President not informed of possible attack for 36 minutes after “All Clear” sounded

When a Navy ship goes into an alert, the proper words to be passed from either the bridge or Damage Control Central are: “General Quarters, General Quarters, All hands man your General Quarters Stations!!!” That means the ship is facing a situation dire enough that everybody on board needs to be on the alert and at their pre-arranged places. It also means that several crew-members have to change into special outfits for fighting fires and that all kinds of equipment has to be made available and ready for use. Ammo lockers should be opened up, flak jackets and helmets should be put on and the crew made generally ready for anything. If the ship suddenly loses power and the lights go out, the crewmembers don't wait for an alarm to be sounded, going to General Quarters is automatic.

Now, when the country is facing an unexpected problem that may or may not call for a military solution, what should the President do? Seems to me that going to General Quarters is the obvious answer. Where does that mean the President should go? A command post. On board Air Force One will do as that plane is specifically designed to act as a flying command post. Any Navy ship will do as each and every one has a bridge and the great majority have a separate DCC. If there's more than one ship available, the President would go to the largest one. Just about any military base will do nicely, as these normally have a headquarters that can serve as a command post.

There are two reasons for the President to get to a command post:

  1. Safety. A ship or a plane can get underway or take off and can promptly be surrounded by escorts, i.e. other ships and planes. Military bases are normally placed in safe, defensible areas and the base command post is usually well inside the base, able to be surrounded by troops. Of course, there's a reason to want the President to be safe. Being safe is not an end in itself. The President is only one person and there are 250 million other people in the United States for us to worry about. Accordingly, we're concerned about:

  2. Communications. The other primary reason is so that the President can communicate with the Armed Services. Not just one-way communications. Both directions are needed. The President must be informed in real time as to what's going on and he should respond in real time so that the proper orders can be issued. An example would be during the September 11th attacks in 2001.

(8:46 a.m.)

Two F-15 fighters are ordered to scramble from Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts to find Flight 11, approximately 190 miles from the known location of the plane and 188 miles from New York City. [8:39, Channel 4 News, 9/13/01, 8:44, CNN, 9/17/01, 8:44, Washington Post, 9/15/01, 8:44, Los Angeles Times, 9/17/01, 8:46, NORAD, 9/18/01, 9/11 Commission Report, 6/17/04] Supposedly, NORAD makes the decision to scramble after only one phone call, as the decision is made to act first and get clearances later. Yet there is a nine minute gap between when the 9/11 Commission says NORAD is notified about the hijacking, and when the fighters are ordered scrambled (see (8:37 a.m.)). Stranger, the pilots received several unofficial warnings before the official one (see (8:40 a.m.)) and were possibly warned as early as twelve minutes before this (see8:34 a.m.). One of the pilots recalls sitting in the cockpit, ready and waiting for the scramble order to come. [BBC, 9/1/02] Yet it's supposedly another six minutes before they take off (see 8:52 a.m.)

(After 8:46 a.m.)

Bush will say in a speech later that evening: “Immediately following the first attack, I implemented our government's emergency response plans.” [White House, 9/11/01] But in fact, seeing the images on television, lower-level officials activate the Conplan—the Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan. The plan, created in response to an executive order by President Clinton, details the responsibility of seven federal agencies if a terrorist attack occurs. It gives the FBI the responsibility for activating the plan and alerting other agencies. [Wall Street Journal 3/22/04]

(After 9:03 a.m.)

Shortly after the second WTC crash, calls from fighter units start “pouring into NORAD and sector operations centers, asking, ‘What can we do to help?’ ” At Syracuse, New York, an [Air National Guard] commander [tells NEADS commander Robert] Marr, “Give me 10 min. and I can give you hot guns. Give me 30 min. and I'll have heat-seeker [missiles]. Give me an hour and I can give you slammers [Amraams].” Marr replies, “I want it all.” [Aviation Week and Space Technology, 6/3/02] Supposedly, Marr says, “Get to the phones. Call every Air National Guard unit in the land. Prepare to put jets in the air. The nation is under attack.” [Newhouse News, 1/25/02] Canadian Major General Eric Findley, based in Colorado and in charge of NORAD that day, supposedly has his staff immediately order as many fighters in the air as possible. [Ottawa Citizen, 9/11/02] Yet another account says those calls don't take place until about an hour later: “By 10:01 a.m., the command center began calling several bases across the country for help.” [Toledo Blade, 12/9/01] The 9/11 Commission later concludes that a command for other bases to prepare fighters to scramble isn't given until 9:49 (see 9:49 a.m.). In fact, it appears the first fighters from other bases to take off are those from Syracuse at 10:44. This is over an hour and a half after Syracuse's initial offer to help, and not long after a general ban on all flights, including military ones, is lifted (see (9:26 a.m.) and (10:31 a.m.)). These are apparently the first fighters scrambled from the ground aside from three at Langley, two at Otis, and two Toledo, Ohio fighters ordered scrambled at 10:01 that launch fifteen minutes later (see 10:01 a.m.). [Toledo Blade 12/9/01]

(9:03-9:06 a.m.)

