15 years later: FBI agent recalls nation’s greatest test
Most of us can appreciate that there was an America we knew before September 11, 2001, versus the country we know now. Two different places separated by a few short, horrific hours that changed everything.
Louis Bladel, a 1989 criminal justice sciences graduate and 2015 College of Applied Sciences and Technology Hall of Fame inductee, knows well the new reality that Americans face.
As an FBI special agent and a career federal law enforcement officer, he also knows how the bureau has been forced to rethink the way it does business in the 15 years that have followed the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.
“Now we reach out to our partners when we don’t know something about a particular group,” Bladel said. “That really didn’t happen enough prior to 9/11. There were walls set up by design between agencies.”
The bureau’s priorities have shifted from a focus on organized crime and drug trafficking toward counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and cybercrime. The interagency spirit of collaboration is the most significant turn he has witnessed.
“It used to be your agency stayed in their lane, but now there’s a lot of cooperation,” Bladel said. “The cross-lane cooperation has been greatly enhanced. That cooperation is something to be proud of. We’ve done a very good job with that.”
It’s a philosophy that extends beyond domestic borders and U.S. agencies—the FBI, CIA, and the National Security Agency—to friendly foreign partners, Bladel said. That list includes “the Brits, the Canadians, the Aussies, and the New Zealanders.”
The change is welcomed by Bladel, who began his law enforcement career in 1989 as a special deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service in the Eastern District of Virginia. From there he moved to a special agent position with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, widely known as NCIS.
He’s been with the FBI since 1996, serving in New York City and primarily in Washington, D.C. He’s also had temporary assignments in Guam and Kenya. His current position is special agent in charge of the counterintelligence division of the New York field office.
Bladel was living in Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, but he had no intention of going to the office that day. “My youngest son was born on September 6, and we brought him home on September 10,” he recalled. “My plan was to spend time with my 1-year-old son and my new baby, take a couple of weeks off.”
With the baby’s days and nights mixed up, his exhausted parents didn’t fall asleep until 7 a.m. It was a phone call from Bladel’s hometown in Illinois that made him aware of the crisis.
“My mom called from Rock Island and asked if we’d seen the news, and we hadn’t,” Bladel said. Once he’d heard what was going on, he felt it was his duty to get to the FBI’s field office in Lower Manhattan.
“The debris and smoke were unreal,” he said of the scene as he made his way deeper into the city. “By the time I got to Canal Street, the second building came down. No one thought those buildings would come down.”
The World Trade Center towers were just blocks from his FBI office, where his official car was parked in a nearby garage. He made his way into the city with the help of his local barber, who operated the shop below his apartment.
“I hitchhiked down to Lower Manhattan,” Bladel said. Two rides later from two different truck drivers put him close enough to walk the rest of the way. A trip that would take 20 minutes on a normal day had taken an hour.
As he neared his office, six blocks from ground zero at Broadway and Worth Street, the chaos built.
“There were probably 1,000 sirens going off—probably more, if you think about it—down in Lower Manhattan,” Bladel said. “I remember seeing parents freaking out looking for their kids at daycares, rightfully so.”
His own plans to stay home with his new son had faded.
“I worked from noon to midnight until January—and that was the whole office, not just me,” Bladel said. “But that’s no big deal. If you can’t get motivated by this, then you shouldn’t be in the FBI.”
About 50 agents managed to get to the office to run down leads, but there wasn’t a lot they could initially do, Bladel admitted. With about five years on the job at the time, he laughs at the thought that he was one of the more senior agents.
Once both towers fell, Lower Manhattan shut down. That included the FBI offices, which had lost phone service. Finding alternate office space was paramount. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which is a massive complex aboard the Intrepid aircraft carrier, became home for the FBI for several weeks.
“We set up shop on board the Intrepid because it was defendable. We didn’t know if the attacks were done,” Bladel said. “We had boats out back in the harbor to protect us, barricades out front. It was seat-of-the-pants as you can imagine, but we could defend it if we needed to.”
There was also a McDonald’s nearby that could help feed what is the FBI’s largest office, with 1,300 agents and 1,200 support staff. After about a month, the FBI moved again, this time to its garage on the West Side Highway and worked there until November.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Bladel was assigned to an investigative response squad that focused on pending international terrorist threats to the New York City area.
By 2002 he was promoted to a supervisory special agent position in the Eurasian Section at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he worked on counterintelligence and espionage investigations.
He’s spent the bulk of his career since working out of Washington, but as of October 2015, he’s back in the New York office, where his duties are wide ranging.
“We focus on counterespionage, counterproliferation, and counterintelligence,” he said.
Counterespionage, according to Bladel, is defined as catching spies. Counterproliferation means “keeping weapons and weapon technologies from Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea,” he said. Counterintelligence is all about “neutralizing foreign intelligence officers who target U.S. technology and people in positions of trust.”
Like all Americans, he has not forgotten that September day when the world changed. He said people don’t realize how many threats there are that don’t usually amount to much.
And he’s still bolstered by something that happened in those long workdays that came right after the attack, something that reminded him why people still come to the United States to seek a better life.
The FBI was inundated with phone calls about “suspicious-looking individuals” who were often termed suspect only because of the color of their skin or because they appeared to be from a foreign country.
“But we checked them all out,” Bladel said. Those 12-hour days spent interviewing people from across cultures renewed his faith in America because he saw individuals who had sacrificed to be in America.
Now, more than a decade after the attack, Bladel sees a shift in attitude across the country. World terrorist attacks are raising suspicions of some ethnic groups again within the U.S. At the same time, he sees less urgency from citizens who now resist steps for official monitoring.
“Regarding American life, I think soon after 9/11 there was a significant change in how the average American viewed their privacy as it pertained to electronic/mobile communications,” Bladel said.
“Most people were willing to sacrifice privacy to ensure they were safe. After 15 years, it seems people are less willing to sacrifice privacy.” He cited as one example the legal battle between the FBI and Apple, which he called a healthy debate.
Despite all that he’s witnessed in more than 25 years of federal law enforcement, Bladel remains optimistic about the strength of America going forward.
“The good news is we live in a country where the legislative branch—meaning the people—will ultimately decide, like they did right after 9/11 when the enhanced surveillance laws were enacted,” he said. “The FBI is not a political organization, thankfully. We just need to know what the rules are so we can use all lawful tools available to pursue our investigations.”