As explained yesterday, instead of writing about the September 11 attacks themselves I want to look back at the initial reaction of the Bush Administration and the nation. (Note: all times given must be approximate, as no two sources seem to have exactly the same times.)
Some parts of the initial reaction have been written about copiously — the famous seven minutes, for example. However, I’m going to skip over the familiar stuff to look for things less pawed-over. Over the next few days I also plan to compare some initial news stories written five years ago with the corrected information that trickled out later. Over time, some peoples’ stories, um, changed.
Collective memory of the September 11 attacks has shrouded President Bush in a rosy glow of heroism and purpose. Looking back, however, I am struck by how much he actually resembled his detached and bumbling post-Katrina self.
For example, it’s remarkable how much confusion still surrounds what should be a simple, straightforward fact — when was President Bush first told about the attacks? According to the Cooperative Research Complete 911 Timeline, various people in the President’s motorcade and reporters waiting at Booker Elementary School learned about the crash of Flight 11 before the President arrived. The initial official story, however, was that President Bush was not told about the first crash until after he was inside the classroom. Over the next few months other versions of the story would trickle out — according to the timeline, several people later claimed to have told the President about the first crash before he entered the classroom. The President himself later said he saw the first crash on television before he entered the classroom, but the first crash wasn’t shown on television that soon.
In an essay separate from the timeline, Allan Wood Paul Thompson of Cooperative Research painstakingly pulled together newspaper stories and other documentation to examine the President’s actions on September 11 (be sure to read the entire essay; lots of juicy bits):
Official accounts, including the words of Bush himself, say Bush was first told of what was happening in New York City after he arrived at the school. [Telegraph, 12/16/01, CBS, 9/11/02] However, this statement does not stand up to scrutiny. There are at least four reports that Bush was told of the first crash before he arrived at the school.
The first media reports of Flight 11â€™s crash into the World Trade Center began around 8:48, two minutes after the crash happened. [New York Times, 9/15/01] CNN broke into its regular programming at that time [CNN, 9/11/01], though other networks, such as ABC, took a few more minutes to begin reporting. [ABC, 9/14/02] So within minutes, millions were aware of the story, yet Bush supposedly remained unaware for about another ten minutes.
This detail is important because, as we now know, the crisis unfolded for some time with no centralized direction from the President or anyone else in the Administration. NORAD, the FAA, various air traffic control towers, and other governmental agencies were on their own to figure out what was happening and how to work together to manage the emergency. As this timeline makes clear, the result was chaos. Initial news stories to the contrary, the President was mostly out of touch all day. Vice President Cheney presumed to take charge without the constitutional authority to do so, yet he was unable to orchestrate anything resembling a coordinated response. His order to shoot down hijacked planes was issued ten minutes after the last hijacked plane had crashed. Several accounts of the day report that, eventually, some mid-level managers in various agencies finally took charge and begin issuing the orders they weren’t getting from the Bush Administration.
Wood and Thompson document that, even if the President was not informed of the first attack while in the motorcade — which is doubtful, considering that people riding with him were informed — he was told by several people as soon as he arrived, before he entered the school. Yet The Decider made the decision to continue with the planned photo-op instead of attend to the crisis.
In the first half hour after the attacks, Bush White House officials and staff demonstrated several traits I wrote about much later — they are utterly flummoxed by unexpected events; they can’t communicate with each other; and it’s often not clear who’s in charge. The one thing you can count on is that, in case of emergency, the person in charge won’t be the President. In fact, his staff often seems determined to protect him from unexpected events. He is often the last to be told what is going on. (This is pretty standard “enabling” behavior. By many accounts the President flies off the handle when he’s told bad news; thus, his staff has been conditioned to avoid telling him bad news until the absolute last minute.)
However, in this case one suspects he was told right away. The multiple stories about when were, I believe, meant to cover up the fact that the President initially failed to recognize the situation as one that required a president’s attention.
Eric Alterman wrote [emphasis added],
That fateful morning, Bush was visiting the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. The moment he learned of the attacks is a matter of deep dispute. CIA chief George Tenet was informed of the first crash almost immediately and is reported to have remarked to his breakfast companion, former Senator David Boren, “You know, this has bin Laden’s fingerprints all over it.” But the President’s aides maintain that he was not told about the attack for more than fifteen minutes, well after viewers saw the first building engulfed in smoke on CNN, and even after he interrupted his schedule to take a call from Condoleezza Rice upon leaving his limousine, after the first crash took place.
