A previously unpublished behind-the-scenes account of President George W. Bush’s response in the traumatic minutes and hours after the 9/11 attacks shows him preparing for military action, serving up several doses of his trademark Western swagger and openly worrying about the safety of his wife, his daughters and his Scottish terrier, Barney.
Flooded with inaccurate reports — of a credible threat to Air Force One, of a car bomb at the State Department, of an airliner crashing near Camp David, of a “high-speed object” screaming toward his Texas ranch — Bush pressed intelligence officials for information and resolved to try to reassure Americans even as security concerns kept him away from Washington, D.C., for most of the day.
On Sept. 11, 2001, at 10:37 a.m., not quite two hours after al-Qaida terrorists crashed the first hijacked airliner into the north tower of the World Trade Center, Bush and top aides aboard Air Force One watched as a hair-removal commercial came on the airplane’s television screens, interrupting a channel’s coverage of the national tragedy.
These chaotic, sometimes surreal details come from six pages of handwritten notes taken by Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary at the time. Fleischer provided the notes to me and to Steve Holland of Reuters, two print reporters who were with the president on what was supposed to have been a humdrum, even newsless education-themed trip to Sarasota, Fla., 15 years ago. (Fleischer has previously tweeted what it was like behind the scenes on 9/11 but has never published his entire notes from that day.)
There are no shocking revelations in Fleischer’s real-time narrative, which 9/11 Commission investigators reviewed as they compiled their report. But Fleischer’s detailed account helps to flesh out how Bush and his top advisers reacted to catastrophic attacks that still shape America’s national security policies and public debate today. It also serves as a good reminder of how little the reporters who cover a president see of the way the commander in chief does the people’s work — and thus as a good reminder of the importance of laws requiring the preservation and potential release of official documents. Fleischer told Yahoo News that two sections are redacted, at 10:37 a.m. and 10:41 a.m., when he wrote down the location of secure facilities where Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were taken. Yahoo News has included a digital version of the notes here to give readers the ability to review them for themselves.
The chronology starts when top political adviser Karl Rove tells Bush about the first crash. The entry is labeled 8:45 a.m., a minute before the actual time of the first attack, an understandable lapse at a time of uncertainty and crisis. It then skips to 9:45 a.m., with the president aboard Air Force One. “Sounds like we have a minor war going on here. I heard about the Pentagon,” he tells Vice President Dick Cheney. Not long thereafter, Bush tells congressional leaders by phone: “We’re at war.”
An entry at 10:20 a.m. notes Bush “authorized shoot down if reason” — a reference to the president deciding that, if a hijacked airliner were dangerously on course with a potential target, fighter planes could be allowed to fire. The false threat to Air Force One — “Angel is next” — comes in via the White House switchboard at 10:32 a.m.
Five minutes later, the hair-removal commercial comes on. That’s also when Fleischer records that the Bush daughters are safe: “girls removed 2 safe house.”
The 10:37 a.m. entry is also when Bush asks White House Chief of Staff Andy Card — best remembered for whispering word of the second attack into the president’s ear in an elementary school classroom at the Florida stop — about Barney. “He’s nipping at the heels of Osama bin Laden right now,” Card replies. Officials get word that a plane “has crashed in the vicinity of Camp David, but Rove quickly corrects that to “50 [miles] outside of Pittsburgh.”
At 10:41 a.m., Bush learns that his daughters have been moved to a more secure location. “How did they take it?” he asks. “They wanted 2 stay in their apartments,” an aide replies.
At 10:55 a.m., Rove lets other officials know that reports of a car bomb at the State Department were wrong.
Bush makes another momentous decision at 11:00 a.m., taking U.S. forces to the increased DEFCON 3 state of readiness.
At 12:25 p.m., speaking to Cheney from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Bush says, “I think it’s important 4 ppl 2 see the gov is functioning because TV shows our nation has been blasted and bombed. Gov is not chaotic. It’s functioning smoothly. We’re going 2 get the bastards.” And, later, the president declares, “It’s the new war. It’s the faceless coward that [attacks].”
At 12:40 p.m. Bush announces, “I can’t wait to find out who did it. It’s going to take a while + we’re not going 2 have a little slap on the wrist crap.”
The president speaks to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York at 12:55 p.m. “We’ll come together. God Bless.”
On the phone with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush says it will soon be up to the Pentagon “to respond.”
At 1:05 p.m., another inaccurate report: “high-speed object heading 4 POTUS ranch” in Crawford, Texas.
“I want 2 go back home ASAP,” Bush says aboard Air Force One at 1:25 p.m. “I don’t want whoever this is holding me outside of Washington.”
At 1:35 p.m., Bush declares “this administration will spend whatever is necessary 2 find, hunt down, and destroy whoever did this.”
The president speaks to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki by phone at 2:25 p.m., promising to do “anything we can do to help you.” He also notes “some possibility of a second wave” of attacks.
At 2:58 p.m., Bush tells an aide “we need 2 get back to Wash. We don’t need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The Am ppl want 2 know where their dang P is.”
At 4:26 p.m., the president tells his personal military aide that he’s going back to Washington.
At 4:39 p.m., after another stop, this one at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Bush finally speaks to first lady Laura Bush. “I’m coming home. See you at the White House,” he said. “Love you … go on home.” And, he adds, “If I’m in the WH and there’s a plane coming my way, all I can say is I hope I read my bible that day.”
At 5:05 p.m., Bush learns Cheney has briefed congressional leaders, who will come to the White House a day later. “We will find these ppl + they will suffer the consequences of taking on this nation,” Bush says. “We will do what it takes. Everyone must understand this will not stand.”
Over the next few hours, Bush speaks to British Prime Minister Tony Blair as aides plan briefings for Congress and start to chart the way forward after the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. At one point, Fleischer’s chronology notes, the directive comes down: “No loose lips.”