Stewart Verdery had been out of the office for more than a week, after his days-old son contracted a respiratory infection and had to go back to the hospital. Weary and sleep-deprived, Verdery, then general counsel to Senate Republican Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, returned to work Sept. 11, 2001.
He started with an early morning meeting off the Capitol campus at La Colline, a now-shuttered restaurant near the Senate side, to discuss strategy for confirming some of then-President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
“Pagers started going off,” Verdery recalled, as news spread of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. “We all ran back to the Capitol.”
He and his colleagues, from their perch on the third floor of the Capitol, looked straight down the National Mall through open windows revealing the clear day.
“We heard the plane hit the Pentagon,” recalled Verdery, who now runs the lobbying firm Monument Advocacy. “It sounded like a very muffled, weird, strange muffled explosion. It wasn’t obvious what it was at first, but you could hear it.”
He didn’t realize it at that moment, but the woman who held his job before him — lawyer and conservative commentator Barbara Olson — was on that plane. She had phoned her husband, then-Solicitor General Ted Olson at the Justice Department, telling him of the hijackers. Word of Olson’s information spread to Nickles’ staff.
“Nickles comes out and tells us to get the hell out,” Verdery said. They feared, with good reason, that the Capitol could be a target, too.
Verdery drove to his home in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Va. But he soon went back downtown, as Nickles took meetings with Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
That evening, lawmakers gathered on the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America” in a show of bipartisanship. “I remember being there,” he said. “It was very moving. It’s hard to imagine that even happening now.”
In the months after that, Verdery recalls a crush of legislative wrangling — federal funding measures, an airline industry rescue, the Patriot Act — all focused on the aftermath of 9/11. “It was just frantic the next several months,” he said.
Those attacks would dominate his work for years. After leaving Capitol Hill for a brief stint in the private sector, Verdery went back to the government in the newly created Department of Homeland Security as assistant secretary for border and transportation security, a job that required Senate confirmation.
“DHS wasn’t nearly as partisan as you have now,” he said. “Almost all the officials got confirmed very fast.” Now, he notes, immigration has become divisive, making the department a subject of partisan fighting on Capitol Hill.
At DHS, he and other officials saw the potential for mass casualty terrorist attacks in all manner of ways: dirty bombs, ricin, airplanes. “So it seemed at the time, we had not a minute to waste to solve every vulnerability,” he said. He pulled 100-hour work weeks much of the time.
“It was brutal,” he recalled. In explaining what the department was about, he often invoked his location on the morning of the attacks that led to the new agency.
“Being able to say you were in the Capitol on 9/11 was a way I started off a lot of speeches,” he said. “It got people’s attention.”