A plane takes off from Washington Reagan National Airport on Sept. 11, 2020, as a large American flag is unfurled at the Pentagon ahead of ceremonies at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial to honor the people killed in the 2001 terrorist attack.

A plane takes off from Washington Reagan National Airport on Sept. 11, 2020, as a large American flag is unfurled at the Pentagon ahead of ceremonies at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial to honor the people killed in the 2001 terrorist attack. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Federal Agencies ‘Pause and Remember’ 9/11 on 20th Anniversary of Attacks

The attacks transformed the federal government, resulting in the creation of the Homeland Security Department and changing agencies’ missions and the presidential transition process.

As the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks approaches, federal agencies are commemorating lives lost and sharing how the tragedy impacted their missions. 

“The day America lost its innocence––September 11, 2001––is forever etched in my memory,” said Archivist of the United States David Ferriero, in a press release on August 30. “On a management retreat with my Duke Libraries senior staff, we watched as the second plane hit and then the collapse of the towers. Stunned silence, shock, tears and the realization that we, at last, were as vulnerable as the rest of the world. It is important that we, the holders of the federal government records documenting this event, pause and remember.”

Almost 3,000 people were killed as hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Virginia, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The victims included 125 civilian employees and military personnel at the Pentagon. A number of federal agencies also had offices in the World Trade Center Complex in New York, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Secret Service; U.S. Customs; the Internal Revenue Service; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the Export-Import Bank; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; and the Securities Exchange Commission. The Census Bureau had employees in an office a few blocks away from the Twin Towers. 

The attacks transformed the federal government as the United States embarked on the global war on terror that ultimately cost about $8 trillion and hundreds of thousands more lives, including those of U.S. troops and contractors. The Homeland Security Department and Transportation Security Administration were created, and agencies changed their surveillance and law enforcement tactics, sparking criticism over perceived privacy and civil rights violations. Findings by the 9/11 Commission led to sweeping changes to the presidential transition process in order to ensure continuity of government and security preparedness. 

The FBI said the September 11 attacks “led to far-reaching changes in the organization as it elevated terrorism to the gravest threat against the U.S,” in a post on August 26. 

“The attacks took the lives of nearly 3,000 people, and the crash sites represented the largest crime scene in FBI history,” the agency continued. “At the peak of the case, more than half of all FBI agents were at work to identify the hijackers and their sponsors and, along with other agencies, to head off any possible future attacks.” The post also features audio interviews with those who were on the scene in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. 

Other agencies are also marking the anniversary and reflecting on how the attacks altered their missions: 

The Pentagon is hosting an observance ceremony on Saturday morning. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III tweeted on September 1, “As we approach the 20th anniversary of September 11th, we’ll be remembering and sharing the stories of those who survived the attack on the Pentagon and still work here today.” Stories and remembrances can be read here. Also, the Defense Department announced on September 3 that renovations at the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, which opened in 2008, are now complete. 

The Veterans Affairs Department is hosting a series of events throughout the week to “recognize loved ones lost, loved ones injured and those forever changed by the tragic events” following the attacks. Also, “more than 60 VA national cemeteries will host a National Day of Service Friday, Sept. 10,” said a press release. 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' chief protocol officer “has been working hard to recognize all of those who lost their lives, were injured, their families, and the first responders,” April Langwell, ATF chief of public affairs, told Government Executive. “ATF has several dozen agents still active who responded to events on that fateful day at the various locations, many of whom are coming to our ceremony on 9/10. It’s also important to note that since, ATF lost three agents to 9/11-related cancers.”

The State Department will host a ceremony on Friday morning in which Secretary Antony Blinken and Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Amb. Bonnie Jenkins will participate, to remember and honor the lives lost. 

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and TSA Administrator David Pekoske will give remarks at a TSA ceremony for the 20th anniversary on Saturday, September 11. Also, “in honor of this solemn anniversary, the Department of Homeland Security has received a seedling from the Survivor Tree at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum,” said DHS in a statement. On Wednesday, Secretary Mayorkas planted the tree as a “living tribute” and was “joined by survivors, first responders, victim families and military veterans.”

Customs and Border Protection, created in 2003 as part of DHS, “is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks by highlighting the ways its operations have evolved over the past two decades,” through articles and videos, as it now is “one of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies with 60,000 dedicated employees,” said a post on Wednesday. 

General Services Administration Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a statement to Government Executive: “As we come together as a country in observance of the 20th anniversary of September 11th, the entire GSA community, past and present, remembers and reflects on the events of that day. I am humbled and inspired by the heroism, patriotism and resilience of the first responders and GSA staff on that day.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday launched a multimedia webpage to show how former and current staff responded to the attacks and assisted with recovery efforts. “The impacts from that event reached far beyond a single day,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, in a press release. “As we reflect on this event 20 years later, I hope that you will take the time to hear the personal stories from members of our FEMA community. I am proud to present their stories for everyone to see.”

The CIA tweeted on August 11, “As we approach the 20th anniversary of September 11th, check out our #AnsweringTheCall playlist to hear officers' stories about that day and their contributions to the hunt for [Osama bin Laden].” 

The World Trade Center Health Program, established in 2011 within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide medical monitoring and treatment for 9/11-related health conditions, will host community outreach events to pay tribute to the anniversary and provide information about eligibility and enrollment for the program. Also, top officials in the program will participate in an event hosted by Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and 9/11 Health Watch on September 9. Later this fall an online museum exhibit will launch to “feature information on 9/11 exposures and the emergence of WTC-related health conditions, the events and advocacy that established the WTC Health Program, and research achievements that have led to improvement in medical treatment and knowledge,” said the program. 

The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, first established in 2001 to provide compensation for individuals (or representatives of deceased individuals) who were physically harmed or killed as a result of the terrorist attacks, released a special report on Tuesday that outlines the history of the fund and features reflections from those involved over the years. Also, the fund hosted a panel discussion on Thursday on the "Impact of 9/11 Toxins 20 Years Later and the Federal Response."

The National Archives and the National Archives Foundation are hosting three virtual events between September 7 and 10 in commemoration. 

The National Park Service’s Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylanvia is putting on a series of events during the week leading up to September 11. 

Export-Important Bank acting President and Chairman James Burrow said in a statement to Government Executive: “Twenty years ago, EXIM shared in our country’s heartbreak as we watched the events of that day unfold, Although we were very fortunate that we did not lose any of our New York office colleagues at 6 World Trade Center, our entire agency—and all Americans—felt the anguish of the losses and suffering on that terrible day and in the years afterwards. Today, we remember the victims who died on 9/11 as well as the friends, family members and first responders who were impacted. We will continue to keep them close in our hearts.”

On September 3, President Biden issued an executive order directing the Justice Department and other relevant agencies to do a declassification review of documents related to the FBI’s 9/11 investigations and release as many as possible over the next six months. He and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to all three sites of the attacks on Saturday. Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will be at the sites at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. 

The anniversary comes as the government is still grappling with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in mid-August shortly before the United States completed its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan on August 31, ending an almost two-decade war. 

“I think anyone who can remember Sept. 11, 2001, can recall how seminal that event was in terms of the hearts and minds of the American people. That includes government employees, which I was at the time at the Pentagon, or the contracting workforce,” Stephanie Kostro, executive president for policy at the Professional Services Council, told Federal News Network on Wednesday. “Wars have been fought on all fronts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. And while we’ve had more than 7,000 service members unfortunately killed in action in these far off locations, we’ve also had over 8,000, or around 8,000 contractors killed.” 

This article has been updated with an additional event.