Bush on 9-11: Out of the loop?
October 17, 2003
As 9-11, “the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century,” unfolded in New York and Washington the president remained conspicuously “out of the loop” - in Florida. When the United States was attacked on the morning of 9-11, after two passenger planes had already crashed into the World Trade Center and with two other rogue aircraft approaching Washington, President George W. Bush continued with a pre-planned photo session in a Florida elementary school. Bush’s rather bizarre actions on that fateful morning raise a number of serious questions.
“It was clear that we were under attack. Why didn’t the Secret Service whisk [Bush] out of that school?” Kristen Breitweiser, a relative of a 9-11 victim asked on the Phil Donahue television show. “[Bush] is the commander-in-chief of the United States of America, our country was clearly under attack, it was after the second building was hit. I want to know why he sat there for 25 minutes,” Breitweiser said.
In an article, “An Interesting Day: President Bush’s Movements and Actions on 9-11,” published in May 2003 on the website of the Center for Cooperative Research (CCR), Allan Wood and Paul Thompson ask: “Why, at 9:03 a.m. - fifteen minutes after it was clear the United States was under terrorist attack - did President Bush sit down with a classroom of second-graders and begin a 20-minute pre-planned photo op?”
In an effort to “document the historical record” CCR provides well-documented 9-11 timelines on-line, including that of the president, at: www.cooperativeresearch.net. The following timeline is based on documented sources, primarily major newspaper and television reports.
Sunrise on September 11, 2001 found Bush at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, Florida, where he had spent the night. Surface-to-air missiles had been placed on the roof of the resort for the occasion.
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, according to the Washington Post.
At 8:00 a.m. Bush sat for his daily intelligence briefing. “The President’s briefing appears to have included some reference to the heightened terrorist risk reported throughout the summer,” the Telegraph (UK) reported, but contained nothing serious enough to call National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
At 8:20, as the briefing ended, Boston flight control realized that Flight 11 had probably been hijacked, but didn’t notify other flight control centers for another five minutes, and didn’t notify the Air Force’s NORAD until some 20 minutes later. “There doesn’t seem to have been alarm bells going off, traffic controllers getting on with law enforcement or the military,” ABC News reported three days later. “There’s a gap there that will have to be investigated.”
At 8:35 a.m. Bush’s motorcade left the Colony Beach resort for Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. At 8:46 a.m., as Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center (WTC), Bush’s motorcade was crossing the John Ringling Causeway on the way to Booker School. Sarasota Magazine reported that Bush was on Highway 301, when he was informed that a plane had crashed into the WTC. A news photographer, Eric Draper, who was in the motorcade with Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, said he overheard Fleischer say on a cell phone, “Oh, my God, I don’t believe it. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” In his evening address to the nation on 9-11, Bush said: “Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government’s emergency response plans.”
“Whatever these plans were, they don’t seem to involve scrambling aircraft at this time,” Thompson wrote on the “Bush on 9-11” timeline published by CCR.
A few minutes after the 8:46 crash, CIA Director Tenet was told of the crash as he ate breakfast in a Washington hotel with former Senator David Boren (D-Okla.). Tenet was told the WTC had been attacked by an airplane: “I was struck by the fact that [the messenger] used the word attacked,” Boren said.
By 8:48 a.m. the first news reports appeared on TV and radio that a plane had crashed into the WTC. At 8:55 a.m. Bush’s motorcade arrived at Booker Elementary School. Just before 9:00 a.m. as Bush entered Booker Elementary School, Bush advisor Karl Rove reportedly rushed up, took Bush aside in a corridor, and told him about the calamity. Rove says the cause of the crash was unclear. Bush replied, “What a horrible accident!” according to the photographer Draper.
However, in a later recollection, Bush said it was chief of staff Andrew Card who first informed him saying: “Here’s what you’re going to be doing; you’re going to meet so-and-so, such-and-such.’ And Andy Card says, ‘By the way, an aircraft flew into the World Trade Center.’”
Others reported that just after Bush arrived at Booker he was whisked into a room and updated on the situation via telephone by National Security Advisor Rice.
School principal Gwen Tose-Rigell was reportedly summoned to talk with the President: “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.”
Bush later made the following statement: “And 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, ‘There’s one terrible pilot.’ And 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.”
