A Jan. 27 article on the events of Sept. 11 incorrectly described the flight path of the American Airlines jet that terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. Flight 77 at one point appeared headed toward the White House, but it changed course before it reached the Potomac River. (Published 2/7/02)
First in a series
Tuesday, September 11 Shortly after 9:30 p.m., President Bush brought together his most senior national security advisers in a bunker beneath the White House grounds. It was just 13 hours after the deadliest attack on the U.S. homeland in the country's history.
Bush and his advisers sat around a long table in the conference room of the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC. Spare and cramped, the bunker was built to withstand a nuclear attack, with sleeping berths and enough food for a few people to survive for several days.
"This is the time for self-defense," he told his aides, according to National Security Council notes. Then, repeating the vow he had made earlier in the evening in a televised address from the Oval Office, he added: "We have made the decision to punish whoever harbors terrorists, not just the perpetrators."
Their job, the president said, was to figure out how to do it.
That afternoon, on a secure phone on Air Force One, Bush had already told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that he would order a military response and that Rumsfeld would be responsible for organizing it. "We'll clean up the mess," the president told Rumsfeld, "and then the ball will be in your court."
Intelligence was by now almost conclusive that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, based in Afghanistan, had carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the aides gathered in the bunker -- the "war cabinet" that included Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet -- were not ready to say what should be done about them. The war cabinet had questions, no one more than Rumsfeld.
Who are the targets? How much evidence do we need before going after al Qaeda? How soon do we act? While acting quickly was essential, Rumsfeld said, it might take up to 60 days to prepare for major military strikes. And, he asked, are there targets that are off-limits? Do we include American allies in military strikes?
Rumsfeld warned that an effective response would require a wider war, one that went far beyond the use of military force. The United States, he said, must employ every tool available -- military, legal, financial, diplomatic, intelligence.
The president was enthusiastic. But Tenet offered a sobering thought. Although al Qaeda's home base was Afghanistan, the terrorist organization operated nearly worldwide, he said. The CIA had been working the bin Laden problem for years. We have a 60-country problem, he told the group.
"Let's pick them off one at a time," Bush replied.
The president and his advisers started America on the road to war that night without a map. They had only a vague sense of how to respond, based largely on the visceral reactions of the president. But nine nights later, when Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, many of the important questions had been answered.
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.
The President in Florida:
Disbelief and Determination
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."
The Secretary of State in Peru:
'Go Tell Them We're Leaving'
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
The President on Air Force One:
'Still a Threat to Washington'
Cheney called Bush on Air Force One, on its way from Florida to Washington, to say the White House had just received a threat against the plane. The caller had used its code word, "Angel," suggesting terrorists had inside information. Card was told it would take between 40 minutes and 90 minutes to get a protective fighter escort up to Air Force One.
Bush told an aide that Air Force One "is next." He was in an angry mood. "We're going to find out who did this," he said to Cheney, "and we're going to kick their asses."
Air Force One was still en route to Washington when Cheney called again at 10:41 a.m. This time, he urged Bush not to return. "There's still a threat to Washington," the vice president said. Rice agreed, and had told the president the same thing.
There was little debate or discussion. Cheney was worried the terrorists might be trying to decapitate the government, to kill its leaders. Bush agreed.
Within minutes, those on board the president's plane could feel it bank suddenly and sharply to the left, its course now westerly toward Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. It was within easy range, and once there food and fuel could be loaded and the president could have access to its more sophisticated communications systems.
The threat to the plane turned out to be false. Someone inside the White House had heard a threat to Air Force One, perhaps in a phoned-in call, and passed it up the line using the code word "Angel." Others thought the threatening caller had used the code word. It took days for the incident to be sorted out and weeks before the White House publicly acknowledged it.
As Air Force One headed to Barksdale, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the White House, seeking to speak with the president. Rice took the call instead. The Russian president told Rice the Russians were voluntarily standing down their military exercise as a gesture of solidarity with the United States.
News reports portrayed Washington as shut down, the Capitol and the White House evacuated, federal agencies emptied out, the streets under patrol. In their underground bunker, Cheney and the others began to worry that the rest of the country and capitals around the world would assume that the U.S. government was not functioning.
White House counselor Karen P. Hughes was at her home in Northwest Washington when she received a page telling her that "Angler" was trying to reach her. "Angler?" she wondered, before realizing it was the code name for the vice president, a devoted fly fisherman.
