By Allan Wood and Paul Thompson
May 9, 2003
At approximately 8:48 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, the first pictures of the burning World Trade Center were broadcast on live television. By that time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Secret Service, and Canada’s Strategic Command all knew that three commercial airplanes had been hijacked. So why, at 9:03 a.m. – fifteen minutes after it was clear the United States was under terrorist attack – did President Bush sit down with a classroom of second-graders and begin a 20-minute pre-planned photo op? No one knows the answer to that question. In fact, no one has even asked Bush about it.
Bush’s actions on September 11 have been the subject of lively debate, mostly on the internet. Details reported that day and in the week after the attacks – both the media reports and accounts given by Bush himself – have changed radically over the 18 months following 9/11. Culling hundreds of reports from newspapers, magazines, and the internet has only made finding the “truth” of what happened and when it happened more confusing.
In the changed political climate after 9/11, few have dared raise challenging questions about Bush’s actions. A journalist who said Bush was “flying around the country like a scared child, seeking refuge in his mother’s bed after having a nightmare” and another who said Bush “skedaddled” were fired
We should have a concise record of where President Bush was throughout the day the US was attacked, but we do not.
What follows is an attempt to give the most complete account of Bush’s actions – from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska to Washington, DC.
Accounts of when Bush’s motorcade left for the school vary from 8:30 AM to 8:39 AM. “The police shut down traffic in both directions, leaving roads utterly deserted for Bush’s long motorcade, which barreled along at 40 mph, running red lights with impunity.” [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 37-38] At 40 mph, it would take about 14 minutes to travel the nine-mile distance to the school. Several accounts say the journey took about 20 minutes, which means that Bush arrived shortly before 9:00 AM.
When Did Bush First Learn of the Attacks?
Why does it matter when Bush left the resort and arrived at the school? Because this is the crucial time when Bush was first told, or should have been told, of the attacks. 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. 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.
Two accounts explicitly state Bush was told while in the motorcade. “The President was on Highway 301, just north of Main Street … [when] he received the news that a plane had crashed in New York City.” Another account states, “Bush was driving to the school in a motorcade when the phone rang. An airline accident appeared to have happened. He pressed on with his visit.”
The first media reports of Flight 11’s crash into the World Trade Center began around 8:48, two minutes after the crash happened. CNN broke into its regular programming at that time, though other networks, such as ABC, took a few more minutes to begin reporting. So within minutes, millions were aware of the story, yet Bush supposedly remained unaware for about another ten minutes.
Claims of Bush’s ignorance become harder to believe when one learns that others in his motorcade were immediately told of the attack. For instance, Kia Baskerville, a CBS News producer traveling with Bush that morning, received a message about a plane crash “as the presidential motorcade headed to President Bush’s first event.” Baskerville said, “Fifteen minutes later I was standing in a second grade classroom [waiting for Bush’s entrance]” – which means she got the news at about 8:47 – right as the story was first being reported. A news photographer in the motorcade overheard a radio transmission that Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would be needed on arrival at the school to discuss reports of some sort of crash. Another account notes Fleischer got the news that the crash had occurred “just minutes before,” but notes that Bush was not in the same car as Fleischer. Senior presidential communications officer Thomas Herman said, “Just as we were arriving at the school, I received a notification from our operations center than [sic] an airliner had struck one of the towers….”
Meanwhile, CIA Director George Tenet was told of the crash a few minutes after it happened. A messenger gave him the news as he was eating breakfast with former Senator David Boren in a Washington restaurant three blocks from the White House. Boren says Tenet was told that the World Trade Center had been attacked by an airplane: “I was struck by the fact that [the messenger] used the word attacked.” An aide then handed a cell phone to Tenet, and Tenet made some calls, showing that at least some at the highest levels of the Bush administration were talking about an attack at this time. Tenet then said to Boren, “You know, this has bin Laden’s fingerprints all over it.”
Some people at the school also heard of the news before Bush arrived. Around 8:50, Tampa Bay’s Channel 8 reporter Jackie Barron was on the phone with her mother, who mentioned the first news reports. At almost the same time, Brian Goff, a Fox reporter from Tampa, heard the same thing on his cell phone. Associated Press reporter Sonia Ross was also told of the crash by phone from a colleague. Florida Congressman Dan Miller, waiting in front of the school as part of the official greeting party, was told by an aide about the crash at 8:55, before Bush arrived.
Given all this, how could Bush have remained ignorant? Could he have been out of the loop because he was in a car? No. The previous night, Colony Resort manager Katie Klauber Moulon toured the presidential limousine and marveled “at all the phones and electronic equipment.” Karl Rove, Bush’s “chief political strategist,” who presumably was riding with Bush, used a wireless e-mail device on 9/11 as well. There seems to have been ample opportunity and the means to alert Bush.
