Bush’s actions on September 11 have been the subject of lively debate, mostly on the internet. Details reported that day and in the week after the attacks – both the media reports and accounts given by Bush himself – have changed radically over the past 18 months. Culling hundreds of reports from newspapers, magazines, and the internet has only made finding the "truth" of what happened and when it happened more confusing. In the changed political climate after 9/11, few have dared raise challenging questions about Bush’s actions. A journalist who said Bush was "flying around the country like a scared child, seeking refuge in his mother’s bed after having a nightmare" and another who said Bush "skedaddled" were fired. [Washington Post, 9/29/01 (B)] We should have a concise record of where President Bush was throughout the day the US was attacked, but we do not.
What follows is an attempt to give the most complete account of Bush’s actions – from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska to Washington, DC.
President Bush’s Movements and Actions on 9/11
May 9, 2003
Bush’s appearance at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, on September 11, 2001 had been in the planning stages since August [Booker web site], but was only publicly announced on the morning of September 7. [White House, 9/7/01] Later that same day, 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi traveled to Sarasota and enjoyed drinks and dinner at a Holiday Inn only two miles down the sandy beach from where Bush was scheduled to stay during his Sarasota visit. [Longboat Observer, 11/21/01, Washington Post, 1/27/02]
On the night of September 10th, Bush stayed at the Colony Beach Resort – "an upscale and relatively pristine tropical island enclave located directly on the Gulf of Mexico, a spindly coral island … off Sarasota, Florida." [AP, 07/29/01] Zainlabdeen Omer, a Sudanese native living in Sarasota, told the local police that night that someone he knew who had made violent threats against Bush was in town and Omer was worried about Bush’s safety. The man was identified only as "Ghandi." A police report states the Secret Service was informed immediately. [Hopsicker, 7/22/02]
After a private dinner with various Florida politicians (including his brother Jeb) and Republican donors, Bush went to bed around 10:00 p.m. [Sarasota Magazine, 11/01, Washington Post, 1/27/02] Surface-to-air missiles were placed on the roof of the resort [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/10/02], and an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane circled high overhead. [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 25] It’s not clear if this type of protection was standard for the president or whether security was increased because of possible threats.
An Assassination Attempt?
Bush awoke a little before 6:00 a.m. on September 11, pulled on shorts and an old T-shirt and laced up his running shoes. [CBS, 11/1/02] At 6:30 a.m., Bush, a reporter friend, and his Secret Service crew took a four-mile jog in the half-light of dawn around a nearby golf course. [Washington Post, 1/27/02, Washington Post, 09/11/01]
At about the same time Bush was getting ready for his jog, a van carrying several Middle Eastern men pulled up to the Colony’s guard station. The men said they were a television news crew with a scheduled "poolside" interview with the president. They asked for a certain Secret Service agent by name. The message was relayed to a Secret Service agent inside the resort, who hadn’t heard of the agent mentioned or of plans for an interview. He told the men to contact the president’s public relations office in Washington, DC, and had the van turned away. [Longboat Observer, 9/26/01]
The Secret Service may have foiled an assassination attempt. Two days earlier, Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, had been murdered by a similar ruse. Two North African men, posing as journalists from "Arabic News International," had been requesting an interview with Massoud since late August. Ahmad Jamsheed, Massoud’s secretary, said that by the night of September 8, "they were so worried and excitable, they were begging us." An interview was arranged for the following day. As it began, a bomb hidden in the video camera exploded, killing the two journalists. Massoud was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Tajikistan, but was pronounced dead on arrival (although his death was not acknowledged until September 15). [International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 10/30/01, Newsday, 10/26/01] The assassination is widely believed to have been timed to remove the Taliban’s most popular and respected opponent in anticipation of the backlash that would occur after the 9/11 attacks. [BBC, 9/10/01, BBC, 9/10/01 (B), Time, 8/4/02, St. Petersburg Times, 9/9/02] The Northern Alliance blamed al-Qaeda and the ISI, Pakistan’s secret service, for the attacks. [Radio Free Europe, 9/10/01, Newsday, 9/15/01, Reuters, 10/4/01]