Cheney asked her to begin working on a presidential statement that could be delivered as soon as Bush landed at Barksdale. Cheney's wife Lynne, who had been brought to the bunker by the Secret Service, and his counselor, Mary Matalin, also went to work on it.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was drafting a statement on Air Force One as it neared Barksdale and called Hughes for consultation. One phrase drew an instant response. "This morning we were the victims of . . ." Fleischer read from the text.
"Wait a minute -- we aren't the victims of anything," Hughes interjected. "We may have been the targets, we may have been attacked, but we are not victims."
Bush had insisted that he be the first to speak for the government. But his team in Washington grew increasingly frustrated with the time it would take for him to reach Barksdale and appear before the cameras. Hughes considered giving an interview to the Associated Press to reassure the public that the government was working. She tried to reach the president through the White House signal operator.
"Ma'am, we can't reach Air Force One," the operator said.
The President in Louisiana:
Reassuring a Nation
Air Force One arrived at Barksdale, where it was immediately surrounded by military personnel wearing green fatigues, flak jackets and helmets, and bearing automatic weapons. Reporters were told they could say only that the president was at "an unidentified location in the United States."
Bush soon spoke to his wife, first lady Laura Bush, who was in a secure location, for a second time that day and touched base with Cheney again.
"I think it's important for the people to see the government is functioning, because the TV shows our nation has been blasted and bombed," the president told Cheney. "Government is not chaotic. It's functioning smoothly." He described the attackers as "faceless cowards" and said America had to prepare for "a new war" against this new enemy.
By 12:16 p.m., the FAA command center reported that U.S. airspace had been cleared of all commercial and general aviation aircraft; only military and lifeguard flights were airborne. Twenty minutes later, according to the red digital clock in the conference room near the Barksdale base commander's office, Bush entered, looking grim. Reporters in the room noted that his eyes were red-rimmed. It had been more than three hours since Bush or any senior official had said anything publicly.
When Bush finally appeared on television from the base conference room, it was not a reassuring picture. He spoke haltingly, mispronouncing several words as he looked down at his notes. When he got to the last sentence, he seemed to gain strength. "The resolve of our great nation is being tested," he said in even tones. "But make no mistake: We will show the world that we will pass this test."
His remarks were fed by the media pool to the networks, causing a short delay before the nation could see the commander in chief. The entire statement consisted of just 219 words, and the president took no questions from reporters.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., Air Force One took off for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where there were secure facilities that would allow the president to conduct a meeting of his National Security Council in Washington over a video link.
On the plane, Bush expressed his irritation over being away from the White House. "I want to go back home ASAP," he told Card, according to notes of the conversation. "I don't want whoever did this holding me outside of Washington."
Some aides recall Bush saying he would return to Washington later in the day, unless there was some extraordinary new threat. The senior Secret Service agent aboard Air Force One told Bush the situation was "too unsteady still" to allow his return.
"The right thing is to let the dust settle," Card said.
As he was leaving Barksdale, Bush made another round of calls, including one to Rumsfeld expressing shock over the damage at the Pentagon. "Wow, it was an American airliner that hit the Pentagon," Bush said. "It's a day of national tragedy, and we'll clean up the mess, and then the ball will be in your court and Dick Myers's court to respond."
Air Force General Richard B. Myers was slated to become the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in three weeks.
The President on Air Force One:
A 'Comforting Call'
En route to Offutt, the president reached his father on the phone. His aides left him alone in the cabin.
"Where are you?" Bush recalled asking his father.
The former president said he and his wife, Barbara, were in Milwaukee, on their way to Minneapolis.
"What are you doing in Milwaukee?" the president inquired.
"You grounded my plane," the former president said.
It was, said Bush, "a comforting call."
"I told him, 'We're going to be fine.' I said I knew exactly what we need to do, the team is functioning well."
The President in Nebraska:
National Security Council Meets
Air Force One landed at Offutt. Before leaving his plane, Bush repeated to his lead Secret Service agent, "We need to get back to Washington. We don't need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The American people want to know where their president is."
The president was driven the short distance to the U.S. Strategic Command headquarters and was ushered into the secure command center, a cavernous room with multi-story video screens and batteries of military personnel at computer terminals hooked into satellites monitoring activities around the globe. As Bush arrived, they were tracking a commercial airliner on its way from Spain to the United States. It was giving out an emergency signal, indicating it might be hijacked.
Bush remembers a voice booming out from a loudspeaker. "Do we have permission to shoot down this aircraft?"
