WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney was huddled with top U.S. officials in a bunker below the White House on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when a military aide told him that a hijacked aircraft was 80 miles from Washington and closing in fast. The aide needed to know: Did Cheney want to give warplanes scrambled over Washington orders to shoot it down?
Cheney did not hesitate. He authorized fighter aircraft "to engage the inbound plane."
In the decision to issue a lethal order without precedent in American history -- to shoot down a plane filled with American civilians -- Cheney both struggled with the confusion of that morning and personified it, according to a staff report issued Thursday by the national commission investigating the terrorist attacks.
The order given by Cheney was never received by the fighter pilots, and, in the end, it came too late to interrupt the assault.
Perhaps in his haste to act -- President Bush was in Florida at the time -- Cheney might have shortcut White House protocol, the report said. The normal chain of command for military "engage" orders goes from the president to the secretary of Defense, and not through the vice president, it said.
Although Cheney said he conferred with the president before giving the order, the commission staff could not confirm that a phone call took place in that time frame. Several minutes after giving the order, Cheney informed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that he had done so.
"So we've got a couple of aircraft up there that have those instructions at the present time?" Rumsfeld asked.
"That is correct," Cheney replied. "And it's my understanding they've already taken a couple of aircraft out." That understanding turned out to be mistaken.
By then, three hijacked airliners had already been crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The airliner Cheney ordered shot down had already been forced by passengers to crash in a Pennsylvania field. And another seemingly hostile aircraft turned out to be a medevac helicopter, headed to the Pentagon.
The events at the White House underscored the chaotic nature of a day that was filled with events the nation had never encountered and was not prepared to meet, the report said.
Just before 9 that morning, Cheney was seated in his White House office for a meeting with his speechwriter when an aide came in and told him to turn on the television. A plane had just struck the World Trade Center.
"The vice president was wondering 'how the hell a plane could hit the World Trade Center' when he saw a second aircraft strike the South Tower," according to the commission staff report.
After that, things started happening quickly. According to accounts Cheney had given earlier, he called Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor; Mary Matalin, his top aide; and other advisors to his office. The group was interrupted by Secret Service agents, who grabbed Cheney and moved him "very rapidly" down several flights of stairs to a tunnel deep under the White House.
Halfway down the tunnel was a secure telephone, a bench and a television. Cheney asked to speak to the president. By the time the call was connected, according to the report, Cheney had flipped on a television to see smoke pouring out of the Pentagon.
With his wife, Lynne, who had been brought to the bunker by Secret Service agents, at his side Cheney told Bush of the three planes missing and of the hit on the Pentagon. In what would be the first of a series of counsels, he urged Bush not to return to Washington.
Bush had resisted the idea of staying away, according to the commission's chronology. But Cheney was persuasive. After the two got off the phone, Air Force One would take off from a Florida airport with no destination in mind, its only instructions to get airborne and fly high and fast enough to reach safety.
From the command conference room in the bunker, according to witnesses, Cheney quickly sought to take charge.
Cheney has told the commission that during one call to Bush, moments after he arrived at the command center, he asked the president to decide on the rules of engagement for combat planes being deployed over Washington. Bush said he authorized that hijacked planes be shot down.
But the commission staff seemed to question whether the call took place. Its report noted that there were no logs of that phone call between Cheney and Bush. "Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the vice president's chief of staff, [I. Lewis] Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the president and vice president immediately after the vice president entered the conference room," the report said.
Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, told reporters "there's no documentary evidence" that Cheney conferred with Bush before issuing the shoot-down order.