WASHINGTON - When the first airliner vaporized into the side of the World Trade Center, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, called a brief meeting in his office. He thought it was probably just a horrible accident, but wondered.
Then the second jet hit and the doubts vanished.
"I need the magic words to get all nonessential personnel off campus," he told his security staff, leaving it to their expert judgment.
After another plane struck the Pentagon, Hayden took matters into his own hands.
He ordered all but 4,000 of the 15,000 employees at the agency's Fort Meade headquarters to go home. There were concerns that other government buildings might be in danger.
If a plane were headed toward the spy agency, it threatened the very people he felt the country would need to figure out who was behind the attacks, Hayden said yesterday, in his first public account of his actions on Sept. 11 and the days after.
The 4,000 workers who stayed were shuffled out of high-rise offices into lower-profile buildings, he said.
The only tall building too important to evacuate was the one that housed the agency's counterterrorism section.
So at dusk Sept. 11, workers there, many of them Arab-American linguists who would work late into the night, hung light-blocking black curtains in the windows to make the building invisible in the night.
Hayden offered this account in a breakfast talk here to about 150 members of the American Bar Association.
He has avoided public appearances since the attacks, and his decision to accept a speaking invitation from a group of powerful Washington lawyers suggests that concerns about his safety are giving way to a desire to promote the agency's behind-the-scenes role in the war on terrorism.
It is a job Hayden knows well.
Though he gave a brief description yesterday of his activities in the days after Sept. 11, he spent much of the half-hour talk describing his efforts to rehabilitate the image of an agency that had long contented itself with, well, having no image.
The agency had found itself in particularly hostile territory in the late 1990s.
Criticism from all sides
Politicians were writing it off as a Cold War curiosity and cutting its budget and work force. Europeans were complaining about the NSA's alleged role in industrial espionage - something the agency flatly denies. A civil liberties group had accused it of plotting to eavesdrop on former President Jimmy Carter during his 1994 peace mission to Bosnia.
And Hollywood films were casting it as a band of secrecy-crazed, techno-geek killers. When Hayden took over as NSA director three years ago, the only thing many Americans knew about the agency was what they saw in the movies Enemy of the State and Mercury Rising.
In the first, rogue NSA agents assassinate a senator and then set about destroying the life of an innocent civilian who happened to see the killing. In the second, the agency trains its vast resources on bumping off an autistic, 9-year-old boy who has cracked a secret government code.
Yet more than ever, Hayden said yesterday, the NSA needed to be taken seriously, on both Main Street and Capitol Hill.
Today's security threats, he said, are more diverse, less predictable and more far-flung than the Cold War's.
"We needed more money and we weren't going to get it if the popular image of NSA was framed by the last Will Smith movie," he said, referring to the star of Enemy of the State.
So Hayden spoke at colleges and testified before Congress. He invited reporters to briefings and gave Nightline, 60 Minutes II and CNN an inside peek at the agency.
His approach cut against agency's culture of reticence. "It's not an instinctive characteristic of a signals intelligence agency to say, 'We can solve this problem by going more public,'" said Hayden, 57, speaking in his blue Air Force uniform in a ballroom at the University Club.
Letting the media into a spook shop whose initials once were jokingly said to stand for No Such Agency was "ticklish," he said. But he said many reporters were so pleased to have any access that they kept their swords sheathed.
"He said 'signals intelligence' on TV," said Hayden, mimicking a hypothetical reporter. "That was enough of a thrill factor."
Raising the profile
Sept. 11 forced Hayden to scale back his role as NSA pitchman, though in other ways the attacks gave the agency a profile it had lacked since the end of the Cold War.
The NSA and other intelligence agencies might well face Congressional hearings over their failure to foresee the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But they are also looking forward to proposed large budget increases and enjoying a surge in resumes from people passing up higher-paying jobs for what they see as a patriotic role in the war on terrorism.
Hayden would not answer reporters' questions yesterday about the agency's activities after Sept. 11. But he did discuss his own.
In front of yesterday's gathering of Washington lawyers and a few reporters, Hayden seemed to be suggesting to a wider audience that the agency would not use the war on terrorism as a pretext to relax privacy protections.
When the bulk of employees returned Sept. 13, he said, he got on the agency's closed-circuit television and read a message reminding them of the agency's delicate balancing of values.
"A free people have long had to decide where to plant the flag on that inevitable spectrum between security and liberty," Hayden said he told his employees.
"We have always planted it close to liberty. We will keep it there."