“The Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century”
Published in The People’s Civic Record, a monthly, Wilmington, NC based progressive magazine.
On September 11th, 2001, George W. Bush got out of bed at six in the morning at Colony Beach and Tennis Resort in Longboat Key, Florida. He had spent the night under the protection of surface to air missiles, placed on the roof.
Outside, a group of Middle Eastern-looking men pulled up in a van, claiming they were to have a “poolside” interview with Bush. They were turned away when their appointment could not be verified. (It appears that this might have been an assassination attempt similar to the murder of the leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, two days earlier by men posing as reporters carrying a bomb hidden in the video camera.)
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was already on its highest state of alert. They were in the middle of conducting their semi-annual exercises known as “Vigilant Guardian” which drills for threats to North American Air Defense outposts nationwide.
Also that morning, the CIA was planning a simulation drill to test emergency response. The drill was to begin at 9:00 am. Contained within one advertisement for the “homeland security” event was this sentence: “On the morning of September 11th 2001, Mr. [John] Fulton and his team at the CIA will run a pre-planned simulation to explore the emergency response issues that would be created if a plane were to strike a building.”
At about 6:30, Bush began a four-mile jog around the resort.
The day before, Pentagon brass had suddenly decided to cancel a planned trip on the 11th because of security concerns, echoing the fears that had caused John Ashcroft to stop taking commercial airline flights in July. The concerns evidently resulted from warnings that had been coming all summer asserting that the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda might be a threat to commercial airlines, or that they might be planning an attack on America. Though the chatter level regarding intelligence monitoring of terrorist groups had been “way off the charts” and, according to some officials, “the most urgent in decades,” none of this evidently rose to the level of a public warning.
Back at the White House, a CIA plan to attack al-Qaeda in Afghanistan–with support for the Northern Alliance, including a U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan–was sitting on the President’s desk, awaiting his approval and signature when he returned from Florida. It had been placed there on the day before.
At 7:59 on the morning of September 11th, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767-223ER, took off from Boston, headed to Los Angeles with 81 passengers, 9 flight attendants, and 2 pilots onboard, just as Bush was sitting down for his daily intelligence briefing.
During the briefing, at around 8:13, Flight 11 stopped communication with ground control. It also stopped transmitting its IFF (identify friend or foe) beacon and veered dramatically off course, causing Boston flight control to determine that Flight 11 had been hijacked. They notified other flight control centers, but did not notify NORAD for another 27 minutes.
About the same time, United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767-222 flying from Boston to Los Angeles, took off from Boston’s Logan Airport with 56 passengers, 7 flight attendants and 2 pilots onboard.
As Bush’s briefing came to its conclusion at 8:20, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757-223 flying from Washington to Los Angeles, took off from Dulles International Airport with 58 passengers, 4 flight attendants, and 2 pilots.
At about 8:35, Bush left the resort in a motorcade heading to Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida for a photo-op to promote Bush’s education policies. This was just a few minutes before NORAD was notified that Flight 11 had been hijacked.
At 8:41, United Airlines Flight 93, took off from Newark headed to San Francisco with 38 passengers, 5 flight attendants, and 2 pilots onboard. One minute later, Flight 175 veered of course and its transponder stopped transmitting. NORAD was notified immediately.
At 8:46, Flight 11 slammed into the north tower (1 World Trade Center) at 470 mph, carrying 10,000 gallons of fuel.
At almost the same time, Flight 77 veered of course and its transponder stopped transmitting.
At 8:52, according to NORAD, two jets were finally scrambled to intercept Flight 11, about twelve minutes after they had been notified.
At 8:55, Bush’s motorcade arrived at the elementary school.
Therefore, by the time Bush arrived at the school: NORAD was aware that two planes had been hijacked (Flight 11 and Flight 175) and that one (Flight 11) had crashed into the north tower (The FAA was also aware that Flight 77 was probably hijacked but did not “officially notify” NORAD until 9:24, almost half an hour after it had gone off course, although, according to testimony, the Pentagon was discussing how to deal with it well before then). Two F-15 jets had already been scrambled to intercept Flight 11 but ended up going after Flight 175, since Flight 11 had already crashed. Testimony by the pilots later indicated that they were traveling “full-blower,” which is as fast as they can go–1875 mph. According to NORAD commander Major General Larry Arnold, they were traveling an average of 1100 to 1200 mph, and headed directly to New York City. If this were the case and the stated departure time is correct, it should have taken them about ten minutes to have arrived– before Flight 175 crashed into the second tower. However, according to the NORAD timeline, it took 19 minutes, (which means they would have been averaging under 600 mph).
Additionally, it appears that by the time Bush arrived, the Pentagon, the White House, the Secret Service, and Canada’s Strategic Command also knew that three planes had been hijacked and that one of them had crashed into the WTC.
Several conflicting stories have emerged from the statements of President Bush regarding when and how he first became aware of the first plane crashing. By their own admission, others in his motorcade were notified of the situation before they arrived at the school and it seems that Bush should have been notified at about the same time they were. Regardless of whether or not Bush knew beforehand, there is no doubt that he was informed upon arrival, even though there are multiple accounts as to who delivered the message.
There are actually seven different accounts of how this occurred: that he learned en route, that he was informed on arrival in person by Andrew Card, or by Karl Rove, or by Blake Gottesman, or by Deborah Loewer, or via phone by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, or that he saw the crash as it happened live on television. This last account is the most bizarre of all, since television coverage did not begin until after the crash and video of the first crash was not shown until the following day. But this version actually comes from Bush himself, and he has repeated the story on more than one occasion….
“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,” Bush said on December 4th, 2001.
On January 5, 2002, he said: “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…”
Whether or not such assertions are to be taken seriously, it seems that Bush did have a phone conversation with Condoleezza Rice upon arrival and was told of the first plane crash.
Fifteen minutes had passed since Flight 11 had crashed into the first tower at the World Trade Center, and it had now been 20 minutes since the first hijackings had been reported to NORAD. Yet by the time Bush spoke to Condoleezza Rice, neither she nor any of his other advisors seemed to be aware (or even somewhat concerned) that the crash might have been something more than an accident. Rice supposedly only informed him of a crash of an aircraft into the tower. And Bush had replied (according to her)– “what a terrible… it sounds like a terrible accident. Keep me informed.” (This is especially disconcerting given the number of warnings that both Bush and Rice had received over the summer regarding the possibility of al-Qaeda planning to attack America using hijacked aircraft.)
Booker principal Gwen Tose-Rigell claims that after Bush spoke to Rice, Bush spoke to her. “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,” she said.
Bush then entered Sandra Kay Daniels’ second-grade class just seconds before Flight 175 crashed into the south tower at 9:03 (Therefore, Bush would not have seen the second crash, so he could not have confused seeing the second attack live with seeing the first one in his earlier version of events.)
In the classroom, Bush was introduced to the children and then he posed for several pictures before the teacher began running through some reading exercises.
In an adjoining room, Secret Service watched the second plane, Flight 175 crash– live on a television.
Andrew Card was immediately informed but he waited for a break in the exercises before he approached Bush to whisper in his ear: “A second plane has hit the World Trade Center…. America is under attack.”
By most accounts it was 9:07 when Bush was informed (other accounts include 9:05 and 9:06). The children in the classroom were just beginning to open their books to read and it was a perfect opportunity for Bush to excuse himself, yet he did not move.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, DC, Secret Service agents burst into Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and hustled him quickly into an underground bunker.
At this time in the conflagration at the World Trade Center, burning, terrified people jumped from shattered windows to meet certain death and no one yet knew the full extent of the attack or how many planes might have been hijacked and en route to additional targets. President Bush was the only person who could have ordered any of them to be shot down. And while America was under attack and Bush was a likely target (meaning everyone at the elementary school was at risk), Bush sat there…reading a story about a goat with a class of second graders and asking questions of the kids for a full five minutes after he was informed of the situation. A video of the event confirms this portion of the Bush reaction, and it is available online at http://www.thememoryhole.org/911/bush-911.htm.
Even after finishing with the book, he hung around for reporters’ questions, posed for more pictures, and waited for all the reporters to leave before he joined his team in the next room. He was described as acting like “he didn’t have a care in the world” and as if he was “openly stretching out the moment,” by Bill Sammon of Publishers Weekly, who gave, in his own words: “[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.”
Bush had been scheduled to leave the room at 9:20. Despite the emergency situation, he finally left only a few minutes ahead of schedule, about the same time that NORAD was notified that Flight 93 was hijacked at 9:16.
Even then he did not leave the school. He talked to Cheney and Rice on the phone and prepared for his speech, which he delivered at 9:30, just as scheduled, and he left the school at around 9:35, no earlier than originally planned.