Nearly three hours after the incident at the Colony, another Longboat Key resident reported a run-in with possibly the same men. At about 8:50 (when reports of the first World Trade Center crash were first broadcast), while standing on the Sarasota bay front waiting for the presidential motorcade to pass by, this man saw two Middle Eastern men in a dilapidated van "screaming out the windows ‘Down with Bush’ and raising their fists in the air." The FBI questioned the man, but it’s not known if this was the same van that had visited the Colony. [Longboat Observer, 9/26/01]
Later on the morning of September 11, the Secret Service searched a Sarasota apartment looking for further corroboration of Zainlabdeen Omer’s report of an assassination threat. Three Sudanese men were questioned for about ten hours. The Secret Service also raided a beauty supply store in Sarasota, whose owner, identified as "Hakim," told the agents that "Ghandi" was a member of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, a group fighting against the fundamentalist Muslim government in Sudan. [Hopsicker, 7/22/02]
Monica Yadav of Sarasota’s ABC News 40 reported that a few days after the Secret Service visit, the beauty supply store was closed up and Hakim was long gone. Yadav also learned that Zainlabdeen Omer had suddenly quit his jobs and vacated his apartment. "All I know is he can’t leave town," a friend of Omer’s told Yadav. "Omer got in a lot of trouble with the law." The Special Agent in charge of the Presidential detail in Sarasota told Yadav that Bush was never in any danger and the various warnings and possible terrorist connections were all "just a coincidence." [Hopsicker, 7/22/02] Yet, as we will see below, there are more details of a threat against Bush before he left Sarasota.
Bush Is Briefed as the Hijackings Begin
After his jog, Bush showered, then sat down for his daily intelligence briefing around 8 a.m. "The President’s briefing appears to have included some reference to the heightened terrorist risk reported throughout the summer, but contained nothing specific, severe or imminent enough to necessitate a call to [National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice." [Telegraph, 12/16/01]
While Bush was being briefed, the planes that would be hijacked began taking off. American Airlines Flight 11 was first, leaving Boston’s Logan Airport at 7:59 a.m. The others soon followed, except for United Flight 93, scheduled to leave at 8:01, but which was delayed on the runway for about 40 minutes. [Boston Globe, 11/23/01] (For more information on the four flights, see Flight 11, Flight 175, Flight 77, Flight 93.)
At approximately 8:13, Flight 11 was instructed by air traffic controllers at the FAA’s Boston Center, in Nashua, New Hampshire, to climb to 35,000 feet. The plane did not obey the order and its transponder was turned off. Air traffic control manager Glenn Michael said, "we considered it at that time to be a possible hijacking." [AP, 8/12/02, emphasis added] According to FAA regulations, that was the correct decision: "Consider that an aircraft emergency exists … when … there is unexpected loss of radar contact and radio communications with any … aircraft." [FAA Air Traffic Control Regulations, Chapter 10, Section 2-5 ]
If air traffic controllers believed Flight 11 had been hijacked at 8:13, NORAD should have been informed immediately, so military planes could be scrambled to investigate. However, NORAD and the FAA both claimed NORAD was not informed until 8:40 – 27 minutes later. [NORAD, 9/18/01, AP, 8/12/02, AP, 8/19/02, Newsday, 9/10/02; one NORAD employee said it took place at 8:31, ABC News, 9/11/02] Indeed, before contacting NORAD, Boston air traffic controllers watched Flight 11 make an unexpected 100-degree turn and head south toward New York City [Christian Science Monitor, 9/13/01], told other controllers of the hijacking at 8:25 [Guardian, 10/17/01], continued to hear highly suspicious dialogue from the cockpit (such as, "Nobody move, please, we are going back to the airport. Don’t try to make any stupid moves") [Guardian, 10/17/01, New York Times, 10/16/01], and even asked the pilots of Flight 175 to scan the skies for the errant plane. [Guardian, 10/17/01, Boston Globe, 11/23/01]
Is NORAD’s claim credible? If so, the air traffic controllers (including Mr. Michael) should have been fired and subject to possible criminal charges for their inaction. To date, however, there has been no word of any person being disciplined at any institution at any level for what happened on 9/11.
If NORAD’s claim is false, and it was indeed informed within the time frame outlined in FAA regulations that Flight 11 may have been hijacked, that would mean NORAD did absolutely nothing for almost thirty minutes while a hijacked commercial airliner flew off course through some of the most congested airspace in the world. Presumably, that would warrant some very serious charges. Again, no one associated with NORAD or the FAA has been punished.
