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Bush & Cheney: 9/11 Questions Still Unanswered

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.

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