It seems that it never occurred to anyone that if America was under attack, the President might be a target (especially since the event at the school was publicized in advance). All of the teachers and the children at the elementary school were at risk the whole time he remained there. Now they were heading to Air Force One, still not thinking that Bush (or Air Force One) might be a target.
Slightly earlier, at 9:27, three F-16 fighters were scrambled from Langley Air Force Base to intercept Flight 77, which had veered off course 41 minutes earlier. (Flight 77 was headed to Washington. Langley is 129 miles away; Andrews Air Force Base is only 15 miles away, but no fighters were scrambled from there.) The fighters were supposedly airborne by 9:30. The F-16’s can travel at 1500 mph and needed to only travel 700 mph to make it to Washington before Flight 77.
Bush was informed en route to Air Force One that Flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon at 9:38; the F-16’s somehow didn’t make it in time. When Flight 77 crashed, the fighters were 109 miles away, meaning that, if the reported departure time is correct, they were only traveling at 108 mph.
Twenty-one minutes after the FAA had warned that a plane was headed in the direction of Washington, and almost 40 minutes after Cheney was removed to a underground bunker, the White House began a general evacuation at 9:45 and the Capitol began evacuations three minutes later.
At this time, the only remaining hijacked plane was Flight 93, on its way to Washington. Although at the height of events, it was thought that as many as 11 flights had been hijacked. It was at this time that (not Bush, not Cheney, not Rice, not even Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta or FAA head Jane Garvey, but) FAA’s National Operations Manager Ben Sliney ordered the nation’s air traffic system to shut down.
At about 9:55, Air Force One took off without fighter escort.
Once airborne, Bush talked to Cheney on the phone and Cheney recommended that Bush “order our aircraft to shoot down these airliners that have been hijacked.”
At that time, Flight 93 was about 80 miles outside Washington and several fighter jets were in the air defending the Capitol. Washington had been declared a “free-fire zone,” fighters had finally been scrambled to intercept Flight 93 (about 44 minutes after it had been hijacked), and passengers on Flight 93 were storming the cockpit.
It was also about this time that the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed–at 9:59:04, based on seismic records.
Seven minutes later, at 10:06:05, according to seismic records, Flight 93 crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. (There is evidence that it was shot out of the sky by fighter jets, perhaps even after passengers had regained control, but there is no way to verify with any certitude what really happened at this time. Some of the evidence for this consists of eye-witness reports, the extremely wide crash debris field, and the testimony of F-15 fighter pilot Major Daniel Nash who, after returning to base from chasing Flight 175 and patrolling the skies over New York City, claimed that he was told that “a military F-16 had shot down a fourth airliner in Pennsylvania.”)
At 10:10, all U.S. military forces were ordered to Defcon Three (or Defcon Delta), the highest alert for the nuclear arsenal in 30 years. At 10:13, Washington federal buildings began evacuation. At 10:15, the section of the Pentagon hit by Flight 77 collapsed. At 10:24, all international flights to the U.S. were diverted.
At 10:28:31, according to seismic records, the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
All-in-all, it is estimated that almost 3,000 human beings were killed in the attacks.
Now that Bush was in the air, Air Force One began an unusual journey.
According journalists who were with Bush, the plane flew around in “big, slow circles” for some time as they tried to decide what to do. It was claimed that there were some threats to Air Force One by administration officials; it is unclear how many individual threats there were, as several were reported and some may be multiple reports of the same threat. One report was that there was an “inside” threat that Air Force One’s secret codes had been breached, which was confirmed by Karl Rove, but this turned out to be untrue. Could these reported threats to Air Force One have been fabricated – as a means to explain why Bush didn’t return to Washington right away?
Nevertheless, it appears that Air Force One finally had fighter escort sometime between 11:00 to 11:30, very much later than it seems was possible. The nearest fighters, that were on 24 hour alert, could have been scrambled in five minutes and could have arrived in ten–and the Bush team had known that they might be needed at least as early as when Bush was notified that America was under attack almost 50 minutes before.
From the time Air Force One became airborne, there were arguments about where Bush should go. Vice President Dick Cheney was on the phone with Bush, arguing against a return to Washington. The results of all the debating between Bush, Cheney, the Secret Service, and others was that Air Force One went to Barksdale Air Force base near Shreveport, Louisiana, landing at around 11:45.