According to phone calls made by fight attendants Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney, the hijackers had stabbed and killed at least one passenger and two flight attendants by about 8:21. [ABC News, 7/18/02, Boston Globe, 11/23/01, AP, 10/5/01, Los Angeles Times, 9/20/01] (One hijacker may have been riding in the cockpit and begun the hijacking earlier.) After 8:21, both women apparently remained on the phone with American Airlines’ headquarters for 25 minutes, until their plane crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. [ABC News, 7/18/02, AP, 10/5/01] These calls make NORAD’s supposed ignorance of a crisis even more dubious.
Bush Leaves for Booker Elementary
Around the same time the Flight 11 hijackers were stabbing passenger Daniel Lewin – at 8:20 a.m. – Bush’s briefing ended and he said good-bye to the Colony’s general manager. [Telegraph, 12/16/01, Sarasota Magazine, 11/01] The first event on Bush’s schedule was what is known as a "soft event" ? a photo-op with children at Emma Booker Elementary School – promoting his proposed education bill. [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/11/01] After spending about 20 minutes with the children, Bush was scheduled to give a short press conference at about 9:30. [White House, 9/7/01, Federal News Service, 9/10/01]
Accounts of when Bush’s motorcade left for the school vary from 8:30 to 8:39. [8:30, Washington Post, 1/27/02, 8:35, Sarasota Magazine, 9/19/01, 8:39, Washington Times, 10/7/02] One account has the Bush party leave the Colony suite at 8:30 and drive away at 8:39. Whenever he left, the motorcade traveled quickly: "The police shut down traffic in both directions, leaving roads utterly deserted for Bush’s long motorcade, which barreled along at 40 mph, running red lights with impunity." [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 37-38] At 40 mph, it would take about 14 minutes to travel the nine-mile distance to the school. Several accounts say the journey took about 20 minutes [New York Times, 9/16/01 (B), St. Petersburg Times, 9/8/02 (B), MSNBC, 10/29/02], which means that Bush arrived shortly before 9:00. [8:46, ABC News, 9/11/02, 8:55, Washington Times, 10/7/02, 8:55, Sarasota Magazine, 9/19/01, "just before 9:00," Telegraph, 12/16/01, "shortly before 9:00," Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/10/02, "just before 9:00," New York Times, 9/16/01 (B), 9:00, Albuquerque Tribune, 9/10/02]
When Did Bush First Learn of the Attacks?
Why does it matter when Bush left the resort and arrived at the school? Because this is the crucial time when Bush was first told, or should have been told, of the attacks. Official accounts, including the words of Bush himself, say Bush was first told of what was happening in New York City after he arrived at the school. [Telegraph, 12/16/01, CBS, 9/11/02] However, this statement does not stand up to scrutiny. There are at least four reports that Bush was told of the first crash before he arrived at the school.
Two accounts explicitly state Bush was told while in the motorcade. "The President was on Highway 301, just north of Main Street … [when] he received the news that a plane had crashed in New York City." [Sarasota Magazine, 11/01] (See adjacent map for the location where he is told.) Another account states, "Bush was driving to the school in a motorcade when the phone rang. An airline accident appeared to have happened. He pressed on with his visit." [Observer, 9/16/01]
The first media reports of Flight 11’s crash into the World Trade Center began around 8:48, two minutes after the crash happened. [New York Times, 9/15/01] CNN broke into its regular programming at that time [CNN, 9/11/01], though other networks, such as ABC, took a few more minutes to begin reporting. [ABC, 9/14/02] So within minutes, millions were aware of the story, yet Bush supposedly remained unaware for about another ten minutes.