If Bush wasn’t told while in his limousine, he certainly was told immediately after he got out of it. US Navy Captain Deborah Loewer, the director of the White House Situation Room, was traveling in the motorcade when she received a message from an assistant back in Washington about the first crash. Loewer said that as soon as the car arrived at Booker, she ran quickly over to Bush. “It’s a very good thing the Secret Service knows who I am,” Loewer later said. She told Bush that an aircraft had “impacted the World Trade Center. This is all we know.”
Intelligence agencies were suffering “warning fatigue” from so many warnings of an al-Qaeda attack, some specifically mentioning the use of hijacked airplanes as missiles. Bush himself was given an intelligence briefing a month earlier entitled “Bin Laden to Strike in US,” and it contained a warning from the British government that the US should expect multiple airline hijackings from al-Qaeda. So with the clear knowledge that three planes had been hijacked, with one of them already crashed into the World Trade Center, who would have possibly assumed that Flight 11’s crash was an accident? Yet that is precisely what the official story claims. There are a number of different “official” accounts, but all of them stress that Bush wasn’t told until after he arrived inside the school (contrary to the account of Captain Loewer) and that it was assumed to be an accident (contradicting Tenet being told that it was an attack).
In some accounts, “President Bush had emerged from his car and was shaking hands with local officials standing outside the school when Chief of Staff Andrew Card sidled up to him with the news.” Bush later recalled that it was Card who first notified him: “‘Here’s what you’re going to be doing; you’re going to meet so-and-so, such-and-such.’ Then Andy Card said, ‘By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.'” At a press conference later that day, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer also claimed it was Andy Card who first informed him, “as the President finished shaking hands in a hallway of school officials.”
In other accounts, it was advisor Karl Rove who first told Bush. According to photographer Eric Draper, who was standing nearby, Rove rushed up, took Bush aside in a corridor inside the school and said the cause of the crash was unclear. Bush replied, “What a horrible accident!” Bush also suggested the pilot may have had a heart attack. Dan Bartlett, White House Communications Director, says he was there when Bush was told: “[Bush] being a former pilot, had kind of the same reaction, going, was it bad weather? And I said no, apparently not.” A reporter who was standing nearby later said, “From the demeanor of the President, grinning at the children, it appeared that the enormity of what he had been told was taking a while to sink in.” One account explicitly says that Rove told Bush the World Trade Center had been hit by a large commercial airliner. However, Bush later remembered Rove saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane.
In yet another account, Blake Gottesman, Bush’s personal assistant, while giving the president some final instructions as they walked to the school, remarked, “Andy Card says, ‘By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.'” [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 41-42]
Told Again, Yet Still Clueless
Booker principal Gwen Tose-Rigell was waiting for Bush outside the school. “The limousine stops and the president comes out. He walks toward me. I’m standing there in a lineup; there are about five people. He walks over and says he has to make a phone call, and he’ll be right back.” The phone call was with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. From a room with secure communications, Rice updated Bush on the situation. The fact that Bush immediately said he had to make an important call strongly suggests he was told about the situation while in the motorcade. But some accounts have Andrew Card saying to Bush as he gets out of his limousine, “Mr. President, you really need to take this phone call,” thereby implying that Card knows what’s going on, but Bush doesn’t.
As National Security Adviser, Rice had to have had as much information as anyone. By the time she spoke to Bush, she must have known that three planes had been hijacked and that the country was under attack. We know very little about the conversation – only that Rice later claimed, “[Bush] said, what a terrible, it sounds like a terrible accident. Keep me informed.” One reporter noted: “Bush did not appear preoccupied [after the phone call] … There was no sign that Rice had just told [him] about the first attack [on the World Trade Center].” Tose-Rigell was then summoned to a room to talk with Bush: “He said a commercial plane has hit the World Trade Center, and we’re going to go ahead and go on, we’re going on to do the reading thing anyway.”
One local reporter notes that at this point, “He could and arguably should have left Emma E. Booker Elementary School immediately, gotten onto Air Force One and left Sarasota without a moment’s delay … But he didn’t.” The only possible excuse is that Bush was completely clueless as to what was happening. Sure enough, at a press conference on the evening of 9/11, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked by a reporter, “And then this morning, when Andy Card told him about the first accident, was Andy Card or Condi Rice or any of those aware of the hijackings? What did they know when they –” Fleischer cut in and replied, “No, at that point they were not.” So supposedly, 15 minutes after the first crash, none of Bush’s aides, not even Rice back in Washington, DC, knew a thing about the hijackings that had been reported to NORAD 20 minutes earlier? This simply is not plausible.
