Revealed: what really went on during Bush's 'missing hours'
By William Langley
Three months after the attacks on the
Twin Towers there remains a mystery as to what happened to the
President that day. William Langley pieces together the vital moments
in the transformation of a presidency.
LITTLE after 6am on September 11, 2001, President George W Bush awoke
in the magnificent surroundings of the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort
on Longboat Key, a spindly coral island in the Gulf of Mexico, off
|The moment in the Florida classroom when President Bush is told of the WTC disaaster|
32 years ago by Dr "Murf" Klauber, a wealthy orthodontist and tennis
lover, the Colony achieved fame through the success of its first
resident professional, the celebrated tennis coach Nick Bollittieri,
and now styles itself as "America's greatest tennis resort".
previous evening Mr Bush had dined beachside with his brother Jeb, the
governor of Florida, the state that had, albeit controversially, handed
him the presidency. Now, on the morning of his 234th day in office, a
light, warm breeze was slipping in from the ocean, and, after
breakfast, Bush led his Secret Service crew on a four-mile run around
the nearby Serenoa golf links.
On his return to
the Colony, the President showered, changed into a lightweight, dark
blue suit, and, still glowing from the morning's exertion, sat down for
the first routine intelligence briefing of the day. It was 8am.
hundred miles away, American Airlines Flight 11 was taking off from
Boston's Logan International Airport bound for Los Angeles, with 81
passengers and 11 crew aboard. It would be followed 14 minutes later by
the departure, from the same airport, of United Airlines Flight 175,
also LA-bound, with 56 passengers and nine crew.
President's briefing appears to have included some reference to the
heightened terrorist risk reported throughout the summer, but contained
nothing specific, severe or imminent enough to necessitate a call to
Condoleezza Rice, his 47-year-old National Security Adviser who, at the
same moment, was travelling through the rush hour traffic from her home
in north-west Washington to her office at the White House.
weather conditions along the entire eastern seaboard were what pilots
call "severe clear" - bright and sunny with almost limitless
visibility, and it was with a distinct pang of regret that at 8.20 Bush
said farewell to Murf Klauber and his daughter Katherine, the Colony's
"Maybe he tells everyone he would
have liked to stay longer," says Katherine Klauber, "but I had the
feeling he meant it." One minute later, at 8.21, American Airlines
Flight 77 left Washington's Dulles Airport for Los Angeles with 58
passengers and six crew aboard.
Mr Bush was in
Florida to promote his administration's new education bill - a policy
flagship which, to Bush's frustration, was wallowing in Congress and
looking vulnerable to unwelcome amendments. His first stop of the day
was to be at the Emma E Booker Elementary School in Sarasota - a
25-minute drive from the Colony.
were nearly all black and mostly from inner-city neighbourhoods - a
perfect background against which the President could argue his case. At
8.42, as the motorcade crossed back to the mainland on Highway 41,
United Airlines Flight 93 left Newark for San Francisco with 38
passengers and seven crew aboard.
Mr Bush arrived
at the school, just before 9am, expecting to be met by its motherly
principal, Gwen Rigell. Instead he was pulled sharply aside by the
familiar, bulky figure of 51-year-old Karl Rove, a veteran political
fixer and trusted aide of both Mr Bush and his father, George Sr.
Rove, a fellow Texan with an expansive manner and a colourful turn of
phrase, told the President that a large commercial airliner (American
Flight 11) had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. Mr Bush clenched his teeth, lowered his bottom lip and said something inaudible. Then he went into the school.
might have been an accident - as Bush has since said, he saw footage of
the crash on a TV in the school "and I used to fly myself, and I said:
'There's one terrible pilot. It must have been a horrible accident.' "
But Mr Bush soon learnt that it wasn't.
as the President sat smiling anxiously in a class of seven-year-olds,
United 175 smashed into the WTC's South Tower. At 9.05 the White House
Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, 53, another long-time Bush friend and
confidante, leaned in close to the President and whispered: "A second
plane has hit the World Trade Centre. America is under attack."
time Bush visibly flinched and caught his breath, but he said nothing.
"I am very aware of the cameras," he recalled later. "I'm trying to
absorb that knowledge. I have nobody to talk to. I'm sitting in the
midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children's story
and I realise I'm the Commander in Chief and the country has just come
At that moment in Washington, 900
miles north, a squad of Secret Service agents stormed into the office
of Vice-President Dick Cheney. Seated in front of a television set
watching CNN, Cheney, 60, who, like Bush knew only the barest details
of events, was seized by the arms, legs and his belt and physically
carried through 150 yards of corridors, then taken by lift, down to the
Presidential Emergency Operations Centre (PEOPS) - a subterranean
bunker capable of withstanding an overhead nuclear explosion.
was quickly joined there by Ms Rice, and Norman Mineta, the Secretary
of Transportation. Donald Rumsfeld, the pugnacious Defence Secretary,
was inside the Pentagon. "Dick's supposed to have a dodgy heart," said
one of Mr Cheney's staff, referring to the four heart attacks the
vice-president has suffered since 1980, not to mention the
pacemaker-like device he had fitted in June. "But if he survived that
ride, he could anything."
