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10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet

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

Continued From Page One

10:32 a.m.

The President on Air Force One: 'Still a Threat to Washington'

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Cheney called Bush on Air Force One, on its way from Florida to Washington, to say the White House had just received a threat against the plane. The caller had used its code word, "Angel," suggesting terrorists had inside information. Card was told it would take between 40 minutes and 90 minutes to get a protective fighter escort up to Air Force One.

Bush told an aide that Air Force One "is next." He was in an angry mood. "We're going to find out who did this," he said to Cheney, "and we're going to kick their asses."

Air Force One was still en route to Washington when Cheney called again at 10:41 a.m. This time, he urged Bush not to return. "There's still a threat to Washington," the vice president said. Rice agreed, and had told the president the same thing.

There was little debate or discussion. Cheney was worried the terrorists might be trying to decapitate the government, to kill its leaders. Bush agreed.

Within minutes, those on board the president's plane could feel it bank suddenly and sharply to the left, its course now westerly toward Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. It was within easy range, and once there food and fuel could be loaded and the president could have access to its more sophisticated communications systems.

The threat to the plane turned out to be false. Someone inside the White House had heard a threat to Air Force One, perhaps in a phoned-in call, and passed it up the line using the code word "Angel." Others thought the threatening caller had used the code word. It took days for the incident to be sorted out and weeks before the White House publicly acknowledged it.

As Air Force One headed to Barksdale, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the White House, seeking to speak with the president. Rice took the call instead. The Russian president told Rice the Russians were voluntarily standing down their military exercise as a gesture of solidarity with the United States.

News reports portrayed Washington as shut down, the Capitol and the White House evacuated, federal agencies emptied out, the streets under patrol. In their underground bunker, Cheney and the others began to worry that the rest of the country and capitals around the world would assume that the U.S. government was not functioning.

White House counselor Karen P. Hughes was at her home in Northwest Washington when she received a page telling her that "Angler" was trying to reach her. "Angler?" she wondered, before realizing it was the code name for the vice president, a devoted fly fisherman.

Cheney asked her to begin working on a presidential statement that could be delivered as soon as Bush landed at Barksdale. Cheney's wife Lynne, who had been brought to the bunker by the Secret Service, and his counselor, Mary Matalin, also went to work on it.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was drafting a statement on Air Force One as it neared Barksdale and called Hughes for consultation. One phrase drew an instant response. "This morning we were the victims of . . ." Fleischer read from the text.

"Wait a minute-we aren't the victims of anything," Hughes interjected. "We may have been the targets, we may have been attacked, but we are not victims."

Bush had insisted that he be the first to speak for the government. But his team in Washington grew increasingly frustrated with the time it would take for him to reach Barksdale and appear before the cameras. Hughes considered giving an interview to the Associated Press to reassure the public that the government was working. She tried to reach the president through the White House signal operator.

"Ma'am, we can't reach Air Force One," the operator said.

11:45 a.m.

The President in Louisiana: Reassuring a Nation

Air Force One arrived at Barksdale, where it was immediately surrounded by military personnel wearing green fatigues, flak jackets and helmets, and bearing automatic weapons. Reporters were told they could say only that the president was at "an unidentified location in the United States."

Bush soon spoke to his wife, first lady Laura Bush, who was in a secure location, for a second time that day and touched base with Cheney again.

"I think it's important for the people to see the government is functioning, because the TV shows our nation has been blasted and bombed," the president told Cheney. "Government is not chaotic. It's functioning smoothly." He described the attackers as "faceless cowards" and said America had to prepare for "a new war" against this new enemy.

By 12:16 p.m., the FAA command center reported that U.S. airspace had been cleared of all commercial and general aviation aircraft; only military and lifeguard flights were airborne. Twenty minutes later, according to the red digital clock in the conference room near the Barksdale base commander's office, Bush entered, looking grim. Reporters in the room noted that his eyes were red-rimmed. It had been more than three hours since Bush or any senior official had said anything publicly.