Bush’s Confused Recollection
Bush’s own recollection of the first crash only complicates the picture. Less than two months after the attacks, Bush made the preposterous claim that he had watched the first attack as it happened on live television. This is the seventh different account of how Bush learned about the first crash (in his limousine, from Loewer, from Card, from Rove, from Gottesman, from Rice, from television). 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.”
There was no film footage of the first attack until at least the following day, and Bush didn’t have access to a television until 15 or so minutes later. The Boston Herald later noted, “Think about that. Bush’s remark implies he saw the first plane hit the tower. But we all know that video of the first plane hitting did not surface until the next day. Could Bush have meant he saw the second plane hit – which many Americans witnessed? No, because he said that he was in the classroom when Card whispered in his ear that a second plane hit.” Bush’s recollection has many precise details. Is he simply confused? It’s doubly strange why his advisers didn’t correct him or – at the very least – stop him from repeating the same story only four weeks later. On January 5, 2002, Bush stated: “Well, I was sitting in a schoolhouse in Florida … and my Chief of Staff – well, 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. And something was wrong with the plane…”
Unfortunately, Bush has never been asked – not even once – to explain these statements. His memory not only contradicts every single media report, it also contradicts what he said that evening. In his speech to the nation that evening, Bush said: “Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans.” It’s not known what these emergency plans were, because neither Bush nor anyone in his administration mentioned this immediate response again. Implementing “emergency response plans” seems to completely contradict Bush’s “by the way” recollection of a small airplane accident.
Inside the Classroom and the Second Plane Crash
Shortly after his call with National Security Adviser Rice, Bush entered Sandra Kay Daniels’s second-grade class for a photo-op to promote Bush’s education policies. The event was to begin precisely at 9:00, but the call pushed it back to about 9:03. Numerous reporters who were traveling with the president, as well as members of the local media, watched from the back of the room. Altogether there were about 150 people in the room, only 16 of them students. Bush was introduced to the children and then posed for a number of pictures. Daniels then led the students through some reading exercises (video footage shows this lasted about three minutes). Bush later related what he was thinking at the time: “I was concentrating on the program at this point, thinking about what I was going to say [about the plane crash]. Obviously, I felt it was an accident. I was concerned about it, but there were no alarm bells.”
At 9:03, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. News of this traveled extremely rapidly. In fact, some of Bush’s Secret Service agents watched the second crash live on television in an adjacent room. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, in the same room as Bush but not near him, immediately received the news on his pager. Other pagers were going off as well.
Chief of Staff Andrew Card was in a nearby room when he heard the news. He waited until there was a pause in the reading drill to walk in and tell Bush. The children were getting their books from under their seats to read a story together when Card came in. Card whispered to Bush: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Another account has Card saying: “A second plane has hit the World Trade Center. America is under attack.” Accounts vary as to when Card gave Bush the news. Some say 9:05, and some say 9:07. ABC News reporter Ann Compton, who was in the room, said she was surprised by the interruption and “wrote [the time] down in my reporter’s notebook, by my watch, 9:07 a.m.”
The Reaction – Or Lack of One
Descriptions vary greatly as to how Bush responded to the news. It is said he “blanched” [Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10/1/02], “the color drained from the president’s face”, he “wore a bemused smile”, “because visibly tense and serious”, and so on. Watch the video and draw your own conclusions (the 11-minute video can be viewed at http://www.cooperativeresearch.org/timeline/main/bushbookerelementaryschool.html, http://www.buzzflash.com/analysis/2002/06/12_Bookerlinks.html, http://globalfreepress.com/911/mov/scsb.bush.mov, http://emperor.vwh.net/bushvideo/scsb.bush.mov, or http://liberty.dynu.com:8080/bcbs.bush.mov). Bush later recalled his own reaction: “I am very aware of the cameras. 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 realize I’m the Commander in Chief and the country has just come under attack.” Asked again what he thought after he heard the news, Bush said, “We’re at war and somebody has dared attack us and we’re going to do something about it. I realized I was in a unique setting to receive a message that somebody attacked us … [I]t became evident that we were, you know, that the world had changed.”
So what did the Commander in Chief do with the knowledge that the United States was under attack?
He did nothing.
Bush did not say one word. He did not ask Card any questions. He did not give any orders. He did not know who (or which country) was attacking, whether there would be more attacks, what military plans had been taken, what military actions should be taken – indeed, he knew virtually nothing about what was going on outside the room. He just sat there. Bush later recalled: “There was no time for discussion or anything.” [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 83-84] Even stranger, as one newspaper put it, although the nation was under terrorist attack, “for some reason, Secret Service agents [did] not bustle him away.”
