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White House Under the Gun
WHEN TERRORISTS TOOK DOWN THE World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and even more hijacked airliners still could be headed for the White House itself, President George W. Bush wasn’t “home” in Washington, D.C., but Vice President Dick Cheney was. He had hardly learned of the horrifying events in New York City before a Secret Service agent burst into his office in the West Wing, took hold of him and, without ceremony, “propelled” him out of his office and down the hallway.
Special Agent Jimmy Scott rushed Cheney to a stairway leading to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), a strictly functional bunker below the wedding-cake facades of the Executive Mansion.
It was a moment Cheney never would forget.
“We stopped at the bottom of the stairs in a tunnel outside the PEOC,” Cheney related in his 2011 book In My Time (written with his daughter Liz Cheney). “I watched as Secret Service agents positioned themselves at the top, middle, and bottom of the staircase, creating layers of defense in case the White House itself should be invaded.”
The White House was safe, but in the next few minutes, Cheney would learn of at least one hijacked airliner that appeared to be on a direct path to the White House. Just then, Cheney would be cut off from communication with President Bush. As a result, it fell to him as the highest available authority in the U.S. government to order the Air Force to shoot down the airliner if it clearly did become a threat.
Agent Scott, already handing out guns, gas masks and flashlights to the personnel gathered in the underground shelter, explained that “He’d gotten word over his radio that an inbound, unidentified aircraft was headed for ‘Crown,’ code name for the White House.”
And minutes later, a heart-stopping follow-up: “Sir,” Scott said, “the plane headed for us just hit the Pentagon.”
On hearing that grim news, Cheney knew “for certain” that Washington itself was under attack. President Bush, who had been visiting an elementary school in Florida, must stay away.
With reports of other airliner hijackings still unresolved, the White House and everybody in it—or below it—were still under the gun
Cheney finally reached Bush to tell him he should stay away. Actually, it was Cheney’s second call to the president since two hijacked airliners flew into the World Trade Center’s twin towers about 9 o’clock that Tuesday morning. Unaccountably, a “communications glitch” had interrupted Cheney’s first call to Bush, thus cutting off a vital communications link between the two leaders of the most powerful nation in the world. For a time, each was trying to reach the other.
Waiting for his latest call to go through, Cheney had watched the dire scene unfolding in New York on “an old television set that had been set up on the tunnel.”
Finally, Bush came on the line. “I told him the Pentagon had been hit and urged him to stay away from Washington. The city was under attack, and the White House was a target. I understood that he didn’t want to appear to be on the run, but he shouldn’t be here until we knew more about what was going on.”
Meanwhile, Cheney’s wife Lynne appeared in the tunnel. It now was shortly before 10 o’clock. She had been in downtown Washington when the World Trade Center was struck. “Her Secret Service detail brought her to the White House.”
As the vice president wound up his conversation with Bush, he and his wife went on into the wood-paneled PEOC proper. There, he sat at a conference table loaded with telephones in drawers underneath the tabletop. “On the wall across from me were two large television screens and a camera for video-conferencing. A side wall contained another video camera and two TV screens. The wall behind me was blank except for a large presidential seal.”
All too soon the television screens showed the collapse of the South Tower at the World Trade Center. “Both Lynne and I knew we had just watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent people die.” Still unresolved, of course, were unconfirmed reports of more airliner hijackings by the terrorists.
Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, also sequestered in the underground bunker by now, “was making lists of airline flight numbers, trying to figure out which planes were confirmed hijacked and crashed, and which might still be threatening us in the air.”
Using two phones, Secretary Mineta was in touch with both the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and his chief of staff, “trying to get the skies cleared until we knew just what we were dealing with.” In this emergency, no pilot discretion on if and when to land would be tolerated. “I heard him say in no uncertain terms that pilot discretion would not be the rule today.
‘Get those planes down now,’ he ordered.”
