DISA executive recounts pivotal moments on 9/11, pushes for Joint Operational Situational Awareness
By Dr. Anne Armstrong
Digital Communication Branch
Office of Strategic Communication and Public Affairs
September 9, 2022
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Joseph Wassel anticipated a normal workday in the Pentagon as the assistant to the secretary of defense for Communications. When he heard about the first airplane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City, he went to the 24/7 operations center to assess the situation and by the time he returned to his office, a second plane had crashed. Alarmed, he and his team began to mobilize. Shockingly, when the clock struck 9:37 a.m., the Pentagon itself was under attack from yet another aircraft.
Wassel immediately jogged to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office so quickly that he almost ran over the secretary as he rushed out of his own office. The two men attempted to follow the corridor until thickening smoke blocked their way. Turning to an exit, they walked into the bright morning sunshine on that otherwise beautiful day.
“It was a beautiful day, you hear that from everyone, but as soon as we got past the apex of the mall and the south entrances of the Pentagon, the heat from the crash almost knocked you down,” says Wassel, as he vividly recalls the sights and sounds that unexpectedly included small pieces of aircraft debris and cries for help.
In response to one voice, Wassel and Rumsfeld went to the aid of Ida Davis. They supported her as others lifted her in a gurney and tried to take her to safety. As Wassel reviewed his experiences, he made the insightful observation that in a situation like this “minutes matter,” and at this moment, he and the secretary felt they had a choice to make: Go to the Defense Information Systems Agency Headquarters nearby on South Court Street or return to the building.
The decision to return to the building led Wassel to “make his first call from the secretary of defense directly to the president without asking” and by 10:30 a.m. that morning, less than an hour after the aircraft hit the Pentagon, the National Security Council met.
Twenty-one years later, Wassel, now Cyberspace Operations executive, believes DISA’s role is to emphasize the need for Joint Operational Situational Awareness because during those fateful minutes after the strike, Wassel recalls several erroneous reports of other imminent attacks that distracted from the task at hand. In one case, someone said there was a bomb in the building; in another case, a person said there was an attack on Air Force One as the president moved from Florida to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. These distractions wasted critical time and effort.
Wassel emphasizes, “It’s not just enough to have the phones up or the computers working. What we [DISA] want people to have is JOSA, regardless of how they do that for themselves … from validated information sources.”
To drive a culture with an emphasis on JOSA, Wassel published his axiom Know Sooner, Understand Impact, Surge to Fix. Knowing sooner can help avoid or minimize threats to the network and enterprise services. JOSA is about getting in front of the knowledge power curve. He put into place the Command Net capability, an always-on, web-based presence on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, where the agency can see live, ongoing impacts to operations. He’s also put into place the Virtual Integrated Command Center, an always-on video feed where globally distributed teams can execute battle drills, bringing the collective talent of the agency together, to surge to fix. Wassel is fond of saying, “If we collaborated on September 10th the way we did on September 12th, could we have prevented September 11th?”
These experiences also led Wassel to start a 9/11 Trail that welcomes participants to travel to the four crash sites over several days, both in person and virtually. By visiting New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon in Virginia, the memory of the 2,977 lives lost on that day will live on through commemoration.
Wassel ensures that DISA’s JOSA role will also be part of that memory.
“It’s certainly not about me,” he says, “I did have an interesting bird’s-eye view to the Chief Executive Office of the largest corporation in the world for the 100 days after 9/11 and, again, the DISA IT communications effort all the way along.”
Through Wassel’s quick decision-making abilities and support from other brave men and women of DISA, 9/11 communication lessons can be found not just within the Cyberspace Operations Directorate at DISA Headquarters at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, but also at every DISA combatant command and field office Wassel leads throughout the globe.
Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to learn more about how DISA is strengthening the nation and warfighter communications.
Subscribe to receive the latest DISA news.
DISA: Trusted to Connect, Protect and Serve