Claims of Bush’s ignorance become harder to believe when one learns that others in his motorcade were immediately told of the attack. For instance, Kia Baskerville, a CBS News producer traveling with Bush that morning, received a message about a plane crash "as the presidential motorcade headed to President Bush’s first event." Baskerville said, "Fifteen minutes later I was standing in a second grade classroom [waiting for Bush’s entrance]" – which means she got the news at about 8:47 – right as the story was first being reported. [CBS, 8/19/02] A news photographer in the motorcade overheard a radio transmission that Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would be needed on arrival at the school to discuss reports of some sort of crash. [Christian Science Monitor, 9/17/01] Another account notes Fleischer got the news that the crash had occurred "just minutes before," but notes that Bush was not in the same car as Fleischer. [CBS, 11/1/02] Senior presidential communications officer Thomas Herman said, "Just as we were arriving at the school, I received a notification from our operations center than [sic] an airliner had struck one of the towers…." [Marist College Magazine, Fall 2002]
Meanwhile, CIA Director George Tenet was told of the crash a few minutes after it happened. A messenger gave him the news as he was eating breakfast with former Senator David Boren in a Washington restaurant three blocks from the White House. Boren says Tenet was told that the World Trade Center had been attacked by an airplane: "I was struck by the fact that [the messenger] used the word attacked." An aide then handed a cell phone to Tenet, and Tenet made some calls, showing that at least some at the highest levels of the Bush administration were talking about an attack at this time. Tenet then said to Boren, "You know, this has bin Laden’s fingerprints all over it." [ABC, 9/14/02]
Some people at the school also heard of the news before Bush arrived. Around 8:50, Tampa Bay’s Channel 8 reporter Jackie Barron was on the phone with her mother, who mentioned the first news reports. At almost the same time, Brian Goff, a Fox reporter from Tampa, heard the same thing on his cell phone. [Sarasota Magazine, 11/01] Associated Press reporter Sonia Ross was also told of the crash by phone from a colleague. [AP, 9/12/01 (D)] Florida Congressman Dan Miller, waiting in front of the school as part of the official greeting party, was told by an aide about the crash at 8:55, before Bush arrived. [Sarasota Magazine, 11/01]
Given all this, how could Bush have remained ignorant? Could he have been out of the loop because he was in a car? No. The previous night, Colony Resort manager Katie Klauber Moulon toured the presidential limousine and marveled "at all the phones and electronic equipment." [Sarasota Magazine, 11/01] Karl Rove, Bush’s "chief political strategist," who presumably was riding with Bush, used a wireless e-mail device on 9/11 as well. [Newsweek, 10/14/02] There seems to have been ample opportunity and the means to alert Bush.
If Bush wasn’t told while in his limousine, he certainly was told immediately after he got out of it. US Navy Captain Deborah Loewer, the director of the White House Situation Room, was traveling in the motorcade when she received a message from an assistant back in Washington about the first crash. Loewer said that as soon as the car arrived at Booker, she ran quickly over to Bush. "It’s a very good thing the Secret Service knows who I am," Loewer later said. She told Bush that an aircraft had "impacted the World Trade Center. This is all we know." [Catholic Telegraph, 12/7/01, AP, 11/26/01]
Meanwhile, More Hijackings
Even though Flight 175 left about the same time as Flight 11, it appears to have been hijacked much later. At 8:41, its pilot was still talking to ground control [New York Times, 10/16/01], but at 8:42 it sharply veered off course, and a flight controller noted that its transponder had been turned off and communication cut. [Boston Globe, 11/23/01, New York Times, 10/16/01] One minute later, at 8:43, NORAD was notified the plane had been hijacked. [NORAD, 9/18/01] The hijackers turned the transponder back on but used a different signal code. This allowed flight controllers to "easily" track the plane as it flew toward New York City. [Washington Post, 9/17/01] At about 8:46, Flight 77 began to go severely off course. According to regulations, a fighter is required to be dispatched if a plane strays from its official course by more than two miles or 15 degrees [MSNBC, 9/12/01]. As the adjacent map shows, Flight 77 returned to its proper course for a time, but its last radio contact occurred at 8:50. [Guardian, 10/17/01] Supposedly, NORAD was not officially notified that Flight 77 has been hijacked until 9:24 [NORAD, 9/18/01], but the New York Times reported that by around 8:50, military officials at the Pentagon were already discussing what to do about Flight 77. [New York Times, 9/15/01] Note the difference in notification times: 27 minutes for Flight 11, 1 minute for Flight 175 and 38 minutes for Flight 77.
Flight 93 wasn’t hijacked until about 9:16, but by about 8:50, it was clear that at least three planes had been hijacked. Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, said, "The Secret Service has an arrangement with the FAA. They had open lines after the World Trade Center was …" [Meet the Press, 9/16/01] Cheney never finished his sentence (interesting in itself – did he say too much?), but it seems safe to say that his next word would have been "hit." Cheney’s statement makes it clear the Secret Service knew the extent of the situation well before 9:00 am.
