PART 1: Sept. 11
America's Chaotic Road to War
Bush's Global Strategy Began to Take Shape in First Frantic Hours After Attack
By Dan Balz and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 27, 2002; Page A01
First in a series
Tuesday, September 11
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., President Bush brought together his most senior
national security advisers in a bunker beneath the White House grounds.
It was just 13 hours after the deadliest attack on the U.S. homeland in
the country's history.
Bush and his
advisers sat around a long table in the conference room of the
Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC. Spare and cramped,
the bunker was built to withstand a nuclear attack, with sleeping
berths and enough food for a few people to survive for several days.
"This is the time for self-defense," he told his aides,
according to National Security Council notes. Then, repeating the vow
he had made earlier in the evening in a televised address from the Oval
Office, he added: "We have made the decision to punish whoever harbors
terrorists, not just the perpetrators."
Their job, the president said, was to figure out how to do it.
That afternoon, on a secure phone on Air Force One, Bush
had already told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that he would
order a military response and that Rumsfeld would be responsible for
organizing it. "We'll clean up the mess," the president told Rumsfeld,
"and then the ball will be in your court."
Intelligence was by now almost conclusive that Osama bin
Laden and his al Qaeda network, based in Afghanistan, had carried out
the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the aides
gathered in the bunker-the "war cabinet" that included Rumsfeld, Vice
President Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary
of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet-were not
ready to say what should be done about them. The war cabinet had
questions, no one more than Rumsfeld.
Who are the targets? How much evidence do we need before
going after al Qaeda? How soon do we act? While acting quickly was
essential, Rumsfeld said, it might take up to 60 days to prepare for
major military strikes. And, he asked, are there targets that are
off-limits? Do we include American allies in military strikes?
Rumsfeld warned that an effective response would require
a wider war, one that went far beyond the use of military force. The
United States, he said, must employ every tool available-military,
legal, financial, diplomatic, intelligence.
The president was enthusiastic. But Tenet offered a
sobering thought. Although al Qaeda's home base was Afghanistan, the
terrorist organization operated nearly worldwide, he said. The CIA had
been working the bin Laden problem for years. We have a 60-country
problem, he told the group.
"Let's pick them off one at a time," Bush replied.
The president and his advisers started America on the
road to war that night without a map. They had only a vague sense of
how to respond, based largely on the visceral reactions of the
president. But nine nights later, when Bush addressed a joint session
of Congress, many of the important questions had been answered.
Meeting in secret, often several times each day, Bush and
his advisers deliberated, debated and ultimately settled on a strategy
that is still emerging, an unconventional and risky worldwide war
against terrorism. This series of articles is an inside account of what
happened from Sept. 11 to Sept. 20, based on interviews with the
principals involved in the decision-making, including the president,
the vice president and many other key officials inside the
administration and out. The interviews were supplemented by notes of
NSC meetings made available to The Washington Post, along with notes
taken by several participants.
This contemporaneous account is inevitably incomplete.
The president, the White House staff and senior Cabinet officers
responded in detail to questions and requests. But some matters they
refused to discuss, citing national security and a desire to protect
the confidentiality of some internal deliberations.
The President in Florida:
Disbelief and Determination
President Bush rose early the morning of Sept. 11, and
went for a four-mile run around the golf course at the Colony Beach and
Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, Fla., where he was staying.
On Bush's schedule that day was what White House aides
call a "soft event"-reading to about 16 second-graders in Sandra Kay
Daniels's class at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.
The night before, Bush had dined with his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb
Bush, former governor Bob Martinez and other state Republicans. It was
a relaxed evening, full of joking and talk about politics, including
some handicapping of Jeb Bush's possible opponents in his 2002
Bush's motorcade left for the school at 8:30 a.m. As it
was arriving, pagers and cell phones alerted White House aides that a
plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Bush remembers
senior adviser Karl Rove bringing him the news, saying it appeared to
be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane.
In fact it was American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767
out of Boston's Logan International Airport. Based on what he was told,
Bush assumed it was an accident.
"This is pilot error," the president recalled saying.
"It's unbelievable that somebody would do this." Conferring with Andrew
H. Card Jr., his White House chief of staff, Bush said, "The guy must
have had a heart attack."
That morning the president's key advisers were scattered.
