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America's Chaotic Road to War

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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

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