9/11/01: Where was George?
by Eric Alterman
The Nation magazine, October
September I I is often said to be the
defining moment in the Bush presidency, even of modern history.
How strange, therefore, that Bush's behavior that moming-along
with that of his Administration-is almost never examined in any
detail. This is all the more incredible when one considers the
fact that 9/11 is among the most exhaustively chronicled days
in human history and Bush among its most heavily covered individuals.
No less odd has been the media's willingness to let the many inconsistencies
in White House stories pass unexamined. They seem content instead
to let Showtime tell the story, Leni Riefenstahl-style.
That fateful morning, Bush was visiting
the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota. The moment he
learned of the attacks is a matter of deep dispute. CIA chief
George Tenet was informed of the first crash almost immediately
and is reported to have remarked to his breakfast companion, former
Senator David Boren, "You know, this has bin Laden's fingerprints
all over it." But the President's aides maintain that he
was not told about the attack for more than fifteen minutes, well
after viewers saw the first building engulfed in smoke on CNN,
and even after he interrupted his schedule to take a call from
Condoleezza Rice upon leaving his limousine, after the first crash
The various accounts offered by the White
House are almost all inconsistent with one another. On December
4, 2001, Bush was asked, "How did you feel when you heard
about the terrorist attack?" Bush replied, "I was sitting
outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane
hit the tower-the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself,
and I said, well, there's one terrible pilot. I said, it must
have been a horrible accident. But I was whisked off there. I
didn't have much time to think about it ' " Bush repeated
the same story on January 5, 2002, stating, "First of all,
when we walked into the classroom, I had seen this plane fly into
the first building. There was a TV set on. And you know, I thought
it was pilot error, and I was amazed that anybody could make such
a terrible mistake ......
This is false. Nobody saw the jetliner
crash into the first tower on television until a videotape surfaced
a day later. What's more, Bush's memory not only contradicts every
media report of that morning, it also contradicts what he said
on the day of the attack. In his speech to the nation that evening,
Bush said, "Immediately following the first attack, I implemented
our government's emergency response plans." Again, this statement
has never been satisfactorily explained. No one besides Bush has
ever spoken of these "emergency plans;' and the mere idea
of their implementation is contradicted by Bush's claim that at
the time, he believed the crash to have been a case of pilot error.
Other contradictions abound. Bush told
an interviewer that Chief of Staff Andrew Card had been the first
person to let him know of the crash. Card was saying, Bush explained,
"'Here's what you're going to be doing: You're going to meet
so-and-so, such-and-such.'Then Andy Card said, 'By the way, an
aircraft flew into the World Trade Center."' Ari Fleischer
repeated this story, claiming that Card had told Bush about the
crash "as the President finished shaking hands in a hallway
of school officials." But other sources, including Bob Woodward's
allegedly authoritative account, have Karl Rove telling Bush the
What we do know is that Bush continued
to read to the children and pose for the cameras long after the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the North American Aerospace
(NORAD), the National Military Command Center, the Pentagon, the
White House, the Secret Service and Canada's Strategic Command
were all aware that three jetliners had been hijacked.
The President's entourage hung around a full fifty minutes after
CNN broadcast the news of the first crash. Half an hour after
the first plane hit, Bush told the children, "Hoo! These
are great readers. Very impressive! Thank you all so very much
for showing me your reading skills. I bet they practice, too.
Don't you? Reading more than they watch TV? Anybody do that? Read
more than you watch TV? [Hands go up] Oh that's great! Very good.
Very important to practice! Thanks for having me. I'm very impressed."
White House staff members claimed that
Bush remained with the children so as not to "upset"
or "alarm' them. This is a truly bewildering excuse. If the
country was under attack, Bush might be forgiven for upsetting
a few schoolkids. If the President's life was in danger, then
so was the life of every little child in that room. At the time,
fighter jets had been dispatched to defend New York City. But
according to one of the fighter pilots, it would have done no
good to catch up to one of the hijacked planes before it landed
in a murderous explosion at the next population center. The only
person with the authority to order the plane to be shot down,
noted the pilot, was the President, who was still reading to schoolchildren.
The panic motif runs through the rest
of the President's actions that day. While the presidential motorcade
did finally head for the airport, Bush is alleged to have spoken
on the phone to Cheney and ordered all flights nationwide grounded.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has also tried to take
credit for the order, but according to Slate, this too is false,
though "FAA officials had begged [the reporter] to maintain
the fiction." In fact, according to USA Today, it was FAA
administrator Ben Sliney who issued the order. Amazingly, Air
Force One took off with no military protection. It remained unprotected
in the sky for more than an hour, though Florida is filled with
Air Force bases just minutes away with planes that are supposed
to be on twenty-four-hour alert.
Bush's aides later offered, and retracted,
the excuse that he spent the day flying around the country because
of threats to Air Force One believed to have been received at
the White House. What nobody has ever explained is this: If you
think Air Force One is to be attacked, why go up in Air Force
I don't have the answers to these questions.
But why is no one aasking them?
Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft page