Part 2 of 3
The United States launched its counterattack on Osama bin Laden’s terror network in Afghanistan one year ago today. Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times, tells the inside story of President Bush’s war on terror in his new book, “Fighting Back” (Regnery).
‘We’re at war’
The president got his first look at the burning World Trade Center towers on a television that had been rolled in on a cart and hooked up for him in a holding room at Emma Booker Elementary School in a poor, crime-ridden section of Sarasota, Fla.
The president sat at a table with his ear pressed to a telephone while he spoke over a secure line to the White House. He craned to watch the sickening images from clear across the room.
“I told Ari to take notes,” Mr. Bush recalled months later in an interview with The Times, referring to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. “I wanted Ari to have a full understanding of what he saw and my reactions to that.
“I recognized that a lot of this was going to end up being such a blur that I wouldn’t have an accurate accounting.”
The first airplane hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m., as the president’s motorcade crossed the John Ringling Causeway on the way to Booker Elementary from the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key.
The second plane crashed into the south tower at 9:03, a minute after the president stepped inside a classroom to watch a teacher put her second-graders through a reading drill before his scheduled speech.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card had informed the president of the first, seemingly accidental crash just as Mr. Bush arrived at the school. Then, at 9:07, Mr. Card entered the classroom and seized a pause in the reading drill to walk up to Mr. Bush’s seat.
“A second plane hit the second tower,” he whispered into the president’s right ear. “America is under attack.”
From the holding room off the school’s portico, Mr. Bush talked first over the secure line with Mr. Cheney back at the White House. The vice president had watched the second crash on live TV in his West Wing office. He was huddled there with Miss Rice, his chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and political adviser Mary Matalin.
“First of all, we had to figure out what we were going to do and where we were going to make decisions from,” Mr. Bush recalled.
“I didn’t spend that much time about my own safety,” the president added, “because I knew others were worried about that. What I was interested in is making sure that the response mechanism that was under my control was sharp and ready to go. And that meant defense, for starters.”
Mr. Bush also called FBI Director Robert Mueller, then on the job all of six days. The FBI already suspected Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the Islamic radical who led the al Qaeda terrorist network.
The president then consulted with New York Gov. George E. Pataki. He hung up and turned to the top aides present Mr. Card, Mr. Fleischer, chief political adviser Karl Rove and White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett.
“We’re at war,” Mr. Bush announced.
A sense of calm
The president gathered up his scribbled notes, got to his feet and headed for the school library to make his first public remarks on the attacks in New York.
“I remember I had to convince myself to be as calm and resolute as possible, because I knew people were watching,” Mr. Bush recalled.
“I can be an emotional guy. And I was worried, emotional, about loss of life, because the magnitude of what had happened had come home. And at the same time, I knew I needed to send a sense of, you know, calm in the face of what could be panic. And I think I was able to achieve that.
“Usually when I get up at these things, at these big events, I just kind of let ‘er go and hope for the best. This moment, I was conscious of what was going to happen, because I was feeling emotions inside me.
“I was not doubtful. I was firm in what I knew we needed to do.”
It was just after 9:30 a.m. The president unfolded his hands and straightened three sheets of hand-scrawled notes that he had spread on the podium in the school library. He folded his hands again and looked back up at his audience.
“Today, we’ve had a national tragedy,” Mr. Bush said, tersely informing the crowd of 200 students, parents, educators and local dignitaries that he would be “going back to Washington” instead of giving his planned speech.
“Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country,” Mr. Bush said.
Gasps and murmurs rippled through the audience.
Mr. Bush’s short announcement included this choice of words: “Terrorism against our nation will not stand.”
The words instantly recalled his father’s promise, issued when he was president more than a decade earlier, that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait “will not stand.”
‘A fog of war’
The new president’s own firmness would be tested in the minutes and hours that followed. His limousine barreled away toward the city airport at 9:34 a.m. As the motorcade swung up to Air Force One at 9:43 a.m., he learned that a third jetliner had slammed into the Pentagon.
Mr. Bush headed directly to his private cabin near the front of the plane. He promptly ordered additional protection for his 19-year-old twin daughters Barbara at Yale and Jenna at the University of Texas whom he later described as “freaked out” by the attacks. He also increased security for first lady Laura Bush, who was on Capitol Hill to testify at a hearing on education.
“I was worried for my wife,” Mr. Bush recalled, “until I called her and heard her voice.”
The president was bombarded by a flurry of urgent reports, not all of them true, as Air Force One sped toward Washington.
“There is a fog of war,” he said. “At this point, the information was sketchy, and the facts were just flying at us. You know: Attack on the State Department. Plane aimed for the White House. Crash. We actually had a threat, potential threat on the ranch. I mean, we were hearing all kinds of things.”
Between phone calls and grave discussions with aides, he saw the televised images of the World Trade Center towers collapsing. He learned that a fourth plane, possibly bound for Washington, had crashed in Pennsylvania. There was even a seemingly credible threat against Air Force One.
The Secret Service and Mr. Cheney emphatically urged Mr. Bush to divert to a military base until the crisis could be brought under control. At length, the president reluctantly agreed, and his plane swung toward Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
“I’ll never forget looking out the airplane and seeing the F-16s on our wing,” Mr. Bush recalled. “I was very worried about the nation. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. We just didn’t know.”
At Barksdale, the tarmac teemed with camouflaged soldiers in full battle gear, brandishing M-16s as they scrambled to set up a perimeter around Air Force One.
“Hey, hey! Get to that wingtip!” an officer shouted to an underling. “Move to that wingtip NOW!”
A Humvee outfitted with a machine gun turret escorted the president’s motorcade.
