Securing the Nation
White House photo by Eric Draper
President George W. Bush was visiting Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., when he learned that an airliner had struck the World Trade Center. Among those with the president (second from left) at the school were (left to right) Capt. Deborah Loewer, U.S. Navy, director of the White House Situation Room, National Security Agency; White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett; Blake Gottisman, personal aide to the president; and Thomas Herman 75, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and senior presidential communications officer assigned to the White House.
By Leslie Bates
United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Herman '75 was one of a handful of people who were with President George W. Bush when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. A senior presidential communications officer, he is one of an elite and highly secretive team trained to protect the commander in chief and his ability to govern. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Herman, Marist Class of 75, was at the side of the president of the United States in Sarasota, Fla. A senior presidential communications officer assigned to the White House, LTC Herman was responsible for establishing communications between the U.S. commander in chief and his top officials and assisting with his evacuation during one of the most critical moments in the history of the American presidency.
The senior military officer on the presidents advance team to Sarasota, LTC Herman recalls the day clearly. President Bush had arrived in Sarasota in the late afternoon of Sept. 10 to speak about education initiatives the following day at Emma Booker Elementary School. After dinner, the president retired in lodgings on Longboat Key. The next morning LTC Herman went running with the president at a golf course not far from the presidents hotel. The presidential motorcade left the hotel around 8 a.m.
"Just as we were arriving at the school, I received a notification from our operations center than an airliner had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center," says LTC Herman, "and that Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice, the national security advisor, was requesting the president on the telephone."
"The motorcade stopped then and there at Emma Booker Elementary School and we got out of the vehicles." LTC Herman, Maj. Paul Montanus, the military aide to the president, and the Secret Service moved the president into a "presidential hold," an office that has "both secure and nonsecure communications," he says.
"We got the president to a telephone, a secure telephone. He spoke to Dr. Rice. Dr. Rice obviously informed him of what had transpired. At that time we didnt know that it was a terrorist attack. There was some question as to what did happen. In other words, we were aware that the tower had been struck but we didn't know it was a concerted action.
"We were notified again that the second tower had been struck," LTC Herman remembers. "When the president became aware that this appeared that it was a concerted effort and there was some question about the security of the homeland, he made a series of phone calls." LTC Herman and the White House Military Office set up calls to Vice President Richard Cheney, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Dr. Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft, among others. Then "there was a notification, obviously, that yes, it was a terrorist attack. He [the president] made a statement to the press and we departed."
As the motorcade was leaving the school, an airliner crashed into the Pentagon. "We made the decision to evacuate the president," LTC Herman says. "There was some question at the time that Air Force One and the president were a target as well. Therefore we evacuated the president back to the airport, where he departed immediately in Air Force One."
The White House Military Office is the agency responsible for securing the president's ability to function as America's chief executive and commander in chief. The WHMO provides the president's communications capability, transportation, medical care, and even his food. While the Secret Service is charged with protecting the president's actual body, it is the president's military aide, part of the WHMO, who directs any evacuation and the WMHO that executes his safe passage. The presidential communications officer, also part of the WMHO, is always with the president and is responsible for the command and control of the communications infrastructure surrounding the commander in chief.
Of the 25 current presidential communications officers, or PCOs, assigned to the WHMO, LTC Herman is one of only 10 who are "fully qualified." A fully qualified PCO has completed several years worth of specific work assignments and scenario-driven exercises and passed a series of rigorous written and oral examinations.
"We got him on the aircraft, I remained in Sarasota and we loaded another aircraft with all of the presidential limousines," says LTC Herman. He and other staff members loaded vehicles and other items on the second aircraft, a plane that normally would have been used only to carry people back to Washington. "We took all of the remaining members of the Secret Service, the limousines, another military aide and a bunch of equipment we had which I can't really discuss. Suffice to say I had a number of devices with me that we took on the aircraft, and basically we got airborne not too long after the president got airborne."