Intelligence agencies were suffering "warning fatigue" from so many warnings of an al-Qaeda attack [Independent, 9/7/02], some specifically mentioning the use of hijacked airplanes as missiles (see this essay). Bush himself was given an intelligence briefing a month earlier entitled "Bin Laden to Strike in US," and it contained a warning from the British government that the US should expect multiple airline hijackings from al-Qaeda. [Sunday Herald, 5/19/02] So with the clear knowledge that three planes had been hijacked, with one of them already crashed into the World Trade Center, who would have possibly assumed that Flight 11’s crash was an accident? Yet that is precisely what the official story claims. There are a number of different "official" accounts, but all of them stress that Bush wasn’t told until after he arrived inside the school (contrary to the account of Captain Loewer) and that it was assumed to be an accident (contradicting Tenet being told that it was an attack).
In some accounts, "President Bush had emerged from his car and was shaking hands with local officials standing outside the school when Chief of Staff Andrew Card sidled up to him with the news." [CBS, 11/1/02] Bush later recalled that it was Card who first notified him: "’Here’s what you’re going to be doing; you’re going to meet so-and-so, such-and-such.’ Then Andy Card said, ‘By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.’" [Washington Times, 10/7/02] At a press conference later that day, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer also claimed it was Andy Card who first informed him, "as the President finished shaking hands in a hallway of school officials." [Knoxville News Sentinel, 9/11/01]
In other accounts, it was advisor Karl Rove who first told Bush. According to photographer Eric Draper, who was standing nearby, Rove rushed up, took Bush aside in a corridor inside the school and said the cause of the crash was unclear. Bush replied, "What a horrible accident!" Bush also suggested the pilot may have had a heart attack. [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] Dan Bartlett, White House Communications Director, says he was there when Bush was told: "[Bush] being a former pilot, had kind of the same reaction, going, was it bad weather? And I said no, apparently not." [ABC News, 9/11/02] A reporter who was standing nearby later said, "From the demeanor of the President, grinning at the children, it appeared that the enormity of what he had been told was taking a while to sink in." [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] One account explicitly says that Rove told Bush the World Trade Center had been hit by a large commercial airliner. [Telegraph, 12/16/01] However, Bush later remembered Rove saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane. [Washington Post, 1/27/02, MSNBC, 9/02]
In yet another account, Blake Gottesman, Bush’s personal assistant, while giving the president some final instructions as they walked to the school, remarked, "Andy Card says, ‘By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.’" [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 41-42]
Told Again, Yet Still Clueless
Booker principal Gwen Tose-Rigell was waiting for Bush outside the school. "The limousine stops and the president comes out. He walks toward me. I’m standing there in a lineup; there are about five people. He walks over and says he has to make a phone call, and he’ll be right back." [MSNBC, 09/02, Telegraph, 12/16/01] The phone call was with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. From a room with secure communications, Rice updated Bush on the situation. [Christian Science Monitor, 9/17/01, Time, 9/12/01] The fact that Bush immediately said he had to make an important call strongly suggests he was told about the situation while in the motorcade. But some accounts have Andrew Card saying to Bush as he gets out of his limousine, "Mr. President, you really need to take this phone call," thereby implying that Card knows what’s going on, but Bush doesn’t. [St. Petersburg Times, 9/8/02 (B)]
As National Security Advisor, Rice had to have had as much information as anyone. By the time she spoke to Bush, she must have known that three planes had been hijacked and that the country was under attack. We know very little about the conversation – only that Rice later claimed, "[Bush] said, what a terrible, it sounds like a terrible accident. Keep me informed." [ABC News, 9/11/02] One reporter noted: "Bush did not appear preoccupied [after the phone call] ? There was no sign that Rice had just told [him] about the first attack [on the World Trade Center]." [Cox News, 9/12/01 (B)] Tose-Rigell was then summoned to a room to talk with Bush: "He said a commercial plane has hit the World Trade Center, and we’re going to go ahead and go on, we’re going on to do the reading thing anyway." [AP, 8/19/02 (D)]
One local reporter notes that at this point, "He could and arguably should have left Emma E. Booker Elementary School immediately, gotten onto Air Force One and left Sarasota without a moment’s delay … But he didn’t." [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/12/01 (B)] The only possible excuse is that Bush was completely clueless as to what was happening. Sure enough, at a press conference on the evening of 9/11, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked by a reporter, "And then this morning, when Andy Card told him about the first accident, was Andy Card or Condi Rice or any of those aware of the hijackings? What did they know when they –" Fleischer cut in and replied, "No, at that point they were not." [Knoxville News Sentinel, 9/11/01] So supposedly, 15 minutes after the first crash, none of Bush’s aides, not even Rice back in Washington, DC, knew a thing about the hijackings that had been reported to NORAD 20 minutes earlier? This simply is not plausible.