In the next hour; some officials publicly speculated that the attacks appeared to be instigated by Osama bin Laden, parts of the Canadian and Mexican border were closed, U.S. air space became clear except for military or emergency flights, and Bush made a short taped speech from Barksdale (around 12:36) that was aired to the nation at 1:04. The President announced that the U.S. will “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”
After more debates about where Bush should go next, just before 1:00, it was decided that the U.S. Strategic Command center in Offutt, Nebraska was the best place, and Air Force One departed at 1:30, just after a state of emergency was declared in Washington.
During his time in the air, aircraft carriers and guided missile destroyers were dispatched to New York and Washington by the Navy, the North American Aerospace Defense Command went to its highest alert, and fighters, airborne radar, and refueling planes were scrambled.
Around 2:40, the CIA had determined that three of the hijackers were suspected al-Qaeda operatives and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had begun planning an attack against bin Laden, but he also seems to have been trying to link the event with Iraq as well.
According to notes taken by aides who were with Rumsfeld in the National Military Command Center on September 11, Rumsfeld is quoted as saying he wanted “best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. (Saddam Hussein) at same time. Not only UBL (Osama bin Laden).” “Go massive,” the notes say; “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
Just before 3:00, Bush arrived at Offutt and was in an underground bunker (designed to withstand a nuclear blast) at the U.S. Strategic Command Underground Command Center by 3:06.
In an hour-long teleconference call with Vice President Cheney, National Security Advisor Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, CIA Director George Tenet, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and several others in the National Security Council, Bush was told by Tenet: “Sir, I believe it’s al-Qaeda. We’re doing the assessment but it looks like, it feels like, it smells like al-Qaeda.”
After more debating, it was finally decided that Bush would return to Washington and address the nation.
Air Force One departed at a little after 4:30, escorted by two F-15 fighters and one F-16.
At 5:20, the 7 World Trade Center Building, collapsed from ancillary damage and fire.
A few minutes before 7:00, Bush arrived at the White House in the helicopter Marine One.
Just after Bush arrived, Powell returned to Washington from Lima, Peru and they both arrived at the White House at about the same time.
It was the first time Powell was able to talk to Bush. He later said: “And the worst part of it, is that because of the communications problems that existed during that day, I couldn’t talk to anybody in Washington.”
At 8:30, Bush addressed the nation in a five-minute speech and introduced, what would become, the “Bush Doctrine.”
“We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” he said.
Bush then met with his National Security Council and everyone concluded that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks.
At around 11:30, before he went to bed, Bush wrote in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today…. We think it’s Osama bin Laden.”
According to FAA regulations, air controllers should “Consider that an aircraft emergency exists… when: … there is unexpected loss of radar contact and radio communications with any… aircraft,” and it instructs: “If… you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.” The flight controllers are supposed to “hit the panic button” if a plane deviates from its course by 15 degrees (or two miles) and the Air Traffic Services Cell (ATSC), the office designed to facilitate communications between the FAA and the military, had just been given a secure Internet (Siprnet) terminal and other hardware six weeks earlier, “greatly enhancing the movement of vital information.”
Yet it seems to have taken roughly half an hour after Flights 11, 93, and 77 were known to be hijacked before NORAD was notified. The only hijacking that was immediately reported to NORAD was Flight 175. Why the delay?
Why was there a pattern of time lapses and delays by NORAD flight interceptions despite the fact that they were supposedly on their highest state of alert and what is the reason for the discrepancies in the accounts of pilots and other officials regarding departure times and flight speeds?
What could explain the pattern of strange coincidence when Pentagon brass suddenly cancel a scheduled flight because of security concerns, when the CIA plan a test drill simulation of a plane crashing into a building to begin at almost the same time that Flight 11 actually did crash into the north WTC tower, and when a U.S. plan to attack al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, including a U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan, was sitting on Bush’s desk on the morning of September 11th?
Additionally, is it a common practice for surface to air missiles to protect the President when he is not staying in Washington?
How should the statements by Bush that he saw the first plane crash be explained?
When Bush was informed on the phone by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that an aircraft had crashed into the north WTC tower, why was it that our National Security Advisor did not seem to be aware that the crashed plane had been hijacked or that there were two other hijacked aircraft in the air when NORAD, the Pentagon, and even Canada’s Strategic Command knew about them by then?
Why, after being informed that America was under attack, did Bush sit there reading a story about a goat and not immediately assume the duties of a Commander-in-Chief?
There might find any number of excuses for his slow reaction: shock, no experience, no training…, but why didn’t the Secret Service know better? Cheney had been whisked away to a secure location immediately after the second plane hit the second tower by the Secret Service guarding him. It seems that the Secret Service failed to protect the President as well as they were protecting the Vice President.
Or was it really their fault?
When the Secret Service were in the adjacent room watching the second plane hit the second tower, the Marine assigned to carry Bush’s phone said: “We’re out of here. Can you get everyone ready?”
Apparently, this Marine’s good sense and correct response was overruled by someone. Who overruled it? Who decided that Bush might not be a target if America was under attack and that he might not be needed to deal with the situation right away? If Bush was too stunned to determine that he was a potential target and that he might be placing the whole school at risk, why did the Secret Service protecting him fail to do so?
These questions loom larger in light of the President’s continuing resistance to cooperate and outright opposition to the attempt to carry out an impartial investigation of the attacks.
There are many things that happened on the day of 9-11 not touched on here: the false reports of bombs and other hijacked planes, the individual stories of the hijackers and the many missed opportunities to stop them, the rumors and conspiracy theories, and most importantly, the experiences of thousands of individuals that day… on the hijacked planes, in the World Trade Center, their loved ones who feared for them and searched for them, and all the people who were affected by it in one way or another, even if they were watching from the other side of the world.
All of these people deserve to know the truth. America needs to know the truth. Blocking the investigation into the events of September 11th will not help us find the best ways to stop it from happening in the future. Reluctance to assign responsibility for passed failures will not solve the problems before us. Rewriting the history of events will not make us more secure.
The failure of Congress and the mainstream media to ask these questions, leaves it up to the People to demand an answer.
This was written before the 9-11 Commission Report came out and was based on the information at the time. After reading the report, I might have made a few changes in this article:
1- The 9-11 Report suggested that the aircraft that were scrambled were headed out over the Atlantic before being given further instructions (supposedly because they were trained to expect an attack coming from outside the US). This might explain why they didn’t make it to their targets as soon as it would have been possible otherwise (however, this does seem to contradict earlier reports).
2- It also appears the fighters that were scrambled were not armed, so they would have had to try to stop the hijacked airliners some other way (by crashing into them for example).
3- According to the Report, Cheney et al were not sure which hijacked planes had already crashed and which hadn’t — they supposedly thought that the aircraft headed toward DC might even be Flight 11 (which was the first that had crashed), so the Report makes it look like they were more confused than the article gives them credit for.
4- In the Report, Cheney claims he gave the order to shoot down hijacked aircraft. The Report questions that claim since no fighter pilot (or anyone else) testified they had received such an order. If the fighters were not armed anyway, then I don’t know how much it matters, but, Cheney didn’t have the authority to give such an order.
5- One of the main things that I didn’t cover in the article below is that when “America is under attack,” the President and the Secretary of the Defense (Rumsfeld at the time) are supposed to try to get into contact with each other, forming the “National Command Authority” (NCA). Then, a course of action is determined and orders to execute are given. It appears that neither of these guys (Bush or Rumsfeld) attempted to contact each other right away and it appears that no one else suggested to either of them to try and contact each other. [It does make a lot of sense after all that the President and the guy in charge of Defense might need to talk to each other ASAP if we are under attack.]
You would think that protecting America from attack might be near the top of the list for their job description, and that they might have either looked into what they might have to do under these circumstances or that someone might have briefed them on it when they got the job. Even if they didn’t know, it seems some of the people working for them might know and tell them. Evidently not.
Rumsfeld had been informed about the planes crashing into the WTC. He even told the people with him at the time that this probably wasn’t going to be the end of it. When Flight 77 crashed into the other side of the Pentagon from where Rumsfeld was, he went to see and supposedly spent a fair amount of time trying to help survivors.
Think about that for a minute. He didn’t expect that the attack was over after planes crashed into the WTC, so he must have known we were under attack by then, and certainly he would have been aware by the time the Pentagon was attacked. So, here is a man that must have known that we were under attack and instead of trying to contact the President to deal with it, he spends time helping survivors at the Pentagon. In theory, he couldn’t have known what the full extent of the attack might have been at the time, and only he and Bush could have done anything about it. While it was nice of him to help with the survivors at the Pentagon, it was much more important for him to contact the President to decide what to do in case there were 11 more hijacked planes in the air (as they believed at one point), but he was out of touch when he was needed. If there had been other hijacked aircraft in the air, his delay could have cost the lives of who knows how many people.
Anyway, aside from the above, there is nothing else significant I needed to add to the article.