Military pilots must have “permission from the White House because only the president has the authority to order a civilian aircraft shot down.” But if retaliatory strikes needed to the authorized, Bush was not available. If one of the planes had to be shot down to save more lives on the ground, Bush was not available. Although several fighters had been dispatched to defend New York City, the pilot of one of the planes flying to catch Flight 175 later noted that it wouldn’t have mattered if he caught up with it, because only Bush could order a shoot down, and Bush could not be reached in the classroom.
Secret Service agents and other security personnel had set up a television in a nearby classroom. They turned on the TV just as Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center. According to Sarasota County Sheriff Bill Balkwill, who was in the room, a Marine responsible for carrying Bush’s phone immediately said to Balkwill, “We’re out of here. Can you get everyone ready?” But he must have been overruled by someone, because Bush did not leave.
Meanwhile, Secret Service agents burst into Vice President Cheney’s White House office. They carried him 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 toward an underground bunker. Accounts of when this happened vary greatly, from 9:06 to after 9:30. Cheney’s own account is vague and contradictory. The one eyewitness account, by White House photographer David Bohrer, said it happened just after 9:00. It’s easy to see why the White House would have wanted this event placed at a later time (after Bush’s initial statement to the nation rather than after the second crash) to avoid the obvious question: if Cheney was immediately evacuated, why wasn’t Bush?
The Photo-Op Goes On
After Card told Bush about the second plane and quickly left, the classroom was silent for about 30 seconds or so. The children were about to take turns reading from a story called The Pet Goat. Bush picked up the book and began to read with the children. In unison, the children read out loud, “The – Pet – Goat. A – girl – got – a – pet – goat. But – the – goat – did – some – things – that – made – the – girl’s – dad – mad.” Bush mostly listened, but occasionally asked the children a few questions to encourage them. At one point he said, “Really good readers, whew! … These must be sixth-graders!”
Who was really in control? Certainly not Bush. In the back of the room, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer caught Bush’s eye and held up a pad of paper for him to see, with “DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET” written on it in big block letters. Some person or people had overruled the security who wanted Bush evacuated immediately, even as Vice President Cheney was taken from his White House office to a safe location. Bush’s security overruled Bush on security matters later in the day on Air Force One, but who overruled them that morning?
When Did Bush Leave the Classroom?
Nearly every news account fails to mention when Bush left the classroom after being told America was under attack. Three mention 9:12 a.m. Remaining in the classroom for approximately five to seven minutes is inexcusable, but the video of Bush in the classroom suggests he stayed longer than that. The video contains several edits and ends before Bush leaves the room, so it also doesn’t tell us exactly how long he stayed. One newspaper suggested he remained “for eight or nine minutes” – sometime between 9:13 and 9:16, since Card’s arrival is uncertain.
When Bush finally did leave, he didn’t act like a man in a hurry. In fact, he was described as “openly stretching out the moment.” [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 89] When the lesson was over, Bush said to the children: “Hoo! These are great readers. Very impressive! Thank you all so much for showing me your reading skills. I bet they practice too. Don’t you? Reading more than they watch TV? Anybody do that? Read more than you watch TV? [Hands go up] Oh that’s great! Very good. Very important to practice! Thanks for having me. Very impressed.” [Transcribed from Booker video, Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 89-90] Bush still continued to talk, advising the children to stay in school and be good citizens. One student asked Bush a question, and he gave a quick response on his education policy.
The only source to describe what happened next is Fighting Back by Bill Sammon. Publishers Weekly described Sammon’s book as an “inside account of the Bush administration’s reaction to 9-11 [and] a breathless, highly complimentary portrait of the president [showing] the great merit and unwavering moral vision of his inner circle.” Sammon’s conservative perspective makes his account of Bush’s behavior at the end of the photo-op all the more surprising. Bush is described as smiling and chatting with the children “as if he didn’t have a care in the world” and “in the most relaxed manner imaginable.” White House aide Gordon Johndroe, then came in as he usually does at the end of press conferences, and said, “Thank you, press. If you could step out the door we came in, please.” A reporter then asked, “Mr. President, are you aware of the reports of the plane crash in New York? Is there anything…”, But Bush interrupted, and no doubt recalling his order, “DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET,” Bush responded, “I’ll talk about it later.” But still the president did not leave. “He stepped forward and shook hands with [classroom teacher] Daniels, slipping his left hand behind her in another photo-op pose. He was taking his good old time. … Bush lingered until the press was gone.” [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 90]
Think about that: rather than rush out of the room at the first chance, Bush actually stayed until after all the dozens of reporters had left! Having just been told of a Pearl Harbor-type attack on US soil, Bush was indeed “openly stretching out the moment.” But he still wasn’t done. Bush then turned to principal Tose-Rigell, who was waiting to take him to the library for his speech on education. He explained to her about the terror attacks and why he had to leave. [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 90] Finally, he went to an empty classroom next door where his staff was based. Given that Bush’s program was supposed to end at 9:20, he left the classroom only a couple of minutes earlier than planned, if even that.