Bush’s Confused Recollection
Bush’s own recollection of the first crash only complicates the picture. Less than two months after the attacks, Bush made the preposterous claim that he had watched the first attack as it happened on live television. This is the seventh different account of how Bush learned about the first crash (in his limousine, from Loewer, from Card, from Rove, from Gottesman, from Rice, from television). On December 4, 2001, Bush was asked: "How did you feel when you heard about the terrorist attack?" Bush replied, "I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower – the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly, myself, and I said, well, there’s one terrible pilot. I said, it must have been a horrible accident. But I was whisked off there, I didn’t have much time to think about it." [White House, 12/4/01]
There was no film footage of the first attack until at least the following day, and Bush didn’t have access to a television until 15 or so minutes later. [Washington Times, 10/7/02] The Boston Herald later noted, "Think about that. Bush’s remark implies he saw the first plane hit the tower. But we all know that video of the first plane hitting did not surface until the next day. Could Bush have meant he saw the second plane hit – which many Americans witnessed? No, because he said that he was in the classroom when Card whispered in his ear that a second plane hit." [Boston Herald, 10/22/02] Bush’s recollection has many precise details. Is he simply confused? It’s doubly strange why his advisors didn’t correct him or – at the very least – stop him from repeating the same story only four weeks later. [White House, 1/5/02, CBS, 9/11/02] On January 5, 2002, Bush stated: "Well, I was sitting in a schoolhouse in Florida … and my Chief of Staff ? well, first of all, when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought it was pilot error and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake. And something was wrong with the plane…" [White House, 1/5/02]
Unfortunately, Bush has never been asked – not even once – to explain these statements. His memory not only contradicts every single media report, it also contradicts what he said that evening. In his speech to the nation that evening, Bush said: "Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans." [White House, 9/11/01] It’s not known what these emergency plans were, because neither Bush nor anyone in his administration mentioned this immediate response again. Implementing "emergency response plans" seems to completely contradict Bush’s "by the way" recollection of a small airplane accident.
Inside the Classroom and the Second Plane Crash
Shortly after his call with National Security Advisor Rice, Bush entered Sandra Kay Daniels’s second-grade class for a photo-op to promote Bush’s education policies. [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] The event was to begin precisely at 9:00, but the call pushed it back to about 9:03. [Washington Times, 10/8/02, Telegraph, 12/16/01, Daily Mail, 9/8/02] Numerous reporters who were traveling with the president, as well as members of the local media, watched from the back of the room. [AP, 8/19/02 (D)] Altogether there were about 150 people in the room, only 16 of them students. Bush was introduced to the children and then posed for a number of pictures. Daniels then led the students through some reading exercises (video footage shows this lasted about three minutes). [Salon, 9/12/01 (B)] Bush later related what he was thinking at the time: "I was concentrating on the program at this point, thinking about what I was going to say [about the plane crash]. Obviously, I felt it was an accident. I was concerned about it, but there were no alarm bells." [Washington Times, 10/7/02]
At 9:03, Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. News of this traveled extremely rapidly. In fact, some of Bush’s Secret Service agents watched the second crash live on television in an adjacent room. [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/10/02] Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, in the same room as Bush but not near him, immediately received the news on his pager. [CBS, 9/11/02] Other pagers were going off as well.
