration on the Al Qaeda network because they'd caused several incidents before, like the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa. So we knew there was the possibility of an attack, but I think we'd always assumed it would be abroad—that had always been our experience.
Oprah: Is there part of you that thinks we should have known more?
Condoleezza: No. We have excellent intelligence. The problem is that you have to be able to put together intelligence information in a particular way, and there wasn't anything that led us to put it together in this way.
Oprah: Is that because of what some would call American arrogance—the feeling that we cannot be touched on our own territory?
Condoleezza: I don't think it was arrogance but a lack of experience with this kind of thing. What was shocking is the degree to which our openness was turned against us. The weapons were commercial air flights, and these were people who came in on legal visas. The very openness that we have to protect as Americans was turned against us—and that was hard to deal with.