3 Alumni Who Responded After 9/11

Tom Donilon ’84, Aaron Zebley ’96 and Fred Fielding ’64 Played Roles Following Attacks
White House national security team

In the White House Situation Room, President Barack Obama and his national security team, including National Security Advisor Tom Donilon ’85 (standing second from left), watch a live feed from an unmanned drone during the attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Photo by Pete Souza

September 8, 2021

Twenty years ago on Saturday, hijackers affiliated with the extremist group al-Qaida seized control of four U.S. flights. Two of the suicide missions leveled the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, while a third blew a burning hole in the side of the Pentagon. Passengers successfully fought back in a fourth hijacked plane, resulting in the plane’s downing in a Pennsylvania field. Everyone on board the planes died.

The attacks claimed nearly 3,000 lives that day, and eventually led to wars in Afghanistan, from which the U.S. withdrew in August, and in Iraq.

Three alumni of the University of Virginia School of Law played significant roles in the ensuing U.S. response. Tom Donilon ’85, Aaron Zebley ’96 and Fred Fielding ’64 are among the many public servants who served their nation when asked to help after 9/11.

The Mission To Capture or Kill Osama bin Laden

Arms crossed in front of official seal of the United States, Tom Donilon ’85 was immortalized at the center of the famous photo shot in the White House on May 1, 2011 — the day Seal Team Six killed Sept. 11 orchestrator Osama bin Laden.

Tom Donilon
Tom Donilon ’85 speaks at the Law School in September 2016.

Donilon, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser at the time, was flanked by other top-level officials in the small chamber, one of several meeting spaces comprising the Situation Room.

In the photograph, Obama is pictured leaning forward, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton covers her mouth.

The moment captured apparently didn’t coincide with the timing of bin Laden’s demise, but the photo reflects the intensity of the day’s events, and Donilon’s omnipresent hand in affairs. Obama considered the strike his most important day as executive and commander-in-chief.

At a Rose Garden ceremony in 2013, the president praised his outgoing adviser as someone who “shaped every single national security policy of my presidency.”

Donilon is currently chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute.

The Zacarias Moussaoui Conviction

Aaron Zebley
Aaron Zebley ’96

Former FBI agent Aaron Zebley ’96 was among the investigators who compiled and presented evidence that convicted Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person to be tried and subsequently imprisoned for the 2001 attacks.

Moussaoui’s 2005 conviction on six felony charges resulted in a sentence of life in prison. Investigators didn’t fully understand his conspiratorial role when they arrested him a month before the attacks. A flight school had notified the FBI after Moussaoui drew suspicion, and the FBI charged him for being in the United States illegally.

Zebley testified in an Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom that if Moussaoui had cooperated with investigators’ questions that August, the FBI could have recognized the significance of a wire transfer from one of al-Qaida’s 9/11 planners, and that money trail would have changed the course of events a month later.

“We could have set about finding [the eventual attackers], obviously,” Zebley said in court, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times.

His testimony walked through phone numbers and wire transfer control numbers in Moussaoui’s possessions at the time of his arrest, and how they could have revealed the U.S. locations of several 9/11 hijackers, which led the agency's investigation of the 9/11 attacks.

Just after the attacks, Zebley became one of the lead investigators on the FBI’s PENTTBOM team, which led the agency’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks. He had previously investigated the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa by al-Qaida operatives. Later, he served as a terrorism prosecutor and as chief of staff for the FBI.

Still, Zebley may be better known to many as the long-time colleague of Robert S. Mueller III ’73, who became director of the FBI shortly before the attacks happened. Mueller tapped Zebley as deputy special counsel in the investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election. The two WilmerHale law firm partners recently teamed up with others on a Law School course on the subject.

The 9/11 Commission Report

Fred Fielding
Fred Fielding ’64

In 2004, the 10-member commission looking into the failures that allowed terrorists to attack the United States released the report that laid bare the facts: failures of intelligence and imagination prefaced the hijacked flights.  

Fred Fielding ’64, who served as White House counsel for two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, was among those who served on the bipartisan 9/11 Commission to fully investigate what went wrong and make recommendations for moving forward. The report’s findings influenced how we travel and led to the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center.

Fielding has opined that, given the partisan divide even at that time, the commission seemed destined to fail — but it didn’t.

“Regardless of each commissioner’s preconceived judgments and even the public positioning of some commissioners during the hearings and in the information-gathering phase of our work, the final report we submitted was the result of serious, objective, non-partisan evaluation of the facts,” Fielding wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post on 9/11’s 10-year anniversary.

Fielding worked under the commission’s executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, a lawyer who had served on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff and who was director of the Miller Center at the time he was called to lead. Zelikow is now a history professor at UVA.

Most recently, Fielding was counsel to President Donald Trump’s transition team.

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