Cheney, himself a former defense secretary, likened the first hours on 9/11 to “living in the fog of war.” Although it later turned out the al-Qaeda terrorists had hijacked four airliners, at that point, “We had reports of six domestic flights that were possibly hijacked.” To further confuse the emergency situation that fateful morning, “We had conflicting reports about whether the Pentagon had been hit by a plane, a helicopter, or a car bomb.”
Other alarming reports, all of them unfounded, kept coming in. Explosions at the Lincoln Memorial, at the Capitol, at the State Department, even unidentified aircraft allegedly headed for Camp David and for the Bush ranch at Crawford, Texas.
Then at about 10:15, “a uniformed military aide came into the room to tell me that a plane, believed hijacked, was eighty miles out and headed for D.C.”
And now came the really crucial question of the morning for Vice President Dick Cheney. Should they shoot the plane down, crew, passengers and all?
The aide asked and Cheney said yes, “without hesitation.”
Nor, with the clock ticking on, was that the end of it.
“A moment later he was back. ‘Mr. Vice President, it’s sixty miles out. Do they [Air Force fighter aircraft[ have authorization to engage?’ Again, yes.”
As Cheney wrote, there could be no other answer. “As the last hour and a half had made brutally clear, once a plane was hijacked it was a weapon in the hands of the enemy.”
By now, Cheney said, he and the president had discussed the issue. “He had approved my recommendation that they [the fighter jets] be authorized to fire on a civilian airliner if it had been hijacked and would not divert. Thousands of Americans had already been killed, and there was no question about taking action to save thousands more.”
Even so, struck by the “enormity of the order,” all in the bunker with Cheney fell silent.
Soon after, with every moment for those in the White House bunker still full of tension, came word that an aircraft had crashed south of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Some relief, yes, but still, so many questions. “Had it been forced down? Had it been shot down by one of our pilots following the authorization I’d conveyed? Eventually we learned that an act of heroism had brought United Airlines Flight 93 down in the fields near Shanksville. Aware of the fates of the other planes hijacked that morning, the passengers on Flight 93 stormed the cockpit. By sacrificing their own lives, those brave men and women saved the lives of many others, possibly including those of us in the White House that morning.”
Meanwhile, there still could be more hijacked airliners winging their way to Washington, but Cheney flatly refused the suggestion by Steve Hadley, deputy national security advisor to the president, that Cheney should evacuate the White House. Cheney said no, he wasn’t about to leave. “I knew the president was safe. And I knew I had to maintain my ability to communicate, as frustrating as our communications challenges were that day.”
In fact, leaving the White House by helicopter could mean a 45-minute gap in communications before he would be back in touch, Cheney later wrote. That would be valuable time he and the rest of the nation’s top officials couldn’t afford to lose.
He would stay put.
At 10:28, more bad news. The second of the World Trade Center towers came down. “Mothers and fathers were in that building, and wives and husbands, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They weren’t combatants in a war, but people going about their lives. They had been killed, and their families would be plunged into grief by terrorists who had no regards for innocent lives.”
Minutes later, came word that “another plane headed in the direction of Washington has hit the ground on the border of Ohio and Kentucky.” Soon after, even more alarming, came the report that still another hijacked airliner was just five miles out from the White House.
“Take it out,” Cheney ordered. “If it looks threatening, take it out.”
Little did he know then that his own “shootdown order” had NOT been passed along by NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector to the fighter pilots scrambling aloft from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia—and yet their counterparts at Andrews AFB in nearby Maryland did have that permission. Another potentially disastrous glitch.
In actual fact, too, only one hijacked airliner had “hit the ground”—United’s Flight 93, thanks to its heroic passengers. And that plane reported down near the Ohio-Kentucky border was not Flight 93 nor a fifth hijacked airliner, but rather American’s Flight 77. It at one point was flying in the direction of Washington and the White House, true, but it “circled away from us, then back toward the White House.” Thus, it was the very plane that “prompted” Cheney’s evacuation that morning—it also was the fuel-laden airliner that then crashed into the walls of the Pentagon just across the Potomac River from the Executive Mansion.
By now, as the true dimensions of the terrorist attack became clear, Cheney had two goals in mind. One was to clear the skies of any non-military aircraft, an effort already underway. The second was “guaranteeing the continuity of a functioning United States government.” That would mean getting the top leaders of the federal government out of town, pronto!
“The president stayed away from the city until things clarified,” Cheney wrote. “We evacuated key leaders of the House and Senate to a secure location away from D.C.”
But here again, unanticipated problems suddenly became all too evident under the pressures of the emergency. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, next in line to assume the presidency after Vice President Cheney himself, was…well, where?
At first, Cheney wrote, he had problems finding Hastert, but finally located him at Andrews Air Force Base, “where his security team had taken him.”
Next in line for the presidency would be the president pro tempore of the Senate, the elderly West Virginian Robert Byrd, since deceased, who simply refused to go to a safe location and instead went home. Fortunately, he wouldn’t be needed, nor was his home slated for attack.
The key figure, though, would be President George W. Bush.
Bringing him back to the nation’s capital would be important, once it was safe to do so. He needed to address and reassure the American people.
In the meantime, though, yet another communications problem intervened.
The staff sequestered below ground in the PEOC with Cheney wanted to coordinate with more staffers located in the White House Situation Room upstairs. “The PEOC staff attempted to set up a video conference to connect the two rooms, and we managed to get images of the Situation Room meeting up on one of our screens, but we couldn’t get any audio of the meeting. We were getting better real-time information from news reports on TV, but because of a technical glitch, I couldn’t hear those reports when the video of the Sit Room meeting was on display.”
Cheney finally ordered the video to the Situation Room turned off in order to follow the television news reporting instead. He asked Eric Edelman, his deputy national security advisor, to “get on the phone and try to listen in on the Sit Room meeting,” only to have Edelman report that the audio quality was “worse than listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks at the bottom of a swimming pool.”
But…meanwhile, what of the president himself? Where was he?
First flying to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, he then had headed to the Strategic Air Command’s Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska, where he could make use of “state of the art communications,” Cheney wrote in his book. “The president would be safe there, and on a day when the weakness of our communications capability had become painfully obvious, he could be in close touch with the key members of his government in Washington, D.C.”
As time passed, it became obvious the worst was over—the devastation and death toll had been terrible, but by afternoon the skies above all America had been cleared of any and all threatening aircraft. Also clear by now: “[S]omeone from the executive branch who was fully briefed on our early responses to the attack needed to go on the air to reassure the American people and the world that the president was safe and that the U.S. government was functioning. The attack had not shut us down.”
That person could not be Cheney himself—“it would undermine the president, and that would bad for him and bad for the country.”
Accordingly, flying into Washington from the super-secure Offutt base in the American heartland, Bush was in the White House and on the air addressing the nation from the Oval Office by 8:30 p.m. He then, that very same evening, led a National Security Council meeting in the underground PEOC.
Only after the meeting was over did Cheney leave the White House complex for the day…and what a day!
A helicopter, Marine Two, lifted him and his wife Lynne from the White House grounds to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, to make sure he and the president would be in widely separate locations for that night at least. “As Marine Two gained altitude, we could see the Pentagon,” Cheney wrote with obvious feeling. “The building was lit up for the rescue teams still at work, and smoke was rising from it.” All day he had seen the images of the stricken World Trade Center and the Pentagon on television, but now he could see one of the terrorists’ targets first hand, for himself.
As Cheney then recalled, the city of Washington “had come under attack in 1814, at the hands of the British.” At that time, the White House itself was left a smoking husk of its former self. Now, 187 years later, the American capital had been targeted by a new kind of enemy, in a new kind of war. The results elsewhere had been devastating, but this time America’s symbolic “President’s House” had come through without a scratch, the government again did continue to function, and the nation, as before, would endure.