A Boston Herald article later asked: “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.”
The article pointed out that Bush had told the story more than once, and asked, “How could the commander-in-chief have seen the plane fly into the first building - as it happened?”
At 9:03 a.m. Flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. Between 9:03 - 9:06 a.m. Bush was reportedly in Sandra Kay Daniels’ second-grade class for a photo-op to promote his education policies. He was introduced to the children and posed for pictures. The teacher then led the students through some reading exercises.
Bush later claimed that while he was doing this lesson, he thought about what he would say about the WTC crash: “I was concentrating on the program at this point, thinking about what I was going to say. Obviously, I felt it was an accident. I was concerned about it, but there were no alarm bells.”
At 9:06, as the children got their books from under their seats to read a story together, Chief of Staff Andrew Card told Bush of the second WTC crash. Card reportedly entered the room and whispered into his ear, “A second plane hit the other tower; America is under attack.” At this critical moment, Bush, the nation’s commander-in-chief did not leave the classroom, but stayed and listened as 16 Booker Elementary School second-graders took turns reading a story about a girl’s pet goat, called Pet Goat.
According to the Tampa Tribune, Bush picked up the book and read with the children “for eight or nine minutes.” 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 listened and asked the children a few questions. “Really good readers, whew!” the president said, “These must be sixth-graders!”
“DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET”
In the back of the room, Fleischer held up a pad of paper with instructions for the president: “DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET.” Meanwhile in Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rice were taken to the underground bunker at the White House.
According to the Sarasota Sheriff Bill Balkwill, after Bush entered the classroom a Marine carrying Bush’s phone approached Balkwill and asked, “Can you get me to a television? We’re not sure what’s going on, but we need to see a television.”
Three Secret Service agents, a SWAT member, the Marine, and Balkwill turned on the television in a nearby front office just as Flight 175 crashes into the WTC. “We’re out of here,” the Marine tells Balkwill. “Can you get everyone ready?”
At 9:16 a.m., Bush left the classroom where he has been since about 9:03. On leaving Bush advised the children to stay in school and be good citizens. He also told the children, “Thank you all so very much for showing me your reading skills.”
Bush spoke with the school principal Gwen Tose-Rigell and went to an empty classroom to meet with his staff.
Between 9:16 and 9:29 a.m. Bush reportedly worked with his staff to prepare a speech. He watched some television coverage and spoke with Rice, Cheney, and New York Governor George Pataki.
At 9:29 a.m. Bush gave a brief speech to about 200 Booker students, teachers and reporters. He said, “Today we’ve had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
Thompson notes that Bush stayed at the school until 9:34 although “some of Bush’s security wanted him to leave the school immediately.” Bush remained at Booker School for 28 minutes after being informed of the second plane striking the WTC.
As he left the classroom a reporter asked, “Mr. President, are you aware of the reports of the plane crash in New York? Is there any...” An aide interrupted the reporter and said, “All right. Thank you. If everyone could please step outside.” Bush said, “We’ll talk about it later.”
At 9:34 a.m. Bush’s motorcade left Booker Elementary School for Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. At 9:38 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 reportedly crashed into the Pentagon.
A year later, Chief of Staff Andrew Card said, “As we were heading to Air Force One, we did hear about the Pentagon attack, and we also learned, what turned out to be a mistake, but we learned that the Air Force One package could in fact be a target.”
At 9:43 a.m. Bush’s motorcade arrived at Sarasota’s airport and approached Air Force One. Bush immediately boarded the plane. Security checks of all baggage delayed takeoff until 9:55. At about 9:56 a.m. Air Force One departed Saratoga airport, without military escort planes. “The object seemed to be simply to get the President airborne and out of the way,” an administration official said later.
In the air on Air Force One, Bush spoke with Cheney on the phone. Cheney reportedly recommended that Bush authorize the military to shoot down any plane under control of the hijackers. “You bet,” Bush later recalled saying.
“If this decision was so easy to make, why wasn’t it given earlier?” Thompson asks.
At this point Bush began his sojourn around the country on Air Force One. At the end of the day, Bush returned to Washington and addressed the nation.
At 11:30 p.m. before going to sleep, the Washington Post reported that Bush wrote in his diary, “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today. ... We think it’s Osama Bin Laden.”