The reason given why Bush didn’t leave as soon as Card told him the news is: “Without all the facts at hand, George Bush had no intention of upsetting the schoolchildren who had come to read for him.” Adviser Karl Rove said, “The President thought for a second or two about getting up and walking out of the room. But the drill was coming to a close and he didn’t want to alarm the children.” This excuse is patently absurd, given the security risks and importance of Bush being informed and making decisions as Commander in Chief. Nor was the drill coming to a close: one drill had ended and another was about to begin – it was a perfect time to simply say, “Excuse me” and leave the room. Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is only 3½ miles away; in fact, Booker was chosen as the location for the photo-op partly because of its proximity to the airport. Hijackers could have crashed a plane into Bush’s publicized location and his security would have been completely helpless to stop it. Remember, Bush’s schedule had been announced on September 7 and two of the 9/11 hijackers came to Sarasota that same day. Furthermore, the Secret Service was aware of the strange request for an interview a few hours earlier and the previous night’s report of a person in town who had made violent threats against Bush.
Indeed, a few days after 9/11, Sarasota’s main newspaper reported, “Sarasota barely skirted its own disaster. As it turns out, terrorists targeted the president and Air Force One on Tuesday, maybe even while they were on the ground in Sarasota and certainly not long after. The Secret Service learned of the threat just minutes after Bush left Booker Elementary.”
Bush Lingers On
Once he was out of the classroom, did Bush immediately leave Booker? No. He stayed in the adjacent room with his staff, calling Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Rice, and preparing a speech. Incredibly, even as uncertain information began to surface, suggesting that more planes had been hijacked (eventually 11 planes would be suspected), Bush was allowed to make his remarks at 9:30 – exactly the time and place stated on his advance schedule., see the transcript of his speech here http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911.html Why hasn’t Bush’s security staff been criticized for their completely inexplicable decision to stay at the school? And why didn’t Bush’s concern for the children extend to not making them and the rest of the 200 or so people at the school terrorist targets?
At 9:16, NORAD was notified that Flight 93 had been hijacked, and at 9:24 it was notified that Flight 77 had also been hijacked and was heading toward Washington (though, as discussed above, the hijacking was known long before this). No media report has suggested that the possible shooting down of hijacked airplanes was discussed at this time, however. It appears the discussion was not broached until after 9:55. At about 9:26, it was either FAA head Jane Garvey or FAA administrator Ben Sliney (and not Bush) who decided to halt all airplane takeoffs in the US. Additionally, no evidence has appeared suggesting Bush had a role in ordering any fighters into the skies.
Finally, to the Airport
By 9:35, Bush’s motorcade was ready to take him to the Sarasota airport where Air Force One was waiting. At 9:37, Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Bush was informed as his motorcade got near the airport. (Apparently Bush could be reached by phone in his limousine at this time.) The motorcade arrived around 9:43 and pulled up close to Air Force One. Security conducted an extra-thorough search of all the baggage for the other passengers, delaying takeoff until 9:55.
A year later, Chief of Staff Andrew Card recalled that, “As we were heading to Air Force One… [we] learned, what turned out to be a mistake, but we learned that the Air Force One package could in fact be a target.” This echoes the report mentioned above that “terrorists targeted the president and Air Force One… maybe even while they were on the ground in Sarasota …” This only increases the strangeness that Bush wasn’t immediately evacuated at 9:03 as some of his security had recommended.
Bush spoke by telephone to Cheney as the motorcade raced to the airport. Supposedly, during this call Bush issued an order to ground all flights within the country. The FAA did shut down the nationwide air traffic system at around 9:45. But other reports state that it was FAA administrator Ben Sliney who made the decision without consulting anyone. For some time it was claimed that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had made the decision, but it was later revealed that Mineta didn’t even know of the order until 15 minutes later. Apparently, “FAA officials had begged [the reporter] to maintain the fiction.” The idea that Bush made the decision is even less plausible. In fact, there is no evidence at all to suggest that Bush had by this point made even one decision relevant to his security or that of the country.
Air Force One Takes Off Without Fighter Escort
Air Force One took off at either 9:55 or 9:57 a.m. Communications Director Dan Bartlett remembered, “It was like a rocket. For a good ten minutes, the plane was going almost straight up.”