The various accounts offered by the White House are almost all inconsistent with one another. On December 4, 2001, Bush was asked, “How did you feel when you heard about the terrorist attack?” Bush replied, “I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower–the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, well, there’s one terrible pilot. I said, it must have been a horrible accident. But I was whisked off there. I didn’t have much time to think about it.” Bush repeated the same story on January 5, 2002, stating, “First of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought it was pilot error, and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake….”
This is false. Nobody saw the jetliner crash into the first tower on television until a videotape surfaced a day later. What’s more, Bush’s memory not only contradicts every media report of that morning, it also contradicts what he said on the day of the attack. In his speech to the nation that evening, Bush said, “Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans.” Again, this statement has never been satisfactorily explained. No one besides Bush has ever spoken of these “emergency plans,” and the mere idea of their implementation is contradicted by Bush’s claim that at the time, he believed the crash to have been a case of pilot error.
We’ve all seen the video of Andy Card walking into the classroom to whisper into President Bush’s ear about the second crash into the WTC towers. As I remember it viewers originally were allowed to believe this video shows Bush being informed of the first crash. John Ibbitson wrote for the Globe and Mail (September 12, 2001):
Mr. Bush was reading to a group of schoolchildren at Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., yesterday morning when an aide whispered to him word of the first attack on the World Trade Center.
For some reason, Secret Service agents did not bustle him away. Instead, within minutes, even before the attack on the Pentagon, the President made a statement to reporters, promising “to hunt down and to find those folks that committed this act. Terrorism against our nation will not stand.”
Esther Shrader reported for the Los Angeles Times [“U.S. Command Takes Wing Amid Chaos,” September 12, 2001]
For a few minutes, however, before the enormity of the attack was clearly known, the president tried to stick to his schedule.
“Really good readers, hoo!” Bush said in praise of a class of 18 second-graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. “Must be sixth-graders,” he joked. At another point, he posed an oft- asked question to schoolchildren, asking how many of them read more than they watch television.
According to the Cooperative Research timeline, Bush was informed of the second crash at 9:06 and left the classroom ten minutes later, at 9:16. From 9:16 to 9:29 he met in an empty classroom with his staff and worked on a statement for the press. Esther Shrader of the LA Times wrote,
Bush returned to a “holding room” at the school, where he called the vice president, New York Gov. George Pataki and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
In the same room, meanwhile, White House deputy counselor Dan Bartlett was on another phone talking to his boss, presidential counselor Karen P. Hughes. They were discussing what Bush would say in his public remarks in the school’s library, where 200 or more children, parents and teachers were awaiting him.
When Bush got off the telephone, he asked for some paper, and an aide handed him a sheet of lined, legal paper. The president began scribbling notes on it. Then Bush was given a handful of large index cards, upon which he began writing.
Bush Appeared to Choke Back Tears
In the library, meanwhile, word began circulating through the crowd, and soon a somber silence fell over the room.
At 9:27, the president emerged from behind the curtains without any introduction, and with a puff of his cheeks, exhaled deeply and strode grimly to the lectern to deliver a brief statement.
“I’ve ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families and to conduct a full- scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act,” Bush said in part. “Terrorism against our nation will not stand.”
At his speech’s end, Bush appeared to choke back tears and his voice caught briefly in his throat.
At 9:30 the Secret Service finally hustled the President away to the Sarasota airport and Air Force One. At 9:37 another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. Some time after this Vice President Cheney told the President to stay out of Washington. Cheney possibly was on his way to an underground bunker at the time, but the Vice President’s precise whereabouts and actions that morning are also disputed (see timeline).
At 9:45 the FAA orders all airspace over the United States to be cleared. The order is given by Ben Sliney, the FAA’s national operations manager, on his own initiative. It was Sliney’s first day on the job.
The WTC South Tower collapsed at 9:59. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed at Shanksville, Pa.,at 10:06. The North Tower collapsed at 10:29. As the crisis continued, the President of the United States couldn’t decide where to fly next.