“I’ll never forget getting in a car and going about 150 miles an hour,” Mr. Bush recalled. “I thought the most dangerous part of the whole day was driving across the tarmac, these guys with guns strapped on them.”
Eye on the ball
By noon the press was clamoring for the president to address the nation with reassuring words.
The president was in complete agreement as he conferred with Mr. Cheney by phone and with aides in an upstairs office at Eighth Air Force headquarters at Barksdale.
“I think it’s important for people to see the government is functioning,” he told aides, adding: “We’re going to get the bastards.”
Mr. Bush called the enemy a “faceless coward” in tape-delayed remarks made at 12:36 p.m. before news cameras in a conference room.
“Make no mistake,” he said in a statement the world first heard at 1:04. “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”
Media critics faulted the president’s delivery from a then-unknown location as halting, but he was markedly more animated away from the cameras.
“I can’t wait to find out who did it,” Mr. Bush told the base commander two minutes later. “It’s going to take a while. And we’re not gonna have a little slap-on-the-wrist crap.”
On the phone again with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the president 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 Meyers’ court to respond.”
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers was the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The president reboarded Air Force One within a half hour, reluctantly bound for Strategic Command headquarters at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska.
“We need to get back to Washington,” the president groused again at 2:58 p.m. to the head of his Secret Service detail. “We don’t need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The American people want to know where their dang president is.”
Mr. Bush and his entourage descended to an underground bunker at Offut, where he conducted a meeting of the National Security Council at 4 p.m. in a secure videoteleconference.
One of the faces on the video screens was that of CIA Director George J. Tenet, who had dispatched agents to pull his son out of Gonzaga College High School near the Capitol, an act that unnerved students and teachers. School officials had just decided against evacuation.
After the meeting, over the protestations of the Secret Service, Mr. Bush announced he was returning to Washington.
“We’re going home,” he said to his staff as he stepped out into the hallway at 4:15.
He called Mrs. Bush at her “secure location” after Air Force One took off at 4:36.
“I’m coming home,” he told the first lady. “See you at the White House.
“I love you,” he added. “Go on home.”
By this point the president felt comfortable enough to joke about the level of safety they could expect at home.
“If I’m in the White House and there’s a plane coming my way, all I can say is I hope I read my Bible that day,” Mr. Bush, a devout Christian, joshed to aides.
The president wandered the plane in his shirtsleeves, pausing at each cabin to chat and hoping his presence would reassure other passengers.
He lingered in the Secret Service cabin, kidding with the agents a bit. While speaking to one agent, he jerked his thumb toward another in an exaggerated gesture and pulled a funny face.
The president next leaned into the press cabin, where White House stenographer Ellen Eckert had worried herself to a frazzle.
“Hey, sir,” she said.
“Hey,” Mr. Bush said. “How you doing?”
“Fine,” she replied. “Uh, were you able to reach Mrs. Bush?”
The president walked up and put his arm around her shoulder.
“I just talked to her,” he said, patting the stenographer. “Thanks for asking.”
As Miss Eckert’s eyes filled with tears, something unusual happened. Normally, when a president ventures back to the press cabin, reporters crowd around and grill him until an aide cuts off questions.
But on this visit, Mr. Bush was alone. And instead of interrogating the president about the cataclysmic developments, the journalists wanted to know how he was holding up.
“How are your spirits, sir?” Associated Press photographer Doug Mills asked.
As Mr. Bush began to answer, he noticed CBS cameraman George Christian filming him. The president held up a hand and shook his head to signify he did not want this conversation recorded. Mr. Christian swung the camera away and turned it off.
“We’re gonna get those bastards,” Mr. Bush vowed. “No thug is gonna bring our country down.”
He noticed AP correspondent Sonya Ross typing this quote into her laptop computer.
“Hey,” he said with a glare. “That’s off the record.”
Miss Ross agreed, and the president decided it was time to go.
“I gotta get back to work,” he said.
As he headed to the front of the plane he heard more unusual words from the assembled press: “Keep your chin up.” “We’re thinking of you.” Even “We’re praying.”
What people want
The president paused in the senior staff cabin to talk with press wrangler Gordon Johndroe.
“I just went back to the press cabin,” Mr. Bush remarked casually, then assured the horrified aide: “I didn’t say anything.”
Mr. Bush could tell Mr. Johndroe was barely holding his emotions in check. He decided the stressed-out loyalist needed a little levity.
“I think we’re gonna be too busy to do that ‘Day in the Life’ next week,” Mr. Bush deadpanned, referring to plans for NBC News to follow him around for a day.
“Yes, sir,” Mr. Johndroe replied with a weak smile. “I don’t think there’s any point in doing that.”
As the plane neared Andrews Air Force base around 6:30, the Secret Service said it might be safer for Mr. Bush to complete the final leg of his journey via motorcade, not helicopter.
“I’m landing on the South Lawn in Marine One,” the president replied. “People want to see me land on the South Lawn at the White House and go into the Oval Office, OK?”
He boarded the helicopter, which the pilot flew close to the Pentagon so the president could see the damage. Smoke billowed from a gash five stories high and 150 feet wide.
“The mightiest building in the world is on fire,” Mr. Bush muttered, staring out a side window. “That’s the 21st-century war you’ve just witnessed.”
The green-and-white helicopter crossed the Potomac and the Tidal Basin, then swung back around the Washington Monument.
The sun still illuminated the tops of the stately trees surrounding the South Lawn as Marine One descended to the gloom of the grass at 6:54 p.m. The president never thought he would be so relieved to see the White House again.
“I knew we were going to get back there,” he said. “It was just a matter of making sure.”
Part 3: A nation shakes of sorrow and braces to fight back
Part I: An attack on America transforms the Bush presidency.