When Bush finally appeared on television from the base conference room, it was not a reassuring picture. He spoke haltingly, mispronouncing several words as he looked down at his notes. When he got to the last sentence, he seemed to gain strength. "The resolve of our great nation is being tested," he said in even tones. "But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test."

His remarks were fed by the media pool to the networks, causing a short delay before the nation could see the commander in chief. The entire statement consisted of just 219 words, and the president took no questions from reporters.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., Air Force One took off for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where there were secure facilities that would allow the president to conduct a meeting of his National Security Council in Washington over a video link.


Conference: Via Video link from Offutt Air Force Base, Bush convenes the National Security Council's first meeting of the day. (By Eric Draper - The White House)
On the plane, Bush expressed his irritation over being away from the White House. "I want to go back home ASAP," he told Card, according to notes of the conversation. "I don't want whoever did this holding me outside of Washington."

Some aides recall Bush saying he would return to Washington later in the day, unless there was some extraordinary new threat. The senior Secret Service agent aboard Air Force One told Bush the situation was "too unsteady still" to allow his return.

"The right thing is to let the dust settle," Card said.

As he was leaving Barksdale, Bush made another round of calls, including one to Rumsfeld expressing shock over the damage at the Pentagon. "Wow, it was an American airliner that hit the Pentagon," Bush said. "It's a day of national tragedy, and we'll clean up the mess, and then the ball will be in your court and Dick Myers's court to respond."

Air Force General Richard B. Myers was slated to become the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in three weeks.

2:36 p.m.

The President on Air Force One: A 'Comforting Call'

En route to Offutt, the president reached his father on the phone. His aides left him alone in the cabin.

"Where are you?" Bush recalled asking his father.

The former president said he and his wife, Barbara, were in Milwaukee, on their way to Minneapolis.

"What are you doing in Milwaukee?" the president inquired.

"You grounded my plane," the former president said.

It was, said Bush, "a comforting call."

"I told him, 'We're going to be fine.' I said I knew exactly what we need to do, the team is functioning well."

2:50 p.m.

The President in Nebraska: National Security Council Meets

Air Force One landed at Offutt. Before leaving his plane, Bush repeated to his lead Secret Service agent, "We need to get back to Washington. We don't need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The American people want to know where their president is."

The president was driven the short distance to the U.S. Strategic Command headquarters and was ushered into the secure command center, a cavernous room with multi-story video screens and batteries of military personnel at computer terminals hooked into satellites monitoring activities around the globe. As Bush arrived, they were tracking a commercial airliner on its way from Spain to the United States. It was giving out an emergency signal, indicating it might be hijacked.

Bush remembers a voice booming out from a loudspeaker. "Do we have permission to shoot down this aircraft?"

"Make sure you've got the I.D.," the president responded. "You follow this guy closely to make sure."

It was another false alarm.

At 3:30 p.m. Bush convened the day's first meeting of his National Security Council; the others were piped in by secure video links from various command centers in Washington.

CIA Director Tenet reported that he was virtually certain bin Laden and his network were behind the attacks. A check of the passenger manifests of the hijacked flights had turned up three known al Qaeda operatives on American Airlines Flight 77, which had struck the Pentagon.

One of them, Khalid Al-Midhar, had come to the CIA's attention the previous year, when he traveled to Malaysia and met with a key al Qaeda suspect in the 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole. The FBI had been informed about Al-Midhar and he had been put on a watch list, but he had slipped into the United States over the summer and the bureau had been looking for him since. Tenet said al Qaeda was the only terrorist organization in the world that had the capability to pull off such well-coordinated attacks. And, he said, intelligence monitoring had overheard a number of known bin Laden operatives congratulating each other after the strikes. He said information collected before Sept. 11 but only now being processed indicated that operatives had expected something big. But none of it specified the day, time or place of the attacks in a way that would have allowed the CIA or FBI to preempt them.

