Campus political scientist is eyewitness to World Trade Tower attack
Faculty member advised Congress on terrorism, national security

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs



Associate Professor of Political Science Steve Weber witnessed the terrorism unfold in New York City Tuesday.
Peg Skorpinski photo

11 September 2001 | A campus expert on national security issues witnessed from a midtown Manhattan skyscraper early Tuesday the attack on the World Trade Center.

Associate Professor of Political Science Steve Weber — who last year worked on a blue-ribbon report to Congress on national security in the 21st Century — was "calmly working on my book" on the 16th floor of Rockefeller Center when news came of the attack on the trade center’s south tower. Weber ran to a south-facing window to get a view of lower Manhattan.

"We saw the whole thing from the distance," Weber recounted a few hours later from an Upper West Side apartment. "You see it happening, and you can’t believe it. You think it’s got to be a movie."

He likened the view to the East Bay Hills fire of 1991: "You look out and you see this huge, enormous cloud of smoke and mist enveloping the whole city. Normally the skyline is dominated by the World Trade Center. When I first looked out, both buildings were still standing. We thought a plane had accidentally flown into a building — an incredible tragedy, but it felt a little bit different.

"By the time I left Rockefeller Center, which was an hour later, both buildings had collapsed. We were told that as we were walking out."

On the street, he found that the New York City subway had been shut down. "I walked up to 89th and Central Park West. It’s a long walk. The sidewalks filled with people; it was quite a sight."

Weber said he was "watching the TV and freaking out a bit" when he learned later in the morning that United flight 93, en route from Newark to San Francisco, was hijacked and crashed near Pittsburgh. "My girlfriend took the same flight yesterday morning." He said he was supposed to fly back to the Bay Area to teach a Thursday class.

An expert in international relations, international political economy and national security, Weber served as an adviser on a study, commissioned by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, on U.S. national security in the new century.

The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century devoted considerable attention, Weber said, to homeland defense and terrorism.

"People talked a great deal about domestic terrorism," Weber said. But if anyone had suggested that four planes could be hijacked within a short period of time and flown into important buildings, no one would have seriously entertained the scenario. "It’s inconceivable; it’s never happened anywhere in the world," he said.

While a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was not surprising, Weber said, its scale and coordinated nature "probably shocked everyone."

"There will be a lot of people saying this is a huge failure of American intelligence," Weber observed. "What you don’t know is how many of these attacks have been prevented by ‘good’ intelligence. There’s a lot of people out there who want to do this kind of thing…. Maybe you can stop 99 out of 100.

"From a security perspective," said Weber, "one thing that all countries try to do — and the U.S. has been more successful than any other country — is making sure that wars get fought on someone else’s territory." While Europeans are familiar with war at home, he said, Americans have not experienced it since Pearl Harbor. "This is the first sign that war is being brought home to U.S. territory."

Weber called the attacks "an act of war… by a fairly sophisticated organization, whether that be a state or otherwise. It wasn’t a cell of five or six people…. It probably will be relatively easy to find out who did this. "


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