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.