Six Weeks in Autumn

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Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 27, 2002

Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh took his seat in La Colline restaurant on Capitol Hill and signaled for a cup of coffee. It was one of those standard Washington breakfasts, where politicos mix schmoozing and big ideas to start their days.

An intense foot soldier for Attorney General John Ashcroft, Dinh had been in his job for only a few months. He wanted to make a good impression on others at the session and craved the caffeine to keep his edge. As he sipped his fourth cup and listened to the patter of White House and Hill staffers, a young man darted up to the table. "A plane has crashed," he said. "It hit the World Trade Center."

Dinh and the rest of the voluble group went silent. Then their beepers began chirping in unison. At another time, it might have seemed funny. A Type-A Washington moment. Now they looked at one another and rushed out of the restaurant.

It was about 9:30 on September 11, 2001.

Dinh hurried back to the Justice Department, where the building was being evacuated. Like countless other Americans, he was already consumed with a desire to strike back. Unlike most, however, he had an inkling of how: by doing whatever was necessary to strengthen the government's legal hand against terrorists.

Jim Dempsey was sifting through e-mails at his office at the Center for Democracy and Technology on Farragut Square when his boss, Jerry Berman, rushed in.

"Turn on the TV," Berman urged. Dempsey reached for the zapper, and images came rushing at him. Crisp sunshine. Lower Manhattan glinting in the brilliance. A jetliner cutting through the scene.

Dempsey is a lanky and slow-speaking former Hill staffer who combines a meticulous attention to detail with an aw-shucks demeanor. Since the early 1990s, he has been one of the leading watchdogs of FBI surveillance initiatives, a reasoned and respected civil liberties advocate routinely summoned to the Hill by both political parties to advise lawmakers about technology and privacy issues.

As he watched the smoke and flames engulf the World Trade Center, he knew it was the work of terrorists, and the FBI was foremost in his mind. "They have screwed up so bad," he said to himself. "With all the powers and resources that they have, they should have caught these guys."

At the same moment, it dawned on him that his work--and the work of many civil liberties activists over the years to check the increasingly aggressive use of technology by law enforcement officials--was about to be undone. "We all knew well enough what it meant," Dempsey says now.

The car arrived at Sen. Patrick Leahy's house in Northern Virginia shortly after 9 a.m. The Vermont Dem-ocrat took his place in the front seat and, as the car coursed toward the Potomac, he read through some notes about the pending nomination of a new drug czar and thought about a meeting that morning at the Supreme Court.

Half-listening to the radio, Leahy heard something about an explosion and the World Trade Center. He asked the driver to turn it up, then called some friends in New York. They told him what they were seeing on television. It sounded ominous. The car continued toward the Supreme Court and a conference he was to attend with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and circuit court judges from around the country.


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