At 9.12 Mr Bush left the
classroom. By now the reporters' mobiles were ringing non-stop, and no
one needed to ask why the school visit was being cut short. In a small,
back office, the President scribbled a brief statement in black felt
tip on a yellow legal pad.
"Today," he declared on
nationwide television, "we have had a national tragedy. Two airplanes
have crashed into the World Trade Centre. We're going to hunt down and
find the folks who committed this act. Terrorism against our nation
will not stand." At 9.28, as Bush was readying himself to speak to the
cameras, an air traffic controller in Cleveland heard screams coming
over the radio channel from United Flight 93.
called the plane, but received no answer. Two minutes later, Mr Mineta,
in Washington, issued an unprecedented directive ordering the Federal
Aviation Authority to close all US airports.
making his first statement, Mr Bush had spoken to Dick Cheney and
watched a recording of events at the World Trade Centre. He seemed, to
those around him, to be rigid with rage.
watched the TV videos a couple of times," says an aide who was with
him, "and then he just wheeled away with this look of absolute - I
guess you'd have to say disgust more than hatred - on his face, and he
walked out of the room. I didn't hear him say much. He didn't have to."
the time Mr Bush had finished his TV address, it was 9.35 and outside
the school the motorcade was revving up again, this time to take the
President to Sarasota airport where Air Force One was waiting.
Bush by now knew the horror of what was happening, but not the full
scale of it. At 9.36, just west of Cleveland, United 93 made an abrupt
unscheduled turn and began heading south-east towards Washington DC.
minutes later, as Mr Bush, his entourage and the accompanying press
corps were boarding Air Force One, American Flight 77 swooped low over
the suburbs of northern Virginia and slammed into the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, was in his office on the eastern
side of the building, in a meeting with Christopher Cox, the defence
policy committee chairman of the House of Representatives. Mr Rumsfeld,
recalls Mr Cox, watched the TV coverage from New York and said:
"Believe me, this isn't over yet. There's going to be another attack,
and it could be us."
Moments later, the plane hit.
Mr Rumsfeld ran to the point of impact and helped load the wounded on
to stretchers before retreating to the secure National Military Command
Centre, beneath the building. There, he refused entreaties to evacuate
even as the Centre filled with smoke.
By the time
the President slid behind his executive desk on the plane, Mr Bush's
first rush of anger appeared to have settled into a controlled, if
tense, mood of resolve. "I guess we're at war," he said as the plane
readied for take off. While his aides looked at him open-mouthed, he
added: "This is what we're paid for, boys."
he called Mr Cheney on a secure line to the PEOPS and spoke in a
similar vein. "Somebody's going to pay for this," Mr Bush coldly told
the Vice President. "We are going to take care of them. Whoever did
this isn't going to like having me as President."
the hours and days ahead, many would question the wisdom of the
administration's early "war talk", but Mr Bush never appeared in doubt
of what the attacks meant. Mr Cheney, as seasoned an operator as there
is in Washington, sounded composed. But above him there was total
At 9.45 the Secret Service ordered the
complete evacuation of the White House - United Flight 93 was still
airborne and heading towards Washington. No one knew, or knows, for
sure what its target was, but the obvious candidates were the Capitol
buiding, Camp David - or the White House itself.
ran from office to office screaming: "Get out! Get out now! This is
real!" Within an hour, the Congress, the State Department, the Supreme
Court, the Justice Department and just about every other federal
building would also be evacuated.
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.
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
Mr Cheney, a former Defence Secretary,
urged the President to head for the Offutt Air Force base near Omaha,
Nebraska, which he knew from experience had a highly sophisticated
strategic command centre. As the two men talked, Air Force One soared
at an acute climb angle to 40,000 feet - its maximum altitude, where it
was joined by an escort of F16 fighters from a base near Jacksonville,
At 10.06, as Air Force One was still
climbing, United Flight 93 nose-dived into a field near the rural
Pennsylvania town of Shanksville, killing everyone on board. The
passengers, it now seems clear, had rushed the hi-jackers and
precipitated the crash. In doing so, they may have saved the Capitol
buiding, or the White House itself, from possible suicide attack. They
lost their lives and, in doing so, almost certainly saved many more.
Air Force One was told the news.
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.
Bush was able to call his wife, Laura, who had been on Capitol Hill
waiting to speak to the Senate education committee when the attacks
began. She and the couple's twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were now
in secure locations.
"She couldn't have been more
calm, resolved - almost placid," Mr Bush said later. "It was very
reassuring for me. I told her: 'I'll be home soon'." But he wasn't.
the President and Vice-President continued to discuss the options, the
Secret Service was coming ever more firmly down on the Vice-President's
side in recommending against an early return to Washington. (The Secret
Service maintained a large field office inside the World Trade Centre,
and initially many agents were thought to have been killed. This may
have been a factor in Secret Service thinking.)