"Get your ears up," the president told Tenet and the others. "The primary mission of this administration is to find them and catch them."

Cheney voiced concern that more hijacked planes could be out there.

Tenet said that since all the attacks had taken place before 10 a.m., that was probably it for the day but there was no way to be sure.

FBI Director Mueller expressed concerns that investigators still did not know how the terrorists had penetrated airport security. Tenet said it was essential to know this before flights resumed.

"I'll announce more security measures, but we won't be held hostage," Bush insisted. "We'll fly at noon tomorrow," he said, although it took three more days for commercial flights to resume and then only on a reduced schedule.

Someone mentioned that New York officials had asked whether they should urge people to go back to work the next day, particularly those working in banks and the financial markets.

"Terrorists can always attack," Rumsfeld said. "The Pentagon's going back to work tomorrow."

People in New York should go back to work, the president said. "Banks should open tomorrow, too."

Bush asked about coming back to Washington, although he had already told his traveling party that he would fly back immediately after the video conference. Cheney suggested the president return and make a statement at Andrews, but the Secret Service still insisted that it was not safe.

"I'm coming back," Bush said.

As the meeting was ending Bush said, "We will find these people. They will pay. And I don't want you to have any doubt about it."

The American public had seen Bush only twice during the day, both times in less than ideal circumstances. In the White House bunker, Bush's advisers felt someone had to appear in public to provide information about what the government was doing to deal with the crisis.

Cheney was the logical candidate, but one administration official said there were concerns that his appearance would remind people of then-Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, who on the day President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, came into the White House briefing room and declared, "As of now, I am in control here."

Instead, Hughes was deputized to make a statement, which she did from the FBI building, since the Secret Service refused to allow the press into the White House briefing room. Hughes described a government still functioning, but took no questions.

As Air Force One headed for Washington, the president placed a sympathy call to Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, whose wife, Barbara, had been killed in the plane that smashed into the Pentagon. Bush then conferred with Hughes. He wanted to make a short address to the nation that night from the Oval Office.

The president's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, working from home, had e-mailed Hughes a rough draft, which she substantially reworked, based on her conversation with Bush.

One sentence in the draft from Gerson read, "This is not just an act of terrorism. This is an act of war." That squared with what Bush had been saying all day, but he told Hughes to take it out. He was not ready to talk publicly about going to war.

"Our mission is reassurance," Bush told her.

"One of the things I wanted to do was, I wanted to calm nerves," Bush said in the interview. "I wanted to show resolve, and I wanted the American people to know a couple of things-one that this was an unusual moment, but that we will survive, and we'll win.

"But I didn't want to add to the angst of the American people yet, I guess is a good way to describe that. I felt like I had a job as the commander in chief to first, not be warlike, but to be more-as good as I could to be firm, but to be as comforting as possible, in a very difficult moment for the country."

Bush said in the interview that he was seeking to reassure the country "that I was safe . . . not me, George W., but me the president; reassuring that our government was functioning, and that we're going to take care of the American people; reassuring that those who did this would be brought to justice. In other words, there had to be some sense of balance in the speech. On the other hand, I also knew I had plenty of time to make warlike declarations, which happened the next morning."

6:34 p.m.

The President in Washington: Formulating a Policy

Air Force One landed at Andrews. On his way back to the White House, his Marine One helicopter flew over the Pentagon to give the president a first-hand look at the damage. At the White House, he went to the small study off the Oval Office to confer with Rice, Hughes, Card, Fleischer and others about the speech.


Back Home: Bush exchanges salutes with a Marine guard as he steps off the presidential helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House. (File Photo/Frank Johnston - The Washington Post)
Gerson had gone back to the campaign speech on national defense that Bush made in 1999 at The Citadel, in which he said that those who sponsored terrorism or attacks on the United States could count on a "devastating" response. In the draft text Gerson sent to Hughes that day, he had written, "We will make no distinction between those who planned these acts and those who permitted or tolerated or encouraged them."