Chief of Staff Andrew Card was in a nearby room when he heard the news. He waited until there was a pause in the reading drill to walk in and tell Bush. [Washington Times, 10/7/02, Washington Times, 10/8/02] The children were getting their books from under their seats to read a story together when Card came in. [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] Card whispered to Bush: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." [San Francisco Chronicle, 9/11/02] Another account has Card saying: "A second plane has hit the World Trade Center. America is under attack." [Telegraph, 12/16/01] Accounts vary as to when Card gave Bush the news. Some say 9:05 [Salon 9/11/01, New York Times, 9/16/01 (B), Telegraph, 12/16/01, Albuquerque Tribune, 9/10/02], and some say 9:07. [Washington Post, 9/11/01, Washington Times, 10/8/02] ABC News reporter Ann Compton, who was in the room, said she was surprised by the interruption and "wrote [the time] down in my reporter’s notebook, by my watch, 9:07 a.m." [ABC News, 9/11/02]
The Reaction – Or Lack of One
Descriptions vary greatly as to how Bush responded to the news. It is said he "blanched" [Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10/1/02], "the color drained from the president’s face" [AP, 9/12/01 (D)], he "wore a bemused smile" [Orlando Sentinel, 9/12/01], "because visibly tense and serious" [Time, 9/12/01], and so on. Watch the video and draw your own conclusions (the 11-minute video can be viewed at the Center for Cooperative Research, Buzzflash, Global Free Press, The Emperor’s New Clothes, or Liberty DYNU). Bush later recalled his own reaction: "I am very aware of the cameras. I’m trying to absorb that knowledge. I have nobody to talk to. I’m sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children’s story and I realize I’m the Commander in Chief and the country has just come under attack." [Telegraph, 12/16/01, CBS, 11/1/02] Asked again what he thought after he heard the news, Bush said, "We’re at war and somebody has dared attack us and we’re going to do something about it. I realized I was in a unique setting to receive a message that somebody attacked us ? [I]t became evident that we were, you know, that the world had changed." [CBS, 9/11/02]
So what did the Commander in Chief do with the knowledge that the United States was under attack?
He did nothing.
Bush did not say one word. He did not ask Card any questions. He did not give any orders. He did not know who (or which country) was attacking, whether there would be more attacks, what military plans had been taken, what military actions should be taken – indeed, he knew virtually nothing about what was going on outside the room. He just sat there. Bush later recalled: "There was no time for discussion or anything." [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 83-84] Even stranger, as one newspaper put it, although the nation was under terrorist attack, "for some reason, Secret Service agents [did] not bustle him away." [Globe and Mail, 9/12/01]
Military pilots must have "permission from the White House because only the president has the authority to order a civilian aircraft shot down." [CNN, 10/26/99] But if retaliatory strikes needed to the authorized, Bush was not available. If one of the planes had to be shot down to save more lives on the ground, Bush was not available. Although several fighters had been dispatched to defend New York City, the pilot of one of the planes flying to catch Flight 175 later noted that it wouldn’t have mattered if he caught up with it, because only Bush could order a shootdown, and Bush could not be reached in the classroom. [Cape Cod Times, 8/21/02]
Secret Service agents and other security personnel had set up a television in a nearby classroom. They turned on the TV just as Flight 175 crashed into the World Trade Center. According to Sarasota County Sheriff Bill Balkwill, who was in the room, a Marine responsible for carrying Bush’s phone immediately said to Balkwill, "We’re out of here. Can you get everyone ready?" [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/10/02] But he must have been overruled by someone, because Bush did not leave.
Meanwhile, Secret Service agents burst into Vice President Cheney’s White House office. They carried him 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 toward an underground bunker. Accounts of when this happened vary greatly, from 9:06 [New York Times, 9/16/01 (B), Telegraph, 12/16/01] to after 9:30. [CBS, 9/11/02, Washington Post, 1/27/02] Cheney’s own account is vague and contradictory. [Meet the Press, 9/16/01] The one eyewitness account, by White House photographer David Bohrer, said it happened just after 9:00. [ABC, 9/14/02 (B)] It’s easy to see why the White House would have wanted this event placed at a later time (after Bush’s initial statement to the nation rather than after the second crash) to avoid the obvious question: if Cheney was immediately evacuated, why wasn’t Bush?
The Photo-Op Goes On
After Card told Bush about the second plane and quickly left, the classroom was silent for about 30 seconds or so. [Tampa Tribune, 9/1/02] The children were about to take turns reading from a story called The Pet Goat. [AFP, 9/7/02] Bush picked up the book and began to read with the children. [Tampa Tribune, 9/1/02] In unison, the children read out loud, "The – Pet – Goat. A – girl – got – a – pet – goat. But – the – goat – did – some – things – that – made – the – girl’s – dad – mad." Bush mostly listened, but occasionally asked the children a few questions to encourage them. [Washington Times, 10/7/02] At one point he said, "Really good readers, whew! … These must be sixth-graders!" [Time, 9/12/01]
Who was really in control? Certainly not Bush. In the back of the room, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer caught Bush’s eye and held up a pad of paper for him to see, with "DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET" written on it in big block letters. [Washington Times, 10/7/02] Some person or people had overruled the security who wanted Bush evacuated immediately, even as Vice President Cheney was taken from his White House office to a safe location. Bush’s security overruled Bush on security matters later in the day on Air Force One, but who overruled them that morning?
