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America's Chaotic Road to War

After Bush's statement at Booker Elementary School, his motorcade raced back to Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. As Bush boarded Air Force One, a Secret Service agent, showing a trace of nervousness, said, "Mr. President, we need you to get seated as soon as possible."

The plane accelerated down the runway and then almost stood on its tail as it climbed rapidly out of the airport. It was 9:55 a.m.


9:55 a.m.

The Vice President in the Bunker: 'Should We Engage?' 'Yes.'

Once airborne, Bush spoke again to Cheney, who said the combat air patrol needed rules of engagement if pilots encountered an aircraft that might be under the control of hijackers. Cheney recommended that Bush authorize the military to shoot down any such civilian airliners-as momentous a decision as the president was asked to make in those first hours. "I said, 'You bet,'" Bush recalled. "We had a little discussion, but not much."


Louisiana Detour: Advised not to return to Washington, Bush confers with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card, Jr. on Air Force One. (By Eric Draper - The White House)
Bush then talked to Rumsfeld to clarify the procedures military pilots should follow in trying to force an unresponsive plane to the ground before opening fire on it. First, pilots would seek to make radio contact with the other plane and tell the pilot to land at a specific location. If that failed, the pilots were to use visual signals. These included having the fighters fly in front of the other plane.

If the plane continued heading toward what was seen as a significant target with apparently hostile intent, the U.S. pilot would have the authority to shoot it down. With Bush's approval, Rumsfeld passed the order down the chain of command.

In the White House bunker, a military aide approached the vice president.

"There is a plane 80 miles out," he said. "There is a fighter in the area. Should we engage?"

"Yes," Cheney replied without hesitation.

Around the vice president, Rice, deputy White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, tensed as the military aide repeated the question, this time with even more urgency. The plane was now 60 miles out. "Should we engage?" Cheney was asked.

"Yes," he replied again.

As the plane came closer, the aide repeated the question. Does the order still stand?

"Of course it does," Cheney snapped.

The vice president said later that it had seemed "painful, but nonetheless clear-cut. And I didn't agonize over it."

It was, "obviously, a very significant action," Cheney said in an interview. "You're asking American pilots to fire on a commercial airliner full of civilians. On the other hand, you had directly in front of me what had happened to the World Trade Center, and a clear understanding that once the plane was hijacked, it was a weapon."

Within minutes, there was a report that a plane had crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania-what turned out to be United Flight 93, a Boeing 757 that had been hijacked after leaving Newark International Airport. Many of those in the PEOC feared that Cheney's order had brought down a civilian aircraft. Rice demanded that someone check with the Pentagon.


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