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AMERICA ATTACKED | THE PRESIDENT

U.S. Command Takes Wing Amid Chaos

Leadership: A safety plan keeps Bush mostly in the air yet in touch with top aides. His first comments on the attack came at Florida school.

September 12, 2001|ESTHER SCHRADER and EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the minutes and hours after hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the president's whereabouts were kept secret, his words short and his movements seemingly erratic.

Vice President Dick Cheney was in a command bunker underneath the White House within 15 minutes of the attacks. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in his office when the plane hit on the opposite side of the Pentagon, helped load casualties onto stretchers before hunkering down with top aides in the National Command Center, a secure section below his office that serves as the nerve center of the Defense Department.

Focus Was on Keeping the President Hidden

With chaos reigning outside, government leaders at the White House and federal agencies were focused on running the country--and on keeping the leader of the free world hidden. After leaving Sarasota, Fla., President Bush spent much of the day in the air, Air Force One shuttling him, with military escort, between military installations in Louisiana and Nebraska, his route secret, before flying to Washington in the early evening.

Former President Clinton said the feint was part of a Secret Service and military plan to keep the president safe.

"He needs to take every conceivable precaution in the event there are more attacks planned and there is a plan to attack the leadership of the United States," Clinton said in an interview with Associated Press.

For a few minutes, however, before the enormity of the attack was clearly known, the president tried to stick to his schedule.

"Really good readers, hoo!" Bush said in praise of a class of 18 second-graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. "Must be sixth-graders," he joked. At another point, he posed an oft-asked question to schoolchildren, asking how many of them read more than they watch television.

But when the small-group event ended at 9:12 a.m., Bush returned to a "holding room" at the school, where he called the vice president, New York Gov. George Pataki and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

In the same room, meanwhile, White House deputy counselor Dan Bartlett was on another phone talking to his boss, presidential counselor Karen P. Hughes. They were discussing what Bush would say in his public remarks in the school's library, where 200 or more children, parents and teachers were awaiting him.

When Bush got off the telephone, he asked for some paper, and an aide handed him a sheet of lined, legal paper. The president began scribbling notes on it. Then Bush was given a handful of large index cards, upon which he began writing.

Bush Appeared to Choke Back Tears

In the library, meanwhile, word began circulating through the crowd, and soon a somber silence fell over the room.

At 9:27, the president emerged from behind the curtains without any introduction, and with a puff of his cheeks, exhaled deeply and strode grimly to the lectern to deliver a brief statement.

"I've ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act," Bush said in part. "Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

At his speech's end, Bush appeared to choke back tears and his voice caught briefly in his throat.

He left immediately afterward.

Cheney and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice were in constant contact with Bush from the command bunker, according to an administration official. They were accompanied by Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and one other aide. Aides said Bush convened a midafternoon National Security Council meeting by teleconference from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, as his government struggled to respond to an attack of unprecedented proportions.

Congressional leaders also were secreted away. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, third in line for the presidency, was helicoptered to a secure location 74 miles from Washington, congressional aides said. By early afternoon the rest of the congressional leadership left by helicopter.

Other members of Congress and senators spent the day meeting in the headquarters of the Capitol police, about three blocks from the Capitol building, which had been evacuated. Much of the time was spent in conference calls with the leadership, hashing out when to return to session.

First Lady Laura Bush, who was to have made her debut testifying before the Senate on education, emerged grim-faced from the Capitol with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who announced the hearing was postponed.

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