Cheney and Rice were at their offices in the West Wing. Rumsfeld was at
his office in the Pentagon, meeting with a delegation from Capitol
Hill. Powell had just sat down for breakfast with the new president of
Peru, Alejandro Toledo, in Lima. Tenet was at breakfast with his old
friend and mentor, former senator David Boren (D-Okla.), at the St.
Regis Hotel, three blocks from the White House. Gen. Henry H. Shelton,
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was halfway across the
Atlantic on the way to Europe. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was
bound for Milwaukee. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, on the job for
just a week, was in his office at FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania
At 9:05 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing
767, smashed into the South Tower of the trade center. Bush was seated
on a stool in the classroom when Card whispered the news: "A second
plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."
Bush remembers exactly what he thought: "They had declared war on us,
and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war."
News From New York: In Florida, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. tells
Bush about the second trade center attack. "I made up my mind at that
moment that we were going to war," the president recalled later. (File Photo/Doug Miles - AP)
A photo shows Bush's face with a distant look as he
absorbed what Card had said. He nodded and resumed his conversation
with the class. "Really good," he said before excusing himself and
returning to the holding room. "These must be sixth-graders."
The Secretary of State in Peru:
'Go Tell Them We're Leaving'
In Lima, Powell abruptly ended his breakfast with the
Peruvian president after getting word of the second strike on the trade
center and made plans to return to Washington. "Get the plane," he told
an assistant. "Go tell them we're leaving." He had a seven-hour flight,
with poor phone connections, ahead of him.
At the St. Regis Hotel, aides hurriedly approached
Tenet's table next to a window overlooking K Street. "Mr. Director,
there's a serious problem," one of them said.
Through much of the summer, Tenet had grown increasingly
troubled by the prospect of a major terrorist attack against the United
States. There was too much chatter in the intelligence system and
repeated reports of threats were costing him sleep. His friends thought
he had become obsessed. Everywhere he went, the message was the same:
Something big is coming. But for all his fears, intelligence officials
could never pinpoint when or where an attack might hit.
"This has bin Laden all over it," Tenet said to Boren. "I've got to go."
He had another reaction in the first few minutes, one
that raised the possibility that the FBI and the CIA had not done all
that they could to prevent the terrorist attacks from taking place.
"I wonder," Tenet was overheard to say, "if it has
anything to do with this guy taking pilot training." He was referring
to Zacarias Moussaoui, who had been detained in August after attracting
suspicion when he sought training at a Minnesota flight school.
Moussaoui's case was very much on Tenet's mind. The
previous month, the FBI had asked the CIA and the National Security
Agency to run phone traces on Moussaoui, already the subject of a
five-inch-thick file in the bureau.
At 9:30 a.m. the president appeared before television
cameras, describing what had happened as "an apparent terrorist attack"
and "a national tragedy." He appeared shaken, and his language was
oddly informal. He would chase down, he said, "those folks who
committed this act."
Bush also said, "Terrorism against our nation will not
stand." It was an echo of "This will not stand," the words his father,
President George H.W. Bush, had used a few days after Iraq invaded
Kuwait in August 1990-in Bush's opinion, one of his father's finest
"Why I came up with those specific words, maybe it was an
echo from the past," Bush said in an interview last month. "I don't
know why. . . . I'll tell you this, we didn't sit around massaging the
words. I got up there and just spoke."
The Vice President in Washington:
Underground, in Touch With Bush
Secret Service agents burst into Cheney's West Wing
office. "Sir," one said, "we have to leave immediately." Radar showed
an airplane barreling toward the White House.
Before Cheney could respond, the agents grabbed the vice
president under his arms-nearly lifting him off the ground-and
propelled him down the steps into the White House basement and through
a long tunnel that led to the underground bunker.
Meanwhile, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 that
had taken off from Dulles International Airport, turned away from the
White House and flew back across the Potomac River, slamming into the
Pentagon at 9:39 a.m.
In the tunnel below the White House, Cheney stopped to
watch a television showing the smoke billowing out of the World Trade
Center towers, heard the report about the plane hitting the Pentagon
and called Bush again. Other Secret Service agents hustled Rice and
several other senior White House officials included in an emergency
contingency plan into the bunker with the vice president.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, summoned by
the White House to the bunker, was on an open line to the Federal
Aviation Administration operations center, monitoring Flight 77 as it
hurtled toward Washington, with radar tracks coming every seven
seconds. Reports came that the plane was 50 miles out, 30 miles out, 10
miles out-until word reached the bunker that there had been an
explosion at the Pentagon.
