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America's Chaotic Road to War

On Air Force One, Bush inquired, "Did we shoot it down or did it crash?"

It took the Pentagon almost two hours to confirm that the plane had not been shot down, an enormous relief. "I think an act of heroism occurred on board that plane," Cheney said. Later, reports of cell phone conversations before the plane crashed indicated that some passengers had fought with the hijackers.


In a national emergency, a secret "continuity of government" plan is supposed to protect the country's constitutional leadership. It designates which officials should be taken to the underground bunker at the White House, which Cabinet members should be taken to secure locations, and where to move congressional leaders.

Senior administration officials were given briefings on the procedures shortly after Bush was inaugurated and some had toured the White House bunker. But others who were told to go to the bunker Sept. 11 had no idea where to find it and still others who should have been on the list were left off until they received authorization. Some Cabinet security details initiated plans to protect and move agency officials; some did not.

In the early confusion that day, there was a series of frightening but ultimately false reports: A plane was down near Camp David and another was down near the Ohio-Kentucky border; a car bomb exploded outside the State Department; an explosion near the Capitol, fires on the Mall and at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building; a plane heading at high speed toward Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex.

Secret Service agents ordered the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building evacuated at 9:45 a.m., first telling staffers there to file out in an orderly way, then screaming at them to run as fast as they could across Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park on the other side. At one point, some women were told to remove their shoes so they could run faster. Some staffers were advised to remove the White House identification from around their necks so they couldn't be singled out by possible snipers outside the White House gates.

Other than those officials taken by the Secret Service into the White House bunker, no one knew where to go, what to do or how to communicate with one another.

In the bunker, conditions were not ideal. There were secure video links to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies and military installations, but no way to broadcast on television from the bunker, no way to link government officials to the public. For a time, no one could make the audio on the TV sets work.

Capitol Hill was more chaotic. From the bunker, Cheney officially implemented the emergency continuity of government orders, which provided for evacuating the third and fourth in the line of presidential succession-Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and the president pro tem of the Senate, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who chose to go home. Other top leaders on Capitol Hill were forced to improvise. "We had no plan and we certainly had trained with no plan," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Capitol Police ordered an evacuation of the building shortly after the Pentagon was hit, but no one had instructions on where to go. Gephardt went to his home nearby. Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) went to the Capitol Police headquarters near Union Station, then joined some of his staff at a nearby town house. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) also was taken to the police headquarters but decided it was unwise for the leaders to be clustered in a nonsecure facility. He asked to be taken to Andrews Air Force Base.

Many cell phones weren't working because the system was overburdened. For more than an hour, Daschle's staff did not know where he was. Rank-and-file lawmakers didn't have guidance from their leaders or from Capitol Police. It was not until late in the morning or early in the afternoon that orders were given to remove Daschle, Lott, Gephardt and other members of the leadership to a secure location outside Washington.

When they arrived for the trip at the West Front of the Capitol, Gephardt recalls an "unimaginable" scene: helicopters ringed by black-suited SWAT teams carrying automatic weapons, as other SWAT team members looked down from atop the Capitol.

At the secure location outside Washington, there were too few phone lines for the congressional leaders. Communication with Cheney was frustrating. Coordinating with lawmakers left behind in Washington was difficult, sometimes contentious.

Many members had drifted back to Capitol Police headquarters. Desperate for information, they set up a conference call with their sequestered leaders. During one call, a small group of House members demanded that the speaker order everyone back for a late-day session in the Capitol as a show of defiance. Over the speaker phone, Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) said it would be an act of cowardice if lawmakers did not hold a session that day.

The leaders agitated to get out of their bunker and back to Washington, but Cheney resisted. Terrorist threats persisted and there was no way to guarantee their security, he said. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) protested. We're a separate branch of government-why do we need the approval of the White House, he complained.

"Don," the vice president replied, "we control the helicopters."

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