After almost four years as a PCO, LTC Herman is practiced at saying, "I can't talk about that." He will not even reveal the name of the security clearance that he holds although he admits it is the highest, "above top secret." Describing what he does in only the vaguest terms comes effortlessly to him. He has to get permission from the WHMO to be interviewed about Sept. 11 and to release photos of himself and the president that were taken that morning at the height of the crisis.
LTC Herman will not talk about where the second aircraft went, or why. "At the end of the day we wound up arriving at Andrews Air Force Base about 15 minutes after the president. Obviously we were in the air for a reason, for any contingency," he says. "Basically we could have gone to any city or county or location in the United States and landed and supported the president at that location."
"Obviously it became a special mission."
The procedures by which the White House military team executes emergency action are well-established, he notes. "We do this stuff for a living. We're prepared for it."
Despite the unprecedented situation, his team remained focused on its mission. "Everybody wanted to do their respective jobs... We were concerned with the safety and security of the president of the United States. We were also desirous to make sure that all our communications systems were optimized and that he had multiple means by which to communicate to whomever he wanted, instantaneously."
There was concern about the "follow-on missions" as well, he says. "Knowing we were eventually going back to Washington, D.C., we were thinking about how we were going to have to reconfigure our individual agencies to support the president if it was a wartime scenario. You know, when you're going from a peacetime scenario to a wartime scenario, things change radically. When I came back, I wound up going to work with two other lieutenant colonels in the operations center of our agency and worked 12 hours on and 24 off for about two weeks. We were basically working around the clock."
When the airliner hit the Pentagon, LTC Herman became concerned about his wife, who worked two miles from the Pentagon, and his children. At first he and his wife were unable to reach each other because phone lines were overwhelmed. Eventually each got word of the others safety through third parties.
Sept. 11 wasn't the first time LTC Herman had evacuated a president. In February 2000 fire broke out in the laundry room of a Washington, D.C., hotel beneath the room where President Bill Clinton was speaking. "At that point, you don't know if it's just a mishap, or if its a diversion, or if thats a threat to the president," LTC Herman says. "But clearly we were concerned, [and] the Secret Service was concerned. We were all concerned that the safety of the president of the United States was at risk, and the decision was made to evacuate him and bring him immediately back to the White House. And that's exactly what we did."
LTC Herman was chosen for the White House assignment in 1998 while serving at Fort Gordon, Ga., with the 63rd Signal Battalion. He began his military career in 1982 after a friend suggested he would be good material for the armed forces. An airborne infantryman commissioned as an infantry lieutenant, he went to airborne and special weapons training schools. By 1987 he was a communications officer and served with the 32nd Army Air Defense Command in Germany. In 1990 the Army sent him to graduate school at American University, where he earned a master's in TV production engineering. He later worked for the chief of staff of the Army in the Pentagon, went to Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was assigned to the 63rd Signal Battalion at Fort Gordon. Over his 20-year career he has been involved in a number of special operations overseas but won't discuss them.
Overseas assignments again became part of his job when he joined the WHMO. From August 1998 to February 2002 he traveled with the president for a total of 412 days on 51 trips, to Rabat, Geneva, New Delhi, Okinawa, Beijing, Warsaw, Ljublana, Lima and dozens of other cities across the United States and abroad. He has been present at meetings between the American president and other heads of state, including the summit of President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. While on duty he has slept in the White House, at Camp David and at the second White Houses of presidents Clinton and Bush.
Although he himself is a member of an elite military team, LTC Herman has high praise for those with whom he serves. "The best part of my job is that I get to deal with the very best men and women that you could ever work with," he says. "There are some fabulously talented people whom I work with really, really dedicated, unquestioned integrity. It's a great mission, it's a great agency, with the best people."
LTC Tom Herman was among those serving with dedication on Sept. 11. "I wasn't worried about what the overall national threat assessment was, what the international political atmosphere was," he says. "I was just focused on what my mission was, and what my job was, and leading my team, and that we as an organization would be successful in providing the services to the president that we provide especially at a time when the president is in communication with the highest levels of officials in our country. The president literally can't function in his constitutional role unless he can communicate, so it's absolutely critical."