Cheney Authorized Shooting Down Planes
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2004; Page A01
At 10:39 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Cheney, in a bunker beneath the White House, told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a videoconference that he had been informed earlier that morning that hijacked planes were approaching Washington.
"Pursuant to the president's instructions, I gave authorization for them to be taken out," Cheney told Rumsfeld, who was at the Pentagon. Informing Rumsfeld that the fighter pilots had received orders to fire, Cheney added, "It's my understanding they've already taken a couple of aircraft out."
Cheney's comments, which were soon proved erroneous, were detailed in a report issued yesterday by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks. The comments are part of the considerable confusion that surrounded top government officials as the tense drama unfolded.
The commission's description of actions taken by Cheney and President Bush, based in part on interviews with both men, provides new details of that morning. The report portrays the vice president taking command from his bunker while Bush, who was in Florida, communicated with the White House in a series of phone calls, and occasionally had trouble getting through.
Cheney, who told the commission he was operating on instructions from Bush given in a phone call, issued authority for aircraft threatening Washington to be shot down. But the commission noted that "among the sources that reflect other important events that morning there is no documentary evidence for this call, although the relevant sources are incomplete." Those sources include people nearby taking notes, such as Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Cheney's wife, Lynne.
Bush and Cheney told the commission that they remember the phone call; the president said it reminded him of his time as a fighter pilot. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who had joined Cheney, told the commission that she heard the vice president discuss the rules of engagement for fighter jets over Washington with Bush.
Within minutes, Cheney would use his authority. Told -- erroneously, as it turned out -- that a presumably hijacked aircraft was 80 miles from Washington, Cheney decided "in about the time it takes a batter to swing" to authorize fighter jets scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., to engage it, the commission reported.
Only later did White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten suggest that Cheney call Bush once more to confirm the engagement order, according to the commission. Logs in Cheney's bunker and on Air Force One confirm conversations at 10:18 and 10:20, respectively.
Later, Cheney spoke to Rumsfeld via videoconference. When the vice president said the orders had been relayed to the jets and "a couple of aircraft" had been downed, Rumsfeld replied: "We can't confirm that. We're told that one aircraft is down but we do not have a pilot report that they did it."
But the commission determined that the Langley fighter jets sent to circle Washington never received the shoot-down order. It was passed down the chain of command, but commanders of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's northeast sector did not give it to the pilots.
"Both the mission commander and the weapons director indicated they did not pass the order to fighters circling Washington and New York City because they were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance," the commission reported.
"In short," the report added, "while leaders believed the fighters circling above them had been instructed to 'take out' hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the Langley pilots were to 'ID type and tail.' "
Unknown to Cheney or Bush, however, by 10:45 other fighter jets would be circling Washington, and these had clear authority to shoot down planes, the commission determined. They were sent from Andrews Air Force Base by the commander of the 113th Wing of the Air National Guard, in consultation with the Secret Service, which relayed instructions that an agent said were from Cheney.
That arrangement was "outside the military chain of command," according to the commission report. Bush and Cheney told the commission they were unaware that fighters had been scrambled from Andrews.
Cheney would give the order to engage twice -- at news that United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was approaching Washington, and at what turned out to be a medevac helicopter, the commission determined. Neither aircraft was engaged.
About 9 a.m. that day, at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., it was Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, who first told him and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, though initially it was believed to be a small private plane, the commission reported.
Cheney, told by his assistant to turn on his television, was pondering "how the hell a plane could hit the World Trade Center" when he saw the second plane crash into the South Tower, the commission reported.
White House officials jumped into action, but the commission was skeptical about whether their efforts that morning had much effect. It said a video teleconference in the White House situation room, chaired by Richard A. Clarke, then head of counterterrorism at the White House, "had no immediate effect on the emergency defense efforts."
Bush remained in the classroom for "five to seven minutes" after learning of the second crash as the children around him continued reading. He had his first conversation with Cheney at about 9:15. Those traveling with the president did not know other aircraft were missing, the commission reported.
Communications with Washington were so poor that Bush, who told the commission he was "deeply dissatisfied" with the technical problems, at one point resorted to using a cell phone on the way to Air Force One, according to commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton. Both said Bush's motorcade took a wrong turn on the way to the airport and had to reverse.
Bush and Cheney spoke again at 9:45, while Bush was on the tarmac aboard Air Force One. By that time, both towers of the World Trade Center were aflame and the Pentagon had been hit.
"Sounds like we have a minor war going on here," Bush told Cheney, according to the commission report. "I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war . . . somebody's going to pay."
Cheney joined the Secret Service and Card in urging Bush not to return to Washington. The two apparently were still on the phone, about 10 minutes later, as Air Force One took off from Florida without a destination. "The objective was to get up in the air -- as fast and as high as possible -- and then decide where to go," the commission report noted.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.