Inside the Bunker
The New York Times
13 September 2001
At 9:03 a.m. Tuesday, as Vice President Dick Cheney was staring at the TV screen, the second hijacked airliner exploded against the Twin Towers. At that moment his Secret Service detail grabbed him and hurried him down to "PEOC."
The President's Emergency Operations Center is an underground facility hardened to withstand blast overpressure from a nuclear detonation. On the way to the tubular structure, Cheney was told that another plane, or a helicopter loaded with explosives, was headed for the White House.
Cheney promptly called the president in Florida, who had just boarded Air Force One, and urged him not to come back to Washington immediately.
In the PEOC, the vice president was joined by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, among others. They were told that six commercial aircraft were unaccounted for, all of which were potential missiles. One had supposedly crashed in Kentucky (not true), and another in Pennsylvania (that report of a crash was valid; its passengers or crew, apparently struggling with the hijackers, may have saved the White House).
According to a high White House official speaking to me on background, the airliner that had taken off at Dulles — AA Flight 77 — "did a 360" (meaning it changed direction from the White House) and at 9:45 slammed into the Pentagon.
About that time, accounts began coming into PEOC that four international flights were headed toward Washington over the Atlantic and another from Korea. It could not be immediately determined that they were not hostile and part of the terrorist scheme. U.S. fighter aircraft and an Awacs control aircraft were scrambled aloft.
A threatening message received by the Secret Service was relayed to the agents with the president that "Air Force One is next." According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.
(I have a second, on-the-record source about that: Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, tells me: "When the president said `I don't want some tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington,' the Secret Service informed him that the threat contained language that was evidence that the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts. In light of the specific and credible threat, it was decided to get airborne with a fighter escort.")
After the president put down at an Air Force base in Louisiana and made a tape for broadcast (presumably no satellite was available for a live feed), he was, in Rove's term, "pretty antsy" about not being at the center of command.
Bush made clear to Cheney, says my source who was in the bunker, his intense desire to return to Washington immediately. The Secret Service objected strongly. The vice president, a former secretary of defense, suggested Air Force One go to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, with a communications facility where the president could convene the National Security Council.
"It would have been irresponsible of him to come back, pounding his chest," says my source, "when hostile aircraft may have been headed our way. Any suggestion that he should have done so is ludicrous."
Confession: I made just that suggestion in yesterday's column, which stimulated two set-it-straight calls. Why didn't the V.P. make an appearance during that long afternoon in Bush's stead? The official reason is that Cheney was busy in the basement; the real reason, I think, is that he was unduly concerned it would appear presumptuous.
The most worrisome aspect of these revelations has to do with the credibility of the "Air Force One is next" message. It is described clearly as a threat, not a friendly warning — but if so, why would the terrorists send the message? More to the point, how did they get the code-word information and transponder know-how that established their mala fides?
That knowledge of code words and presidential whereabouts and possession of secret procedures indicates that the terrorists may have a mole in the White House — that, or informants in the Secret Service, F.B.I., F.A.A. or C.I.A. If so, the first thing our war on terror needs is an Angleton-type counterspy.