Who Was Really in Charge? Did Bush Know Cheney Had Given Orders to Down Airliners on September 11? the Commission Staff Wonders-And Remains at Odds with Both Men over Alleged Saddam-Al Qaeda Ties

By Klaidman, Daniel; Hirsh, Michael | Newsweek, June 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Who Was Really in Charge? Did Bush Know Cheney Had Given Orders to Down Airliners on September 11? the Commission Staff Wonders-And Remains at Odds with Both Men over Alleged Saddam-Al Qaeda Ties


Klaidman, Daniel, Hirsh, Michael, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman and Michael Hirsh, With Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff in Washington

America was under attack, and some body had to make a decision. Dick Cheney, huddled in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House, had just urged the traveling George W. Bush not to return to Washington. The president had left Florida aboard Air Force One at 9:55 a.m. on 9/11 "with no destination at take-off," as last week's 9-11 Commission report noted. Nor had Bush given any known instructions on how to respond to the attacks. Now Cheney faced another huge decision on a morning in which every minute seemed monumental. The two airliners had already crashed into the Twin Towers, another into the Pentagon. Combat air patrols were aloft, and a military aide was asking for shoot-down authority, telling Cheney that a fourth plane was "80 miles out" from Washington. Cheney didn't flinch, the report said. "In about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing," he gave the order to shoot it down, telling others the president had "signed off on the concept" during a brief phone chat. When the plane was 60 miles out, Cheney was again informed and again he ordered: take it out.

Then Joshua Bolten, after what he described in testimony as "a quiet moment," spoke up. Bolten, the White House deputy chief of staff, asked the veep to get back in touch with the president to "confirm the engage order." Bolten was clearly subordinate to Cheney, but "he had not heard any prior conversation on the subject with the president," the 9/11 report notes. Nor did the real-time notes taken by two others in the room, Cheney's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby--who is known for his meticulous record-keeping--or Cheney's wife, Lynne, reflect that such a phone call between Bush and Cheney occurred or that such a major decision as shooting down a U.S. airliner was discussed. Bush and Cheney later testified the president gave the order. And national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and a military aide said they remembered a call, but gave few specifics. The report concluded "there is no documentary evidence for this call."

Did Dick Cheney follow proper procedures in ordering the shoot-down of U.S. airliners on 9/11? Well, almost no one seemed to follow procedures that day simply because there were none, the 9-11 Commission concludes. NORAD (the U.S. air defense command), the Federal Aviation Administration and air-traffic controllers faced "an unprecedented challenge they had never encountered and had never trained to meet." The issue was moot anyway: by the time Cheney issued his shoot-down order, between 10:10 and 10:15 a.m., United Flight 93, the last plane-turned-missile on 9/11, had already crashed in Pennsylvania (at 10:03 a.m.) after its passengers had made their heroic stand. The White House team just didn't know it. And many of the scrambled fighters didn't even have weapons onboard.

But the question of Cheney's behavior that day is one of many new issues raised in the remarkably detailed, chilling account laid out in dramatic presentations by the 9-11 Commission. NEWSWEEK has learned that some on the commission staff were, in fact, highly skeptical of the vice president's account and made their views clearer in an earlier draft of their staff report. According to one knowledgeable source, some staffers "flat out didn't believe the call ever took place." When the early draft conveying that skepticism was circulated to the administration, it provoked an angry reaction. In a letter from White House lawyers last Tuesday and a series of phone calls, the White House vigorously lobbied the commission to change the language in its report. "We didn't think it was written in a way that clearly reflected the accounting the president and vice president had given to the commission," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett told NEWSWEEK. Ultimately the chairman and vice chair of the commission, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean and former representative Lee Hamilton--both of whom have sought mightily to appear nonpartisan--agreed to remove some of the offending language. …

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