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America's Chaotic Road to War

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.

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."

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.

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