But, incredibly, Air Force One took off without any military fighter protection. This defies all explanation. Recall that at 9:03 a.m., one of Bush’s security people said, “We’re out of here. Can you get everyone ready?” Certainly, long before Bush left the elementary school at 9:35 a.m., arrangements would have been made to get fighters to Sarasota as soon as possible. Not only would it have been advisable to protect Air Force One, but it would have been only sensible as another way to protect Bush on the ground from terrorist attack even before he left the school. In Florida, there were two bases said to have fighters on 24-hour alert, capable of getting airborne in approximately five minutes. Homestead Air Station, 185 miles from Sarasota, and Tyndall Air Station, 235 miles from Sarasota; both had the highest readiness status on 9/11. Presumably, as happened at other bases across the country, just after 9:03, base commanders throughout Florida would have immediately begun preparations to get their fighters ready. Fighters left bases on the same alert status and traveled similar distances to reach Washington, DC, well before 10:00, so why were the fighters delayed in Florida?
Military planes should have been over Sarasota by the time Bush left Booker at 9:35 a.m. Yet, as will be described below, more than one hour after Air Force One took off, there were still no fighters protecting it!
An administration official claimed, “The object seemed to be simply to get the President airborne and out of the way.” But without fighter cover this makes little sense, because the sky was arguably more dangerous than the ground. At the time, there were still over 3,000 planes in the air over the US, including about half of the planes in the region of Florida where Bush was. Recall, too, that the Secret Service learned of a threat to Bush and Air Force One “just minutes after Bush left Booker Elementary.” Karl Rove, also on Air Force One, confirmed that a dangerous threat was known before the plane took off: “They also made it clear they wanted to get us up quickly, and they wanted to get us to a high altitude, because there had been a specific threat made to Air Force One…. A declaration that Air Force One was a target, and said in a way that they called it credible.”
Shoot Down Authorized – Too Late
Once he was airborne, Bush talked to Cheney again and Cheney recommended that Bush “order our aircraft to shoot down these airliners that have been hijacked.” [CBS, 9/11/02 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/09/11/60II/main521718.shtml>] “I said, ‘You bet,'” Bush later recalled. ‘We had a little discussion, but not much.'” [Newsday, 9/23/01 <http://www.newsday.com/ny-uspent232380681sep23.story>, USA Today, 9/16/01 <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2001/09/16/pentagon-timeline.htm>, Washington Post, 1/27/02 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A42754-2002Jan26>] However, even though only Bush had the authority to order a passenger plane shot down [CNN, 10/26/99 <http://www.cnn.com/US/9910/26/shootdown/>], the order was apparently given before Bush discussed it with Cheney. One flight commander recalled, “After the Pentagon was hit, we were told there were more [airliners] coming. Not ‘might be’; they were coming.” A call from someone in the White House declared the Washington area “a free-fire zone,” meaning, according to one of the responding fighter pilots, “we were given authority to use force, if the situation required it.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 9/9/02 <http://www.aviationnow.com/avnow/news/channel_awst.jsp?view=story&id=news/aw090971.xml>]
Extraordinary times can demand extraordinary measures, so having someone other than Bush give this order could be understandable. But Bush was available and talking to people like Cheney after 9:30 a.m. Around this time, officials feared that as many as 11 airliners had been hijacked [CBS, 9/11/02 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/09/11/60II/main521718.shtml>], so why weren’t Bush and Cheney even considering this course of action until about 10:00 a.m.? Was Bush being kept out of the loop in reality, or only in the media reports?
Is the lateness of this discussion merely political spin to reduce speculation that Flight 93 had been shot down? Flight 93 was still in the air after the Bush authorization, and fighters were given orders to shoot it down if necessary. [ABC News, 9/11/02 <../2002/abcnews091102.html>] NORAD knew at 9:16 a.m. that Flight 93 was hijacked [NORAD, 9/18/01 <../2001/norad091801.html>], but supposedly fighters weren’t scrambled until minutes before it crashed at 10:06 a.m.
Going Nowhere as Threats Increase
Shortly after takeoff, Cheney apparently informed Bush of “a credible threat” to Air Force One. US Representative Adam Putnam “had barely settled into his seat on Air Force One … when he got the news that terrorists apparently had set their sights on the plane.” The Secret Service had received an anonymous call: “Air Force One is next.” The caller allegedly knew the agency’s code words relating to Air Force One procedures. Pilot Colonel Mark Tillman was told of the threat and he asked that an armed guard be stationed at the cockpit door. The Associated Press reported that the threat came “within the same hour” as the Pentagon crash (i.e., before 10:00 a.m., roughly when the plane took off). Details suggest this threat was not the same as the earlier one, but it’s hard to know for sure.
In his comments at Booker, Bush said he was immediately flying back to Washington, but soon after takeoff, he, Cheney and the Secret Service began arguing whether it was safe to fly back to the capital. Andrew Card told Bush, “We’ve got to let the dust settle before we go back.” The plane apparently stayed over Sarasota until the argument was settled. Accounts differ, but until about 10:35 a.m., Air Force One “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.”