Mineta shouted into the phone to Monte Belger at the FAA:
"Monte, bring all the planes down." It was an unprecedented order-there
were 4,546 airplanes in the air at the time. Belger, the FAA's acting
deputy administrator, amended Mineta's directive to take into account
the authority vested in airline pilots. "We're bringing them down per
pilot discretion," Belger told the secretary.
"[Expletive] pilot discretion," Mineta yelled back. "Get those goddamn planes down."
Sitting at the other end of the table, Cheney snapped his head up, looked squarely at Mineta and nodded in agreement.
Over the Atlantic, Shelton ordered his plane to return to
Washington. But he couldn't get approval from air traffic controllers,
who were diverting all planes, even the one used by the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was ready to defy the controllers, figuring
it was easier to ask later for forgiveness, when his deputy called to
say he had obtained the necessary clearance.
In his Pentagon office, Rumsfeld felt the huge building
shudder. He looked out his window, then rushed out toward the smoke,
running down the steps and outside where he could see pieces of metal
strewn on the ground. Rumsfeld began helping with the rescue efforts
until a security agent urged him to get out of the area. "I'm going
inside," he said, and took up his post in the National Military Command
Center, the Pentagon war room.
Pentagon officials ordered up the airborne command post
used only in national emergencies. They sent up combat air patrols in
the Washington area and a fighter escort for Air Force One. They also
ordered AWACs radar and surveillance planes airborne along the East
Coast and, fearing another round of attacks, along the West Coast as
Commanders worldwide were ordered to raise their threat
alert status four notches to "Delta," the highest level, to defend U.S.
facilities. Rumsfeld raised the defense condition-signaling U.S.
offensive readiness-to DefCon 3, the highest it had been since the
Arab-Israeli war in 1973. U.S. officials also sent a message to the
Russians, who were planning a military exercise not far from Alaska,
urging them to rethink their plans.
After Bush's statement at Booker Elementary School, his
motorcade raced back to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. As
Bush boarded Air Force One, a Secret Service agent, showing a trace of
nervousness, said, "Mr. President, we need you to get seated as soon as
The plane accelerated down the runway and then almost
stood on its tail as it climbed rapidly out of the airport. It was 9:55
The Vice President in the Bunker:
'Should We Engage?' 'Yes.'
Once airborne, Bush spoke again to Cheney, who said the
combat air patrol needed rules of engagement if pilots encountered an
aircraft that might be under the control of hijackers. Cheney
recommended that Bush authorize the military to shoot down any such
civilian airliners-as momentous a decision as the president was asked
to make in those first hours. "I said, 'You bet,'" Bush recalled. "We
had a little discussion, but not much."
Bush then talked to Rumsfeld to clarify the procedures military pilots
should follow in trying to force an unresponsive plane to the ground
before opening fire on it. First, pilots would seek to make radio
contact with the other plane and tell the pilot to land at a specific
location. If that failed, the pilots were to use visual signals. These
included having the fighters fly in front of the other plane.
Louisiana Detour: Advised not to return to Washington, Bush confers with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. on Air Force One. (By Eric Draper - The White House)
If the plane continued heading toward what was seen as a
significant target with apparently hostile intent, the U.S. pilot would
have the authority to shoot it down. With Bush's approval, Rumsfeld
passed the order down the chain of command.
In the White House bunker, a military aide approached the vice president.
"There is a plane 80 miles out," he said. "There is a fighter in the area. Should we engage?"
"Yes," Cheney replied without hesitation.
Around the vice president, Rice, deputy White House chief
of staff Joshua Bolten and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of
staff, tensed as the military aide repeated the question, this time
with even more urgency. The plane was now 60 miles out. "Should we
engage?" Cheney was asked.
"Yes," he replied again.
As the plane came closer, the aide repeated the question. Does the order still stand?
"Of course it does," Cheney snapped.
The vice president said later that it had seemed "painful, but nonetheless clear-cut. And I didn't agonize over it."
It was, "obviously, a very significant action," Cheney
said in an interview. "You're asking American pilots to fire on a
commercial airliner full of civilians. On the other hand, you had
directly in front of me what had happened to the World Trade Center,
and a clear understanding that once the plane was hijacked, it was a
Within minutes, there was a report that a plane had
crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania-what turned out to be United
Flight 93, a Boeing 757 that had been hijacked after leaving Newark
International Airport. Many of those in the PEOC feared that Cheney's
order had brought down a civilian aircraft. Rice demanded that someone
check with the Pentagon.