"That's way too vague," Bush complained, proposing the word "harbor" as an alternative. In final form, what the White House came to call the Bush Doctrine was put this way: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

The declaration was a huge step for the administration. Although he had talked about the idea in the campaign and aides had been working for months on a new policy for dealing with al Qaeda, Bush had never enunciated his anti-terrorism policy as president. What he outlined that night from the Oval Office committed the United States to a broad, vigorous and potentially long war against terrorism, rather than a targeted retaliatory strike. The decision to state the policy that night was made without consulting most of his national security team, including Cheney and Powell.

Rice asked whether he wanted to make that kind of far-reaching declaration in a speech designed mostly to reassure the nation. "You can say it now or you'll have other opportunities to say it," she told him.

"What do you think?" he asked.

She said she favored including it that night. First words matter more than almost anything else, she thought.

"We've got to get it out there now," Bush said.

Bush then went down into the White House bunker, where he gave his wife a hug and conferred with Cheney before going back upstairs to freshen up for the speech.

Back in the West Wing, aides were still debating whether the president should make a firmer statement about America being at war. Hughes told them she was confident she knew where Bush stood on that issue but agreed to have it aired one more time. Her deputy, White House communications director Dan Bartlett, was given the assignment to speak to Bush directly.

The president had just come out of the bedroom and was putting on a different necktie when Bartlett arrived. He told Bush he was carrying a proposed change to the text.

"What?" Bush said. "No more changes."

Bartlett showed him the proposed language.

"I've already said no to that," Bush said.

Bartlett returned to the West Wing. "Thanks," he said to Hughes. "You can take the message next time."

Bush spoke for approximately seven minutes from the Oval Office. "A great people has been moved to defend a great nation," he said, closing with a statement of resolve. "America has stood down enemies before and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world."

At 9 p.m., Bush met with his full National Security Council, followed roughly half an hour later by the meeting with a smaller group of key advisers who would become his war cabinet.

Powell, back in Washington from Peru, described the immediate diplomatic tasks: dealing with Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban, which harbored bin Laden, and neighboring Pakistan, which had closer ties to the Taliban regime than any other nation.

"We have to make it clear to Pakistan and Afghanistan this is showtime," Powell said.

"This is a great opportunity," Bush said, adding that the administration now had a chance to improve relations with other countries around the world, including Russia and China. It was more than flushing bin Laden out, he indicated.

Cheney raised the military problem of retaliating against al Qaeda's home base, noting that in Afghanistan, a country decimated by two decades of war, it would be hard to find anything to hit.

Bush returned to the problem of bin Laden's sanctuary in Afghanistan. Tenet said they must deny the terrorists that sanctuary by targeting the Taliban as well. Tell the Taliban we're finished with them, he urged.

Discussion turned to whether bin Laden's al Qaeda network and the Taliban were the same. Tenet said they were. Bin Laden had bought his way into Afghanistan, supplying the Taliban with tens of millions of dollars.

Rumsfeld said the problem was not just bin Laden and al Qaeda but the countries that supported terrorism-the point of the president's address that night.

"We have to force countries to choose," the president said.

11:08 p.m.

The President at the White House: 'We Think It's Bin Laden'

After the meeting had ended and Bush had returned to the residence, he and his wife were awakened by Secret Service agents. The agents rushed them downstairs to the bunker because of a report of an unidentified plane in the area. Bush was in running shorts and a T-shirt as he made his way down the stairs, through the tunnel and into the bunker. It proved to be a false alarm, and the Bushes returned to the residence for the rest of the night.

Like his father, Bush tries to keep a daily diary of his thoughts and observations. That night, he dictated:

"The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today."

"We think it's Osama bin Laden."

"We think there are other targets in the United States, but I have urged the country to go back to normal."

"We cannot allow a terrorist thug to hold us hostage. My hope is that this will provide an opportunity for us to rally the world against terrorism."

Staff researchers Jeff Himmelman and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company