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America's Chaotic Road to War

At 9:30 a.m. the president appeared before television cameras, describing what had happened as "an apparent terrorist attack" and "a national tragedy." He appeared shaken, and his language was oddly informal. He would chase down, he said, "those folks who committed this act."

Bush also said, "Terrorism against our nation will not stand." It was an echo of "This will not stand," the words his father, President George H.W. Bush, had used a few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990-in Bush's opinion, one of his father's finest moments.

"Why I came up with those specific words, maybe it was an echo from the past," Bush said in an interview last month. "I don't know why. . . . I'll tell you this, we didn't sit around massaging the words. I got up there and just spoke."

9:32 a.m.

The Vice President in Washington: Underground, in Touch With Bush

Secret Service agents burst into Cheney's West Wing office. "Sir," one said, "we have to leave immediately." Radar showed an airplane barreling toward the White House.

Before Cheney could respond, the agents grabbed the vice president 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 that led to the underground bunker.

Meanwhile, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 that had taken off from Dulles International Airport, turned away from the White House and flew back across the Potomac River, slamming into the Pentagon at 9:39 a.m.

In the tunnel below the White House, Cheney stopped to watch a television showing the smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center towers, heard the report about the plane hitting the Pentagon and called Bush again. Other Secret Service agents hustled Rice and several other senior White House officials included in an emergency contingency plan into the bunker with the vice president.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, summoned by the White House to the bunker, was on an open line to the Federal Aviation Administration operations center, monitoring Flight 77 as it hurtled toward Washington, with radar tracks coming every seven seconds. Reports came that the plane was 50 miles out, 30 miles out, 10 miles out-until word reached the bunker that there had been an explosion at the Pentagon.

Mineta shouted into the phone to Monte Belger at the FAA: "Monte, bring all the planes down." It was an unprecedented order-there were 4,546 airplanes in the air at the time. Belger, the FAA's acting deputy administrator, amended Mineta's directive to take into account the authority vested in airline pilots. "We're bringing them down per pilot discretion," Belger told the secretary.

"[Expletive] pilot discretion," Mineta yelled back. "Get those goddamn planes down."

Sitting at the other end of the table, Cheney snapped his head up, looked squarely at Mineta and nodded in agreement.

Over the Atlantic, Shelton ordered his plane to return to Washington. But he couldn't get approval from air traffic controllers, who were diverting all planes, even the one used by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was ready to defy the controllers, figuring it was easier to ask later for forgiveness, when his deputy called to say he had obtained the necessary clearance.

In his Pentagon office, Rumsfeld felt the huge building shudder. He looked out his window, then rushed out toward the smoke, running down the steps and outside where he could see pieces of metal strewn on the ground. Rumsfeld began helping with the rescue efforts until a security agent urged him to get out of the area. "I'm going inside," he said, and took up his post in the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon war room.

Pentagon officials ordered up the airborne command post used only in national emergencies. They sent up combat air patrols in the Washington area and a fighter escort for Air Force One. They also ordered AWACs radar and surveillance planes airborne along the East Coast and, fearing another round of attacks, along the West Coast as well.

Commanders worldwide were ordered to raise their threat alert status four notches to "Delta," the highest level, to defend U.S. facilities. Rumsfeld raised the defense condition-signaling U.S. offensive readiness-to DefCon 3, the highest it had been since the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. U.S. officials also sent a message to the Russians, who were planning a military exercise not far from Alaska, urging them to rethink their plans.

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