On Air Force One, Bush inquired, "Did we shoot it down or did it crash?"
It took the Pentagon almost two hours to confirm that the
plane had not been shot down, an enormous relief. "I think an act of
heroism occurred on board that plane," Cheney said. Later, reports of
cell phone conversations before the plane crashed indicated that some
passengers had fought with the hijackers.
In a national emergency, a secret "continuity of
government" plan is supposed to protect the country's constitutional
leadership. It designates which officials should be taken to the
underground bunker at the White House, which Cabinet members should be
taken to secure locations, and where to move congressional leaders.
Senior administration officials were given briefings on
the procedures shortly after Bush was inaugurated and some had toured
the White House bunker. But others who were told to go to the bunker
Sept. 11 had no idea where to find it and still others who should have
been on the list were left off until they received authorization. Some
Cabinet security details initiated plans to protect and move agency
officials; some did not.
In the early confusion that day, there was a series of
frightening but ultimately false reports: A plane was down near Camp
David and another was down near the Ohio-Kentucky border; a car bomb
exploded outside the State Department; an explosion near the Capitol,
fires on the Mall and at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building; a
plane heading at high speed toward Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex.
Secret Service agents ordered the White House and the
Eisenhower Executive Office Building evacuated at 9:45 a.m., first
telling staffers there to file out in an orderly way, then screaming at
them to run as fast as they could across Pennsylvania Avenue to
Lafayette Park on the other side. At one point, some women were told to
remove their shoes so they could run faster. Some staffers were advised
to remove the White House identification from around their necks so
they couldn't be singled out by possible snipers outside the White
Other than those officials taken by the Secret Service
into the White House bunker, no one knew where to go, what to do or how
to communicate with one another.
In the bunker, conditions were not ideal. There were
secure video links to the Pentagon, the State Department and other
agencies and military installations, but no way to broadcast on
television from the bunker, no way to link government officials to the
public. For a time, no one could make the audio on the TV sets work.
Capitol Hill was more chaotic. From the bunker, Cheney
officially implemented the emergency continuity of government orders,
which provided for evacuating the third and fourth in the line of
presidential succession-Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
and the president pro tem of the Senate, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.),
who chose to go home. Other top leaders on Capitol Hill were forced to
improvise. "We had no plan and we certainly had trained with no plan,"
said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Capitol Police ordered an evacuation of the building
shortly after the Pentagon was hit, but no one had instructions on
where to go. Gephardt went to his home nearby. Senate Majority Leader
Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) went to the Capitol Police headquarters near
Union Station, then joined some of his staff at a nearby town house.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) also was taken to the
police headquarters but decided it was unwise for the leaders to be
clustered in a nonsecure facility. He asked to be taken to Andrews Air
Many cell phones weren't working because the system was
overburdened. For more than an hour, Daschle's staff did not know where
he was. Rank-and-file lawmakers didn't have guidance from their leaders
or from Capitol Police. It was not until late in the morning or early
in the afternoon that orders were given to remove Daschle, Lott,
Gephardt and other members of the leadership to a secure location
When they arrived for the trip at the West Front of the
Capitol, Gephardt recalls an "unimaginable" scene: helicopters ringed
by black-suited SWAT teams carrying automatic weapons, as other SWAT
team members looked down from atop the Capitol.
At the secure location outside Washington, there were too
few phone lines for the congressional leaders. Communication with
Cheney was frustrating. Coordinating with lawmakers left behind in
Washington was difficult, sometimes contentious.
Many members had drifted back to Capitol Police
headquarters. Desperate for information, they set up a conference call
with their sequestered leaders. During one call, a small group of House
members demanded that the speaker order everyone back for a late-day
session in the Capitol as a show of defiance. Over the speaker phone,
Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) said it would be an act of cowardice if
lawmakers did not hold a session that day.
The leaders agitated to get out of their bunker and back
to Washington, but Cheney resisted. Terrorist threats persisted and
there was no way to guarantee their security, he said. Sen. Don Nickles
(R-Okla.) protested. We're a separate branch of government-why do we
need the approval of the White House, he complained.
"Don," the vice president replied, "we control the helicopters."
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