Air Force One took off sometime between 9:55 and 9:59, then flew in circles over Sarasota, according to Jake Tapper at Salon:
Reporters on Air Force One, meanwhile, had no idea where they were headed. The plane had taken off at 9:55 a.m. but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Glued to a TV on which they watched the horrific images come in one after another — live footage of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing, reports that a plane crashed into the Pentagon — the reporters assumed that Air Force One was circling around the same spot since the signal stayed so strong. Just before 11 a.m., the plane started increasing its elevation significantly. It was heading west.
Air Force One lifted off from Sarasota at 9.57. A few minutes earlier, the South Tower of the World Trade Centre had collapsed. It was unclear whether anyone on Air Force One – including the pilot – knew where the Boeing 747 was headed. “The object seemed to be simply to get the President airborne and out of the way,” said an administration official.
“Mr Cheney was begging him not to make an immediate return to Washington. Mr Bush expressed his doubts, but the Secret Service was hassling him, and finally he said: `OK, let’s get moving, and we’ll talk about it then.’ ” …
… For much of the next two hours the presidential jet appeared to be going nowhere. The journalists on board – all of whom were barred from communicating with their offices – sensed that the plane was flying in big, slow circles. …
At 11.45, Air Force One landed at Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana. The official reason for landing at Barksdale was that Mr Bush felt it necessary to make a further statement, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that – as there was no agreement as to what the President’s movements should be – it was felt he might as well be on the ground as in the air.
Bush walked into Building 245, where the sign said “Headquarters — Eighth Air Force.” A more telling sign was written in large black type on an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper, affixed to the glass window on the door to the building. “Def Con Delta,” the sign said — the highest state of military alert.
Just after 12:30 p.m. EDT, Bush delivered some brief remarks that were taped and later given to the networks. “Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts,” Bush said. The number of staffers, reporters and Secret Service agents were pared down for the next trip. Bush staffers that made the cut were Card, senior advisor Karl Rove and communications staffers Dan Bartlett, Ari Fleischer and Gordon Johndroe.
At 1:31 p.m., Air Force One took off again, this time for a destination once again unknown.
On September 11, 2001, the president was missing in action for most of the day after the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, prompting ABC Newsâ€™s Peter Jennings to inquire where the hell he was: â€œI donâ€™t mean to say this in melodramatic terms,â€ Jennings told his audience at 12:30 p.m. eastern time. â€œWhere is the president of the United States? The president of the United States ledâ€” I know we donâ€™t know where he is. But pretty soon the country needs to know where he is. And it seems to, I think, me, anywayâ€”I apologizeâ€”the president needs to talk to us. He left Florida a couple of hours ago. Our people in Washington are clearly listening and checking this as best they can. But one of the important factors at the moment is that the political leadership in the country be present.â€
As it turned out, Bush was hiding at air force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska, claiming the Secret Service wouldnâ€™t let him out. (Itâ€™s hard to imagine Clinton or Reagan allowing himself to be corralled that way.) Bush didnâ€™t return to Washington until after 6 p.m.
According to Jake Tapper, “The tape of Bush from Louisiana hit cable news channels at around 1:20 p.m., but it got garbled on each one and had to be rewound and fixed.” Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had made several televised statements from lower Manhattan.
William Langley, The Telegraph, picks up the story in Shreveport, Louisiana:
From Barksdale, Mr Bush spoke again to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and also to Charles Schumer, a New York senator. At noon the US military was ordered on to Defcon Delta; 15 minutes later the country’s borders with Canada and Mexico were closed.
The fog of war was growing denser, but the media were now starting to ask potentially awkward questions about the President’s whereabouts, and why he had not returned to Washington. However grave a crisis, a President – or, at least, his handlers – must give thought to the top man’s image, and by the time Bush reached Barksdale, three hours after the first attack, concern was mounting among his advisers that the distance he was maintaining from the action could have dire political consequences.
But still the debate raged between Mr Bush, Mr Cheney and the Secret Service. In an office on the base, Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, was working the phones, taking soundings on the President’s dilemma from whatever trusted quarters he could reach. When he emerged, Mr Card, too, advised that it would be reckless to return to the capital.
