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America's Chaotic Road to War

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 reelection campaign.

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 Avenue.

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."

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)
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."

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."

9:30 a.m.

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.

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