Bush enters Sandra Kay Daniels' second-grade class for a photo-op to promote Bush's education policies. [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] Numerous reporters who travel with the president, as well as members of the local media, watch from the back of the room. [AP, 8/19/02 (D)] Altogether there about 150 people in the room, 16 of them the children in the class. He is introduced to the children and poses for a number of staged pictures. The teacher then leads the students through some reading exercises (video footage shows this lasts about three minutes). [Salon, 9/12/01 (B)] Bush later claims that while he is doing this lesson, he is thinking what he will say about the WTC crash. “I was concentrating on the program at this point, thinking about what I was going to say. Obviously, I felt it was an accident. I was concerned about it, but there were no alarm bells.” [Washington Times, 10/7/02] The children are just getting their books from under their seats to read a story together when Chief of Staff Andrew Card comes in to tell Bush of the second WTC crash (see (9:06 a.m.)). [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] [9:02, Washington Times, 10/8/02, 9:03, Telegraph, 12/16/01, 9:04, Daily Mail, 9/8/02, according to photographer Eric Draper, who is in the room] Note that Card comes in at the conclusion of the first half of the planned lesson, and “[seizes] a pause in the reading drill to walk up to Mr. Bush's seat.” [Washington Times, 10/7/02, Washington Times, 10/8/02] Why doesn't Bush take this opportune moment to leave the room?

Clearly, had the President responded in the way that he said he did, the scrambling of jets after the attack on the first World Trade Center tower could have been accomplished in a smooth and coordinated manner without all of the confusions and hold-ups that did, in fact, occur. That is not to say that it would have been accomplished in that manner, but the chances of a proper response would have been enormously increased.

9:29 a.m.

Still inside Booker Elementary School, Bush gives a brief speech in front of about 200 students, plus many teachers and reporters. [Daily Mail, 9/8/02] He says, “Today we've had a national tragedy. Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country” (see the text of the speech here [Federal News Service, 9/11/01]). The talk occurs at exactly the time and place stated in his publicly announced advance schedule—making Bush a possible terrorist target. [MSNBC 9/22/01; Washington Post 9/12/01; CNN 9/12/01; New York Times 9/12/01; Federal News Service 9/10/01]

(Between 9:45-9:55 a.m.)

At some point after the White House is evacuated (see (9:45 a.m.)), Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke institutes Continuity of Government plans. Important government personnel, especially those in line to succeed the President if he dies, are evacuated to alternate command centers. Additionally, Clarke gets a phone call from the PEOC command center containing Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice. An aide tells him, “Air Force One is getting ready to take off, with some press still on board. [Bush will] divert to an air base. Fighter escort is authorized. And … Tell the Pentagon they have authority from the President to shoot down hostile aircraft, repeat, they have authority to shoot down hostile aircraft.” However, acting Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers wants the rules of engagement clarified before the shoot down order is passed on, so Clarke orders guidelines given to pilots.

Had the President been doing his job and not stopping to listen to schoolchildren read and making speeches, perhaps the order to shoot down planes might have been given in time to get the plane that was headed for the Pentagon.

So having gone through all this and having supposedly learned lessons from it, what was the response on Wednesday, 11 May 2005?

NEW YORK On the day after more than 30,000 people -- including the vice president, the first lady, and a former first lady -- were evacuated from their offices or homes in Washington, D.C., but the president, who was biking in Maryland was not notified until the threat passed, reporters grilled Press Secretary Scott McClellan at his daily briefing.


Q: Scott, yesterday the White House was on red alert, was evacuated. The first lady and Nancy Reagan were taken to a secure location. The Vice President was evacuated from the grounds. The Capitol building was evacuated. The continuity of government plan was initiated. And yet the president wasn't told of yesterday's events until after he finished his bike ride, about 36 minutes after the all-clear had been sent. Is he satisfied with the fact that he wasn't notified about this?

McCLELLAN: Yes. I think you just brought up a very good point -- the protocols that were in place after Sept. 11 were followed. The president was never considered to be in danger because he was at an off-site location. The president has a tremendous amount of trust in his Secret Service detail. ...

Which is very nice to hear, it's very nice that the President was safe, but this completely misses the point that I brought up earlier, the fact that the President is responsible for the lives and well-being of 250 million fellow citizens. Our press corps demonstrates it's not completely out to lunch:

Q: The fact that the president wasn't in danger is one aspect of this. But he's also the commander in chief. There was a military operation underway. Other people were in contact with the White House. Shouldn't the commander in chief have been notified of what was going on?

McCLELLAN: John, the protocols that we put in place after Sept. 11 were being followed. They did not require presidential authority for this situation. I think you have to look at each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation. And that's what officials here at the White House were doing. ...

Q: Even on a personal level, did nobody here at the White House think that calling the president to say, by the way, your wife has been evacuated from the White House, we just want to let you know everything is OK?

McCLELLAN: Actually, all the protocols were followed and people were -- officials that you point out were taken to secure locations or evacuated, in some cases. I think, again, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding the situation, and it depends on the situation and the circumstance. ...

Q: Nobody thought to say, by the way, this is going on, but it's all under control?

McCLELLAN: And I think it depends on each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation when you're making those decisions.

With all due respect to Mr. McClellan and the rest of the Bush Administration, NO, this decision did NOT depend on “the circumstances”! The circumstances were UNKNOWN! No one knew exactly what the circumstances were! How was anybody have supposed to have made an intelligent decision on the circumstances when the person who was responsible for making that decision was out bicycling around, miles from the scene?

Q: I think there's a disconnect here because, I mean, yesterday you had more than 30,000 people who were evacuated, you had millions of people who were watching this on television, and there was a sense at some point -- it was a short window, a 15-minute window, but there was a sense of confusion among some on the streets. There was a sense of fear. And people are wondering was this not a moment for the president to exercise some leadership, some guidance during that period of time?

MR. McCLELLAN: The president did lead, and the president did that after September the 11th when we put the protocols in place to make sure that situations like this were addressed before it was too late. And that was the case -- that was the case in this situation. ...

I'm absolutely stunned at the assertion that the President showed leadership in this case, though fortunately McClellan does not go so far as to insult our intelligence by suggesting that Bush's actions on the day of 9/11 were anything to celebrate. “Protocols” are not really necessary. Protocols aren't really the point. The point is that America needs a President who understands what his job is and who does it, not a President who is simply oblivious to what's happening.

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