10.20 a report came in that a huge car bomb had gone off outside the
State Department in Washington. It wasn't true, but it changed the
picture once more. "There really is a fog of war," Mr Bush would say
later. "You've heard about it, and you've read about it. Well, there is
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.
was midday by the time Bush arrived at the base HQ in a Humvee escorted
by armed outriders. As he reached the base, he saw its state of
readiness signal upgraded to Defcon Delta - the highest possible level
of alert, and the same footing as for a nuclear war.
Powell, the Secretary of State, the administration's chief diplomat and
its most experienced military man, had been sitting down to a working
breakfast in Lima, Peru, with Alejandro Toledo, the Peruvian president,
when he was handed a note saying the World Trade Centre had been
"Oh my God," gasped Mr Powell, "something terrible has happened." He made an immediate decision to return home.
the eight-hour flight back, he told reporters that he would be
contacting world leaders in the days to come. But it would be 10 hours
before he was able to speak directly to his own leader, President Bush.
so long? In the weeks before September 11 Washington was full of
rumours that Powell was out of favour and had been quietly relegated to
the sidelines, but an administration official explained the lack of
communication more simply: "I don't think, in those early hours, that
the President was looking for a diplomatic solution."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
plane, Mr Bush - keeping one line open to Mr Cheney - also talked to
New York's mayor, Rudy Giuliani. "I know that your heart is broken and
your city is wounded," Mr Giuliani remembered the President saying.
"But we will give you everything we can.
sounded very calm, very purposeful," the mayor remembers. "He said:
'We're going to rebuild the city. And we're going to get whoever did
this.' The last bit didn't sound like an afterthought."
2.50pm, Air Force One touched down at Offutt, and Bush was taken into
an underground bunker - again one designed to withstand a nuclear
blast. The sprawling base, one of the most heavily-defended in the USA,
is home to the US Air Force's 55th Wing, which flies Boeing 747s
specially adapted for military use in reconnaissance and intelligence
As Mr Cheney had pointed out, it also
houses an advanced strategic command and communications centre, from
which Bush was able to teleconference directly with Mr Cheney and Ms
Rice in the White House, Mr Rumsfeld in the Pentagon, and members of
the National Security Council. The meeting lasted a full hour.
to Ms Rice, the President opened it by saying: "This is an attack on
freedom, and we're going to treat it as such. We have to minister to
the country, and deal with the horrors, but we're not going to lose
focus. We have to mobilise the world and rid it of this scourge."
and her aides were able to tell Mr Bush that there were already "good
indications" that the source of the attacks was Osama bin Laden's
A t 4pm, as the meeting broke
up, Bush again expressed a wish to return to Washington. More than six
hours had passed since the last attack, and now a split was developing
between the Secret Service, which wanted to keep the President
overnight - and by some accounts, indefinitely - at the base, and White
House aides who could see ever more clearly the political consequences
of his failure to return to the capital.
Fleischer was consulted, and reported that the President's absence was
becoming an increasingly difficult issue to deal with.
Bush settled the argument himself. That night he would have to address
an astonished and furious nation on prime time television. "I'm not
going to do it from an air force base," he said, bluntly. "Not while
folks are under the rubble." At 4.36 pm, the presidential jet took off
for Washington. Mr Bush called Laura: "I'm coming home," he said.
Force One, flanked throughout the 1,200-mile-long flight by F16s,
landed at Andrews Air Force base just after 6.30pm, and 25 minutes
later Mr Bush re-entered the White House to applause from the skeleton
staff who had been permitted to remain. He was taken down to the PEOPS
where Laura was waiting together with Mr Cheney and his wife Lynne. "I
just gave her a big hug," he said later.
later Colin Powell arrived, having been helicoptered to the White House
from the airport after flying back from Peru. He and Mr Bush embraced.
Secret Service wanted the Bushes to spend the night in the bunker. An
elderly sofa bed was duly produced. Mr Bush gave an entertaining
account of what happened next to Newsweek magazine. "I said: 'We're not
sleeping there. I'm really tired. I've had a heck of a day and I'm
going to sleep in my own bed'."
The agents reluctantly backed down, but warned that, "if we have any threats, Mr President, we'll come and get you".
sure enough," said Mr Bush. "We are in bed at about 11.30, and I can
hear a guy breathing quite heavily. 'Mr President, Mr President!
There's an unidentified aircraft heading towards the White House!'
we get out of bed. I'm actually in my running shorts with a T-shirt,
old shoes. Grab Barney, grab Spot [the Bushes' dogs]. Laura has no
contact lenses so she's holding on to my arm. We get into the elevator,
and straight down into PEOPS.
"The orderly starts
making up the bed - the bed I refused to sleep in. And I'm thinking,
you know: 'Where's the phone? What the heck is going on? Attacked
"Then an enlisted fellow walks into the briefing room, and goes: 'Good news Mr President. It's one of ours'."