Cheney apparently called Bush again at 10:32 a.m., and told him of another threat to Air Force One. Within minutes, the argument was over, and the plane turned away from Washington and flew to Louisiana instead. Bush recalled: “I wanted to come back to Washington, but the circumstances were such that it was just impossible for the Secret Service or the national security team to clear the way for Air Force One to come back.” Given that the rocket-like takeoff was due to a threat, this must have been another threat, possibly even a third threat.
Around 10:55 a.m., there was yet another threat to Air Force One. The pilot, Colonel Mark Tillman, said he was warned that a suspect airliner was dead ahead. “Coming out of Sarasota there was one call that said there was an airliner off our nose that they did not have contact with.” Tillman took evasive action, pulling his plane even higher above normal traffic. Reporters on board noticed the rise in elevation. The report was apparently a false alarm, but it shows the folly of having Bush fly without a fighter escort.
Were There Threats to Air Force One?
The threat or threats to Air Force One were announced on September 12, after mounting criticism that Bush was out of sight in Louisiana and Nebraska during most of the day and did not return to Washington until 10 hours after the attacks. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was “real and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were targets.” On September 13, New York Times columnist William Safire wrote – and Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove confirmed – that there was an “inside” threat that “may have broken the secret codes [showing a knowledge of presidential procedures].” Had terrorists hacked their way into sensitive White House computers? Was there a mole in the White House?
No. It turned out the entire story was made up. The press expressed considerable skepticism about the story. For instance, one Florida newspaper thought Fleischer’s disclosure was “an apparent effort to explain why the president was flown to Air Force bases” before returning to Washington. When asked on September 15 about the “credible evidence,” Fleischer said, “we exhausted that topic about two days ago.” On September 26, CBS News reported: “Finally, there is this postscript to the puzzle of how someone presumed to be a terrorist was able to call in a threat against Air Force One using a secret code name for the president’s plane. Well, as it turns out, that simply never happened. Sources say White House staffers apparently misunderstood comments made by their security detail.” One former official who served in George Bush Sr.’s administration told Human Events Online, which bills itself as “the national conservative weekly,” that he was “deeply disappointed by [Bush’s] zigzagging across the country.” At the end of the month, Slate magazine awarded its “Whopper of the Week” to Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer, and Dick Cheney.
No one knew exactly where the bogus story originated from, but “what can be safely said is that it served the White House’s immediate purposes, even though it was completely untrue.” What were those purposes? A well-informed, anonymous Washington official said, “It did two things for [Cheney]. It reinforced his argument that the President should stay out of town, and it gave George W. an excellent reason for doing so.” When Bush was asked in May 2002 why he had flown to two Air Force bases before returning to Washington, Bush said, “I was trying to get out of harm’s way.”
The most obviously bogus threat – the mole knowing secret codes – came from Cheney in a pivotal moment in his argument with Bush over where Bush should go. But were the other threats, for instance, the one made before Air Force One even took off, or the airline suspected of crashing into Air Force One, also bogus?
When Does the Fighter Escort Finally Arrive?
Much like the time when Bush left the Booker classroom, the time when fighters finally reached Air Force One is rarely mentioned, and when it is, the facts are highly debatable. According to one account, around 10:00 a.m. Air Force One was “joined by an escort of F-16 fighters from a base near Jacksonville, Florida.” But one month later, it was reported that in Cheney’s 10:32 phone call, he told Bush that it would take another 40 to 90 minutes [as late as noon] to get protective fighters up to escort Air Force One. Another account said, “Air Force One headed toward Jacksonville [at 10:41] to meet jets scrambled to give the presidential jet its own air cover,” but it isn’t said when the plane actually met up with the fighters. We know that when Air Force One took evasive action around 10:55, there was no fighter escort. NORAD commander Major General Larry Arnold later said, “We scrambled available airplanes from Tyndall [note this is near Tallahassee, not Jacksonville, Florida] and then from Ellington in Houston, Texas,” but he doesn’t say when. In another account, the first two F-16s to arrive are piloted by Shane Brotherton and Randy Roberts, from the Texas Air National Guard, not from any Florida base. All that’s known for sure is that by 11:30 there were six fighters protecting Air Force One.
It would appear that fighters arrived some time between 11:00 and 11:30. These fighters were supposed to be on 24-hour alert, ready to get into the air in about five minutes. If we assume the fighters flew at a speed of 1,100 mph, the same speed Major Gen. Arnold said fighters used to reach New York City earlier in the day when traveling a comparable distance, the fighters should have reached Sarasota in about 10 minutes. Yet they took around two hours to reach Air Force One from when they were likely first needed, shortly after 9:00.
