Remembering 9/11: Adm. James Loy

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Adm. Loy was commandant at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. He became commandant of the Coast Guard in May 1998 and served through May 2002. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Telfair Brown.
Adm. Loy was commandant at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. He became commandant of the Coast Guard in May 1998 and served through May 2002. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Telfair Brown.

In remembrance of the 9/11 attacks, Coast Guard Compass interviewed Adm. James Loy, 21st commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. As commandant during the 9/11 attacks, part of the transition team that launched the Department of Homeland Security and a senior official at the newly-formed DHS, Loy holds a unique perspective on the Coast Guard and the impacts 9/11 had on the service.

Coast Guard Compass: The Coast Guard is credited with securing the nation’s ports in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the events that day had an impact on the way the Coast Guard viewed port security moving forward. What did we do right in response to the attacks?

Adm. James Loy: Well I think the most important thing we did right, or do right I would say, is a constant; the Coast Guard’s greatest strength is it’s multi-mission character. It’s agility and adaptability, in both people and hardware – ships and planes.

Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma controls vessel traffic in New York Harbor Sept. 15, 2001.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Brandon Brewer.
Coast Guard Cutter Tahoma controls vessel traffic in New York Harbor Sept. 15, 2001. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Brandon Brewer.

On 9/11 we probably woke up that morning doing maybe three percent of our appropriated capabilities as an organization focused on port security or maritime security. But I would say within 24 hours we were probably dedicating as much as 30 percent of our appropriated capability to port security and maritime security simply because that’s what the nation needed us to do.

Performance is always the bottom line. At the other end of the day, does the organization do what the country expects it to do? And I think we have had a couple of absolutely resounding ‘yes’ answers to that question. First, with the New York Harbor challenges of 9/11 itself where we took 500,000 people off the south end of Manhattan to safety and that was just the Coast Guard and the whole maritime community of the Port of New York and New Jersey, standing up and recognizing what needed to be done. Coast Guard provided the leadership; we grabbed the Staten Island Ferry, the tour boat that goes around the Statue of Liberty and anything else that floated. But people don’t know that story, really. You know, the pictures on T.V. were all about folks streaming north on foot and running over the Brooklyn Bridge; I remember them vividly. And at the same time, we had rallied the wherewithal to take a half a million people, scared and frightened to death, through the Battery and off the southern tip of Manhattan. That’s an extraordinary story, as is the story of saving 33,000 lives in Katrina.

So one of the organization’s great, great strengths is the ability to shift gears from mission ‘X,’ ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ towards the mission of great consequence of the moment. And that’s precisely what we did. We re-routed ships, we re-routed aircraft. We focused the command structure on closing the ports as necessary, or coping with securing the ports as necessary.

Compass: How important was it for the Coast Guard to be a part of the then newly-formed Department of Homeland Security? What specific experiences or expertise did Coast Guard personnel and Coast Guard leadership bring to the table?

Loy: I can say from the perspective of having been the deputy standing up the new department, it was absolutely astonishing how much the ethos and the example that the Coast Guard set day in and day out, represented precisely what Governor Ridge and I were trying to build at the new department. I can’t tell you how often he personally commented on the excellence of the Coast Guard and their planning process for what they get out of the taxpayers dollar. There was time and time again where he looked to the Coast Guard as the best example possible of the kind of department he was trying to build.

Clouds of smoke billow out of the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Telfair Brown.
Clouds of smoke billow out of the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Telfair Brown.

And I remember vividly how many times I picked up the phone, called the commandant [Adm. Collins] and asked him, “Sir I need just one more good commander. Can you send somebody over here to help me build an ‘X,’” whatever the ‘X’ was that day. And so we had Coast Guard officers and senior members of the civilian cadre as well, come over and help us put together the things that were really, really important for getting the department off the ground.

I’ll never forget those phone calls, and never once did the commandant say no. Never once did the commandant even wonder out loud whether it was something that he ought to be bothered with that day. The service was just extraordinary in helping us staff and put into place those elements that really make a cabinet level agency kick. Bringing them to life and making it happen, the Coast Guard did an extraordinary job.

Compass: We of course don’t have the ability to change what has already happened, but each time we take on a mission there is something we can learn from our shortcomings. In hindsight, what could we have done better?

Loy: I think it goes back to institutionally, what could we have done better; you know as an organization, as an institution, as part of the greater fabric of the country. When you really look back on it, I have to look back on that 12-year period between 1989, when the wall came down in Berlin and the Soviet Union imploded in 1989. As a country, and our piece of that action as a Coast Guard, as a service, I’m not sure we paid enough attention to what we were calling the asymmetric array of threats.

What it meant was, what’s the next big thing going to be? If the Cold War is now over, what is the next big thing that’s going to jump off this list of concerns? Is it going to be an AIDS epidemic? Is it going to be a flu epidemic? Is it going to be terrorism? Is it going to be some extrapolation of a drug war? There was a number of those kind of things on the list and we as a nation, and sort of we as a service, probably didn’t spend enough time really scrutinizing; now, that question got answered in spades on 9/11; that terrorism was in fact the next big thing and of course we now have a decade of activity to show for that.

Compass: Thank you for spending time to interview with us today, Admiral. Do you have any last comments?

Loy: From an old sea dog who used to have the chair, I continue to watch day in and day out the extraordinary performance of my old Coast Guard, which is now Adm. Papp’s new Coast Guard. I continue to be amazed, so thanks for what you guys are doing for our country.

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