By Jeremy Laurance
14 September 2001
The Independent, London
As the second airliner slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre, Vice-President Dick Cheney was staring at a television in the White House. It was 9.03am. His Secret Service men grabbed him and hurried him down to the President’s emergency operations centre, an underground bunker hardened to withstand a nuclear attack
The dramatic events were revealed by William Safire, the respected New York Times columnist who is close to the Republicans.
On the way to the bunker, Mr Cheney was told that another plane, or a helicopter loaded with explosives, was heading for the White House. He called the President in Florida and urged him not to come back to Washington immediately.
In the bunker, the Vice-President was joined by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and the Transportation Secretary, Norman Mineta, among others. They were told six commercial aircraft were unaccounted for, all of which were potential missiles. One had supposedly crashed in Kentucky (not true), and another in Pennsylvania (accurate; its passengers or crew, apparently struggling with the hijackers, may have saved the White House).
The airliner that had taken off at Dulles _ AA Flight 77 _ did a turn away from the White House and, at 9.45am, slammed into the Pentagon.
At about that time, accounts began coming into the White House bunker that four international flights were heading toward Washington over the Atlantic and another from Korea. Whether they were hostile could not be determined.
A threatening message received by the Secret Service that "Air Force One is next" was relayed to agents accompanying the President. The use of American codewords made the threat credible.
Karl Rove, the President’s senior adviser, told Mr Safire: "When the President said ‘I don’t want some tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington,’ the Secret Service informed him the threat contained language showing the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts. It was decided to get airborne with a fighter escort."
After the President landed at an air force base in Louisiana and made a tape for broadcast, he was, in Mr Rove’s words, "pretty antsy" about not being at the centre of command.
Mr Cheney, a former defence secretary, suggested Air Force One go to Offutt base in Nebraska, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, where the President could convene the National Security Council.
The worry now must be that knowledge of codewords, presidential whereabouts and secret procedures indicates the terrorists may have a mole in the White House _ or the Secret Service, FBI, FAA or CIA. If so, America’s war on terror may well have to start in its own front room.