The President appeared to be in a double bind: if he insisted on going to Washington he could be accused of concentrating the terrorists’ possible targets in one place and thereby endangering the functioning of government; if he stayed away he could just as equally be accused of cowardice.
No one is sure where the story reported at this time of a “credible terrorist threat” to Air Force One came from. What can be safely said is that it served the White House’s immediate purposes, even though it was completely untrue. As it was, while Mr Bush was on the ground at Barksdale, the White House let it be known that a threat – supposedly “quoting a recognised code” – had been received, to the effect that “Air Force One is next”.
The picture changed instantly. No more could the President be accused of sheltering in the safety of far-away Louisiana; now he was a hunted man – the main target. Within a week, though, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, had all but admitted the story was completely untrue.
Who cooked it up? Most fingers point at Mr Cheney. “It did two things for Dick,” says a well-informed Washington official. “It reinforced his argument that the President should stay out of town, and it gave George W an excellent reason for doing so.”
A few minutes before 1pm, therefore, after just over an hour on the ground, Mr Bush agreed to fly to Nebraska. “As much as anything,” said Andrew Card later, “he didn’t want to use up any more time talking about it. He knew he’d be criticised, whatever. But it was the right thing to do.”
The President was taken back to his plane in a camouflaged Humvee surrounded by armed guards, and at 1.15, Air Force One took off – as Mr Cheney had wanted – for Offutt, Nebraska. Twelve minutes later a State of Emergency was declared in Washington.
At 2:50 p.m. Air Force One landed at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. About 10 minutes after landing Bush emerged from the plane, which was guarded by soldiers clad in fatigues and gripping machine guns. At 3:06, his motorcade passed through the security gate outside the United States Strategic Command. Instead of walking into the command building, however, Bush entered a short, square building that looked like it sheltered the top of an elevator shaft. He went “down the bunny hole,” ABC News’ Anne Compton told Peter Jennings. There he had a national security briefing. …
…At least someone was answering questions. At FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, presidential counselor Karen Hughes reassured Americans that “while some federal buildings have been evacuated for security reasons and to protect our workers, your federal government continues to function effectively.” Hughes said that “immediately after the first attack in New York this morning” the federal emergency response plan was implemented. Where’s the president? Hughes was asked. Is he coming back to D.C.? She didn’t take any questions, turning on her heel, and didn’t even look at the reporters as she walked out of the room.
NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert made some pointed remarks about the nation needing the leadership of its president, whose whereabouts were suddenly unknown. He’d never known Air Force One to take off without knowing where it was going, he said. But then again, today was unfortunately unlike any other day.
About 4 pm, after the security briefing broke up, President Bush spoke to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who informed his boss the absence from Washington was becoming a political problem. Air Force One left Offutt at 4:36 and landed at Andrews Air Force base just after 6.30 pm. About 25 minutes later “Mr Bush re-entered the White House to applause from the skeleton staff who had been permitted to remain,” wrote William Langley. One wonders what the applause was for.
Just before 7:30 that evening, hundreds of members of the House and Senate gathered on the Capitol Building steps to sing “God Bless America.”
In the critical hours after the attacks, the President couldn’t find the right words. On the morning of September 11, he called the terrorist hijackers “those folks who committed this act.” After some hours fluttering about in Air Force One like a frightened pigeon, President Bush returned to Washington in time to address the nation that evening, at 8:30 eastern time, from the Oval Office. That short speech, written by Karen Hughes, was not so clumsy, but neither did it rise to the occasion. The White House speechwriting staff called it the “awful office” address. David Frum called it a “doughy pudding of stale metaphors.” The Telegraph reported,
His delivery, however, was halting and seemed to lack the gravitas the nation was expecting. Rather than his stature being emphasised, he appeared to have shrunk.
After the speech, Bush met with his National Security Council. In Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke reported what Bush said —
â€œI want you all to understand that we are at war and we will stay at war until this is done. Nothing else matters. Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, theyâ€™re gone. Any money you need, you have it. This is our only agenda.â€ When Rumsfeld points out that international law only allows force to prevent future attacks and not for retribution, Bush yells, â€œNo. I donâ€™t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.â€ [pp. 23-24]
Tomorrow: What happened on September 12?