"Make sure you've got the I.D.," the president responded. "You follow this guy closely to make sure."
It was another false alarm.
At 3:30 p.m. Bush convened the day's first meeting of his National Security Council; the others were piped in by secure video links from various command centers in Washington.
CIA Director Tenet reported that he was virtually certain bin Laden and his network were behind the attacks. A check of the passenger manifests of the hijacked flights had turned up three known al Qaeda operatives on American Airlines Flight 77, which had struck the Pentagon.
One of them, Khalid Al-Midhar, had come to the CIA's attention the previous year, when he traveled to Malaysia and met with a key al Qaeda suspect in the 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole. The FBI had been informed about Al-Midhar and he had been put on a watch list, but he had slipped into the United States over the summer and the bureau had been looking for him since.
Tenet said al Qaeda was the only terrorist organization in the world that had the capability to pull off such well-coordinated attacks. And, he said, intelligence monitoring had overheard a number of known bin Laden operatives congratulating each other after the strikes. He said information collected before Sept. 11 but only now being processed indicated that operatives had expected something big. But none of it specified the day, time or place of the attacks in a way that would have allowed the CIA or FBI to preempt them.
"Get your ears up," the president told Tenet and the others. "The primary mission of this administration is to find them and catch them."
Cheney voiced concern that more hijacked planes could be out there.
Tenet said that since all the attacks had taken place before 10 a.m., that was probably it for the day but there was no way to be sure.
FBI Director Mueller expressed concerns that investigators still did not know how the terrorists had penetrated airport security. Tenet said it was essential to know this before flights resumed.
"I'll announce more security measures, but we won't be held hostage," Bush insisted. "We'll fly at noon tomorrow," he said, although it took three more days for commercial flights to resume and then only on a reduced schedule.
Someone mentioned that New York officials had asked whether they should urge people to go back to work the next day, particularly those working in banks and the financial markets.
"Terrorists can always attack," Rumsfeld said. "The Pentagon's going back to work tomorrow."
People in New York should go back to work, the president said. "Banks should open tomorrow, too."
Bush asked about coming back to Washington, although he had already told his traveling party that he would fly back immediately after the video conference. Cheney suggested the president return and make a statement at Andrews, but the Secret Service still insisted that it was not safe.
"I'm coming back," Bush said.
As the meeting was ending Bush said, "We will find these people. They will pay. And I don't want you to have any doubt about it."
The American public had seen Bush only twice during the day, both times in less than ideal circumstances. In the White House bunker, Bush's advisers felt someone had to appear in public to provide information about what the government was doing to deal with the crisis.
Cheney was the logical candidate, but one administration official said there were concerns that his appearance would remind people of then-Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, who on the day President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, came into the White House briefing room and declared, "As of now, I am in control here."
Instead, Hughes was deputized to make a statement, which she did from the FBI building, since the Secret Service refused to allow the press into the White House briefing room. Hughes described a government still functioning, but took no questions.
As Air Force One headed for Washington, the president placed a sympathy call to Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, whose wife, Barbara, had been killed in the plane that smashed into the Pentagon. Bush then conferred with Hughes. He wanted to make a short address to the nation that night from the Oval Office.
The president's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, working from home, had e-mailed Hughes a rough draft, which she substantially reworked, based on her conversation with Bush.
One sentence in the draft from Gerson read, "This is not just an act of terrorism. This is an act of war." That squared with what Bush had been saying all day, but he told Hughes to take it out. He was not ready to talk publicly about going to war.
"Our mission is reassurance," Bush told her.
"One of the things I wanted to do was, I wanted to calm nerves," Bush said in the interview. "I wanted to show resolve, and I wanted the American people to know a couple of things -- one that this was an unusual moment, but that we will survive, and we'll win.
"But I didn't want to add to the angst of the American people yet, I guess is a good way to describe that. I felt like I had a job as the commander in chief to first, not be warlike, but to be more -- as good as I could to be firm, but to be as comforting as possible, in a very difficult moment for the country."
Bush said in the interview that he was seeking to reassure the country "that I was safe . . . not me, George W., but me the president; reassuring that our government was functioning, and that we're going to take care of the American people; reassuring that those who did this would be brought to justice. In other words, there had to be some sense of balance in the speech. On the other hand, I also knew I had plenty of time to make warlike declarations, which happened the next morning."
