The next couple of weeks will be filled with 9/11 remembrances. Best to remind ourselves, though, that ten years after the fact they’re a poor substitute in evidential terms for the contemporary records of the day. We’ve been giving this a lot of thought, wondering what, if anything, any of the talk will add to our understanding of the day’s events. Two of those notably doing the talking this past week were former President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney – Bush in an “intimate” interview for National Geographic, Cheney in his just-released memoir, In My Time.
We blogged about this issue last week for The Daily Beast, before having heard Bush’s much-publicized 9/11 interview for National Geographic. In our Beast piece we pointed out that neither Bush nor Cheney has ever submitted to questioning alone and under oath on the events of September 11. Bush and Cheney instead granted a “private interview” to 9/11 Commission members but without recorders or stenographers present.
As a test, we’ve analysed their latest comments on one significant question about their own behaviour as the attacks unfolded – the matter of who authorized the shooting down of civilian airliners.
While the fire and smoke of the attacks was still in the air, top Bush administration ofﬁcials hurried out statements on who issued that momentous order, and when. First there had been a ﬂat statement by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz that—had United 93 not crashed—Air Force pilots had been poised to shoot it down. Next, on the Sunday after 9/11, had come Vice President Cheney’s account, in a Meet the Press interview, of how the shooting down of hijacked airliners had been authorized. Cheney said the “horrendous decision” had been made—with his wholehearted agreement—by the President himself. There had been moments, he said, when he thought a shoot-down might be necessary
Bush took the decision during one of their phone calls that day, Cheney told Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, “I recommended to the President that we authorize . . . I said, ‘We’ve got to give the pilots rules of engagement, and I recommend we authorize them to shoot.’ We talked about it brieﬂy, and he said, ‘OK, I’ll sign up to that.’ He made the decision.”
Bush himself, speaking with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, said Cheney had indeed suggested that he issue the order. His response, as he remembered it in late 2001, had been monosyllabic. Just, “You bet.” Later still, speaking with the 9/11 commissioners, Bush recalled having discussed the matter in a call made to him by Cheney, and “emphasized” that it was he who authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft.
By the time the President wrote his 2010 memoir, that call from the Vice President had become a call he made to Cheney. Bush’s monosyllabic authorization, moreover, had transmogriﬁed into a well thought-out plan.
“I called Dick Cheney as Air Force One climbed rapidly to forty-ﬁve thousand feet . . . ,” the President wrote. “He had been taken to the underground Presidential Emergency Operations Center—the PEOC—when the Secret Service thought a plane might be coming at the White House. I told him that I would make decisions from the air and count on him to implement them on the ground.”
“Two big decisions came quickly. The military had dispatched Combat Air Patrols—teams of ﬁghter aircraft assigned to intercept unresponsive airplanes—over Washington and New York. . . . We needed to clarify the rules of engagement. I told Dick that our pilots should contact suspicious planes and try to get them to land peace- fully. If that failed, they had my authority to shoot them down.”
Have Bush and Cheney’s most recent utterances shed any new light? In his Nat Geo interview this past week, President Bush gave a truncated account of the event, echoing the notion that it was “a decision” he alone had made, but this time entirely leaving out any mention of Cheney. Cheney, for his part, reiterates in his memoir that the President had “approved my recommendation” that the military be authorized to “fire on a civilian airliner if it had been hijacked and would not divert.” No clarity there.
It would have been unthinkable for the U.S. military to down a civilian airliner without a clear order from the President, as commander-in-chief. In his absence, the authority belonged to the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “The operational chain of command,” relevant law decreed, ran “from the President to the Secretary of Defense,” and on through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to individual commanders. The Vice President was not in the chain of command.
That was well understood by U.S. military on September 11. In an earlier exercise, one that postulated a suicide mission involving a jet aimed at Washington, they had said shooting it down would require an “executive” order. The defense secretary’s authority, General Arnold told the Commission, was necessary to shoot down even a “derelict balloon.” Only the President, he thought, had the authority to shoot down a civilian airliner.
The 9/11 Commission made no overt statement as to whether it be- lieved Cheney’s assertion—that he recommended and Bush decided. Shown the ﬁnal draft of the Report’s passage on the shoot-down decision, however, Cheney was furious. For all its careful language, the Report dropped a clear hint that its staff had found Cheney’s account—and Bush’s—less than convincing.
“We just didn’t believe it,” general counsel Daniel Marcus de- clared long afterward. “The ofﬁcial version,” John Farmer would say, “insisted that President Bush had issued an authorization to shoot down hijacked commercial ﬂights, and that that order had been pro- cessed through the chain of command and passed to the ﬁghters. This was untrue.”
Why might a phony scenario have been created? “The administration version,” Farmer noted, “implied, where it did not state explicitly, that the chain of command had been functioning on 9/11, and that the critical decisions had been made by the appropriate top ofﬁcials. . . . None of this captures how things actually unfolded on the day.”
As we said in the Beast, we believe we come close in The Eleventh Day to establishing that shoot-down authorization originated not with Bush but with the Vice President. Nothing that either man has revealed in the past week changes that.