This clearly goes beyond mere incompetence, yet no newspaper article has ever raised the issue. Was Cheney able to prevent the fighters from reaching Air Force One, perhaps to convince Bush not to return to Washington? If so, why? Did Cheney assume (or know) that Bush was in no real danger? Like so many other questions surrounding 9/11, we do not know.
The many accounts of what happened to Bush on 9/11 are riddled with disinformation of false threats, omitted details, fudged timing, and more. But around September 11, 2002, the heavily publicized first anniversary of the attacks, there was an obvious attempt to further rewrite the story.
Chief of Staff Andrew Card claimed that after he told Bush about the second World Trade Center crash, “it was only a matter of seconds” before Bush “excused himself very politely to the teacher and to the students, and he left” the classroom. Card also stated that Bush “quickly excused himself to a holding room.” In a different account, Card said, “Not that many seconds later the president excused himself from the classroom.” The Booker school video shows these statements are lies – unless “a matter of seconds” means over 700 seconds!
Sandra Kay Daniels, the teacher whose second-grade classroom Bush visited on 9/11, told the Los Angeles Times that after Card informed Bush of the second crash, Bush got up and left. “He said, ‘Ms. Daniels, I have to leave now.’ … Looking at his face, you knew something was wrong. I said a little prayer for him. He shook my hand and left.” Daniels also said, “I knew something was up when President Bush didn’t pick up the book and participate in the lesson.” However, the Booker video clearly shows that Bush did follow along after being told of the second plane.
The New York Post reported, “A federal agent rushed into the room to inform the president of the United States. President Bush had been presiding over [Daniels’s] reading class last 9/11, when a Secret Service agent interrupted the lesson and asked, ‘Where can we get to a television?'” Daniels then claimed that Bush left the class even before the second crash: “The president bolted right out of here and told me: ‘Take over.'” When the second crash occurred, she claims her students were watching TV in a nearby media room. This article is riddled with errors. As mentioned previously, the Secret Service was already watching the second plane crash live on television in an adjacent room at 9:03 – long before this supposedly happened. Nor did Bush “bolt” out of the room; in fact, even pro-Bush author Bill Sammon called Bush “the dawdler in chief” for taking so long to leave the room. [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 90]
Bush himself took part in the historical revisionism. In an extensive video interview shown on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” he again repeated his bizarre belief that he was watching television when the first crash took place. CBS also revived the false story that terrorists had broken Air Force One’s secret codes, even though it was CBS who debunked that same story nearly a year earlier.
Vital Questions Remain Unanswered
Needless to say, in the anniversary hoopla, Bush and other leaders were described as “resolute,” “brave,” “strong,” and so forth. Even the minor level of media criticism just after 9/11 that led to several reporters losing their jobs was absent. The topic of Bush’s behavior on 9/11 has been barely mentioned in the media since.
There are many questions that deserve answers. So many pieces of the puzzle do not fit. Simply by reading the mainstream media reports, we can see that mere incompetence doesn’t explain what happened to Bush on that day. For instance, it makes no sense that Bush would listen to a story about a goat long after being told the US was under attack, and even after the Secret Service decided to immediately evacuate him from the school. It defies explanation that Air Force One’s fighter escort took two hours to appear. And it is mind-boggling that there are seven different versions of how Bush learned about the first crash.
It’s doubtful that the Independent Commission http://www.9-11commission.gov/ investigation will look critically at what Bush did on 9/11 and why he did it. Despite the contradictory reports, no one in the mainstream media has yet demanded clarification of the many obvious inconsistencies and problems of the official version. Anyone even asking questions has been quickly insulted as anti-American, accused of bashing the president in a time of war, or branded a conspiracy nut. Only a few relatives of the 9/11 attacks have been able to raise these issues publicly. For instance, Kristen Breitweiser told Phil Donahue: “It was clear that we were under attack. Why didn’t the Secret Service whisk [Bush] out of that school? … [H]e is the commander-in-chief of the United States of America, our country was clearly under attack, it was after the second building was hit. I want to know why he sat there for 25 minutes.” But so far, few have listened to their concerns.
Because the media has failed in its role to ask these questions, much less attempt to answer them, it is now the responsibility of ordinary Americans – of you, of me, and the people we know – to gather the information, look for answers, and sound the alarm.
Allan Wood has assisted with the research for, and editing of, the 9/11 Timeline. He is also a member of 911CitizensWatch.org. Any questions, comments, or additional information regarding this article can be sent to his email: aninterestingday @hotmail.com (remove the space). Thanks to Melissa Kavonic for assisting in the proofreading of the article.