When Did Bush Leave the Classroom?
Nearly every news account fails to mention when Bush left the classroom after being told America was under attack. Three mention 9:12 a.m. [New York Times, 9/16/01 (B), Telegraph, 12/16/01, Daily Mail, 9/8/02] Remaining in the classroom for approximately five to seven minutes is inexcusable, but the video of Bush in the classroom suggests he stayed longer than that. The video contains several edits and ends before Bush leaves the room, so it also doesn’t tell us exactly how long he stayed. One newspaper suggested he remained "for eight or nine minutes" – sometime between 9:13 and 9:16, since Card’s arrival is uncertain. [Tampa Tribune, 9/1/02]
When Bush finally did leave, he didn’t act like a man in a hurry. In fact, he was described as "openly stretching out the moment." [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 89] When the lesson was over, Bush said to the children: "Hoo! These are great readers. Very impressive! Thank you all so much for showing me your reading skills. I bet they practice too. Don’t you? Reading more than they watch TV? Anybody do that? Read more than you watch TV? [Hands go up] Oh that’s great! Very good. Very important to practice! Thanks for having me. Very impressed." [Transcribed from Booker video, Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, pp. 89-90] Bush still continued to talk, advising the children to stay in school and be good citizens. [Tampa Tribune, 9/1/02, St. Petersburg Times, 9/8/02 (B)] One student asked Bush a question, and he gave a quick response on his education policy. [New York Post, 9/12/02]
The only source to describe what happened next is Fighting Back by Bill Sammon. Publishers Weekly described Sammon’s book as an "inside account of the Bush administration’s reaction to 9-11 [and] a breathless, highly complimentary portrait of the president [showing] the great merit and unwavering moral vision of his inner circle." [Publisher’s Weekly, 10/15/02] Sammon’s conservative perspective makes his account of Bush’s behavior at the end of the photo-op all the more surprising. Bush is described as smiling and chatting with the children "as if he didn’t have a care in the world" and "in the most relaxed manner imaginable." White House aide Gordon Johndroe, then came in as he usually does at the end of press conferences, and said, "Thank you, press. If you could step out the door we came in, please." A reporter then asked, "Mr. President, are you aware of the reports of the plane crash in New York? Is there anything…", But Bush interrupted, and no doubt recalling his order, "DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET," Bush responded, "I’ll talk about it later." But still the president did not leave. "He stepped forward and shook hands with [classroom teacher] Daniels, slipping his left hand behind her in another photo-op pose. He was taking his good old time. … Bush lingered until the press was gone." [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 90]
Think about that: rather than rush out of the room at the first chance, Bush actually stayed until after all the dozens of reporters had left! Having just been told of a Pearl Harbor-type attack on US soil, Bush was indeed "openly stretching out the moment." But he still wasn’t done. Bush then turned to principal Tose-Rigell, who was waiting to take him to the library for his speech on education. He explained to her about the terror attacks and why he had to leave. [Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism – From Inside the Bush White House, by Bill Sammon, 10/02, p. 90] Finally, he went to an empty classroom next door where his staff was based. [ABC News, 9/11/02] Given that Bush’s program was supposed to end at 9:20, he left the classroom only a couple of minutes earlier than planned, if even that. [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/16/01]
The reason given why Bush didn’t leave as soon as Card told him the news is: "Without all the facts at hand, George Bush had no intention of upsetting the schoolchildren who had come to read for him." [MSNBC, 10/29/02] Advisor Karl Rove said, "The President thought for a second or two about getting up and walking out of the room. But the drill was coming to a close and he didn’t want to alarm the children." [ABC, 9/11/02] This excuse is patently absurd, given the security risks and importance of Bush being informed and making decisions as Commander in Chief. Nor was the drill coming to a close: one drill had ended and another was about to begin – it was a perfect time to simply say, "Excuse me" and leave the room. Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is only 3