The President in Washington:
Formulating a Policy
Air Force One landed at Andrews. On his way back to the White House, his Marine One helicopter flew over the Pentagon to give the president a first-hand look at the damage. At the White House, he went to the small study off the Oval Office to confer with Rice, Hughes, Card, Fleischer and others about the speech.
Gerson had gone back to the campaign speech on national defense that Bush made in 1999 at The Citadel, in which he said that those who sponsored terrorism or attacks on the United States could count on a "devastating" response. In the draft text Gerson sent to Hughes that day, he had written, "We will make no distinction between those who planned these acts and those who permitted or tolerated or encouraged them."
"That's way too vague," Bush complained, proposing the word "harbor" as an alternative. In final form, what the White House came to call the Bush Doctrine was put this way: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
The declaration was a huge step for the administration. Although he had talked about the idea in the campaign and aides had been working for months on a new policy for dealing with al Qaeda, Bush had never enunciated his anti-terrorism policy as president. What he outlined that night from the Oval Office committed the United States to a broad, vigorous and potentially long war against terrorism, rather than a targeted retaliatory strike. The decision to state the policy that night was made without consulting most of his national security team, including Cheney and Powell.
Rice asked whether he wanted to make that kind of far-reaching declaration in a speech designed mostly to reassure the nation. "You can say it now or you'll have other opportunities to say it," she told him.
"What do you think?" he asked.
She said she favored including it that night. First words matter more than almost anything else, she thought.
"We've got to get it out there now," Bush said.
Bush then went down into the White House bunker, where he gave his wife a hug and conferred with Cheney before going back upstairs to freshen up for the speech.
Back in the West Wing, aides were still debating whether the president should make a firmer statement about America being at war. Hughes told them she was confident she knew where Bush stood on that issue but agreed to have it aired one more time. Her deputy, White House communications director Dan Bartlett, was given the assignment to speak to Bush directly.
The president had just come out of the bedroom and was putting on a different necktie when Bartlett arrived. He told Bush he was carrying a proposed change to the text.
"What?" Bush said. "No more changes."
Bartlett showed him the proposed language.
"I've already said no to that," Bush said.
Bartlett returned to the West Wing. "Thanks," he said to Hughes. "You can take the message next time."
Bush spoke for approximately seven minutes from the Oval Office.
"A great people has been moved to defend a great nation," he said, closing with a statement of resolve. "America has stood down enemies before and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world."
At 9 p.m., Bush met with his full National Security Council, followed roughly half an hour later by the meeting with a smaller group of key advisers who would become his war cabinet.
Powell, back in Washington from Peru, described the immediate diplomatic tasks: dealing with Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban, which harbored bin Laden, and neighboring Pakistan, which had closer ties to the Taliban regime than any other nation.
"We have to make it clear to Pakistan and Afghanistan this is showtime," Powell said.
"This is a great opportunity," Bush said, adding that the administration now had a chance to improve relations with other countries around the world, including Russia and China. It was more than flushing bin Laden out, he indicated.
Cheney raised the military problem of retaliating against al Qaeda's home base, noting that in Afghanistan, a country decimated by two decades of war, it would be hard to find anything to hit.
Bush returned to the problem of bin Laden's sanctuary in Afghanistan. Tenet said they must deny the terrorists that sanctuary by targeting the Taliban as well. Tell the Taliban we're finished with them, he urged.
Discussion turned to whether bin Laden's al Qaeda network and the Taliban were the same. Tenet said they were. Bin Laden had bought his way into Afghanistan, supplying the Taliban with tens of millions of dollars.
Rumsfeld said the problem was not just bin Laden and al Qaeda but the countries that supported terrorism -- the point of the president's address that night.
"We have to force countries to choose," the president said.
The President at the White House:
'We Think It's Bin Laden'
After the meeting had ended and Bush had returned to the residence, he and his wife were awakened by Secret Service agents. The agents rushed them downstairs to the bunker because of a report of an unidentified plane in the area. Bush was in running shorts and a T-shirt as he made his way down the stairs, through the tunnel and into the bunker. It proved to be a false alarm, and the Bushes returned to the residence for the rest of the night.
Like his father, Bush tries to keep a daily diary of his thoughts and observations. That night, he dictated:
"The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today."
"We think it's Osama bin Laden."
"We think there are other targets in the United States, but I have urged the country to go back to normal."
"We cannot allow a terrorist thug to hold us hostage. My hope is that this will provide an opportunity for us to rally the world against terrorism."
Staff researchers Jeff Himmelman and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.