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Context of 'September 12, 2001-March 2004: White House Officials Give Conflicting Accounts about Alleged Threat to Air Force One on 9/11'

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Bush in a holding room before giving his speech. Communications director Dan Bartlett points to the TV, and the clock reads 9:25. 
Bush in a holding room before giving his speech. Communications director Dan Bartlett points to the TV, and the clock reads 9:25. [Source: White House]After leaving the Booker Elementary School classroom, President Bush returns to an adjacent holding room where he is briefed by his staff, and gets his first look at the footage of the burning World Trade Center on a television that has been set up there. He instructs his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, to take notes to create an accurate accounting of events. According to some accounts, he speaks on the phone with Vice President Dick Cheney who is at the White House, and they both agree that terrorists are probably behind the attacks. [Sammon, 2002, pp. 92-93; Daily Mail, 9/8/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 39] But White House adviser Karl Rove, who is also in the holding room, will later tell NBC News that Bush is unable to reach Cheney because the vice president is being moved from his office to the White House bunker at this time. [MSNBC, 9/11/2002] The president speaks with New York Governor George Pataki and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Bush learns from Mueller that the planes that hit the WTC were commercial American aircraft, and at least one of them had apparently been hijacked after leaving Boston. According to some accounts, Bush also speaks with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice around this time. However, Rice herself will later suggest otherwise (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Sammon, 2002, pp. 93-94; Daily Mail, 9/8/2002; St. Petersburg Times, 9/8/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 39] Fleischer and White House communications director Dan Bartlett quickly draft a statement for the president to deliver in the school’s library, which Bush rewords, scribbling three sheets of notes. Bush will deliver this at 9:30 a.m. (see 9:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). While he works on the statement, Bush briefly glances at the unfolding horror on the television. Turning to his aides in the room, he declares, “We’re at war.” [Sammon, 2002, pp. 94; Albuquerque Tribune, 9/10/2002] According to the 9/11 Commission, the focus at the present time is on the president’s statement to the nation, and the only decision made by Bush’s traveling party is to return to Washington. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 39] Bush will later claim that he makes no major decisions in response to the crisis until after Air Force One takes off at around 9:55 a.m. (see (Shortly After 9:56 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [Washington Post, 1/27/2002]

Entity Tags: George E. Pataki, Dan Bartlett, Condoleezza Rice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, Robert S. Mueller III, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

President Bush speaking with Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer on Air Force One on September 11.President Bush speaking with Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer on Air Force One on September 11. [Source: George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum]Bush administration officials give differing accounts about whether a threat was made against Air Force One, the president’s plane, on September 11. [Washington Post, 9/27/2001; Slate, 9/28/2001; Wall Street Journal, 3/22/2004] The White House reportedly received an anonymous phone call at around 10:30 a.m. on September 11 in which the caller said Air Force One would be the next terrorist target and used code words indicating they had inside information about government procedures (see (10:30 a.m.) September 11, 2001). Vice President Dick Cheney promptly phoned President Bush on Air Force One and told him about the threat (see (10:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 9/13/2001; Woodward, 2002, pp. 18; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 554]
Press Secretary Reveals Threat during News Briefing - White House press secretary Ari Fleischer reveals the existence of the threat on September 12, after conferring with Cheney and White House counselor Karen Hughes about whether the administration should respond to criticisms of Bush’s failure to return to Washington, DC, immediately after the previous day’s attacks. Hughes advises Fleischer to mention the threat during his press briefing on this day. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 554; Fleischer, 2005, pp. 157] Fleischer therefore says in the briefing, “[W]e have specific and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were also intended targets of these attacks.” He says the threat against the president’s plane led to the decision to take Bush to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska (see 2:50 p.m. September 11, 2001) and was one of the reasons why Bush did not head back to Washington right away in response to the attacks. [White House, 9/12/2001]
Cheney Recalls 'Credible Threat' - On September 16, Cheney similarly tells NBC’s Meet the Press, “We received a threat to Air Force One,” and adds, “I think it was a credible threat, enough for the Secret Service to bring it to me.” [Meet the Press, 9/16/2001] And later in the month, White House adviser Karl Rove, who was with Bush on Air Force One on September 11, recalls that those on the president’s plane were informed of “a specific threat made to Air Force One,” which was a “declaration that Air Force One was a target.” [New Yorker, 9/25/2001]
Unnamed Officials Doubt whether Threat Was Made - Other officials, however, contradict these accounts. Near the end of September, CBS News reports that the phone call in which the threat was reportedly made “simply never happened.” It says that, according to unnamed sources, “White House staffers apparently misunderstood comments made by their security detail.” [Slate, 9/28/2001] And some unnamed Bush administration officials tell the Associated Press that “they now doubt whether there was actually a call made threatening Air Force One.” The officials say they “have been unsuccessful in trying to track down whether there was such a call, though officials still maintain they were told of a telephone threat [on] September 11 and kept Bush away from Washington for hours because of it.” [Associated Press, 9/26/2001] Fleischer will later recall that he learns, weeks after publicly revealing the existence of the supposed threat against Air Force One, “that the threat was unfounded.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 554] “I learned it was a mistake from the press,” he will say, “who had been tipped by someone who knew.” [Fleischer, 2005, pp. 158]
Threat Was 'Almost Surely Bogus' - At the start of November, when asked about the alleged call in which Air Force One was threatened, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says: “I don’t know if it was a crank call or a real threat. I don’t think we’re going to ever know.” [White House, 11/1/2001] And at the end of 2001, Newsweek reports that the reported threat to Air Force One has been determined to be “almost surely bogus,” although it adds, “White House officials say they do not know where it came from.” [Newsweek, 12/30/2001] White House spokesman Dan Bartlett says in 2004 that “there hadn’t been any actual threat” against Air Force One on September 11. Word of a threat, he says, “resulted from confusion in the White House bunker, as multiple conversations went on simultaneously.” Around the same time, however, Cheney’s office says it still cannot rule out that a threat to Air Force One was made. [Wall Street Journal, 3/22/2004]

Entity Tags: Ari Fleischer, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Dan Bartlett, Karen Hughes, Karl C. Rove, Condoleezza Rice

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

January 2004: Fitzgerald Seats Grand Jury

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, investigating the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see December 30, 2003), empanels a grand jury. Among the White House officials testifying before the jury will be President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, chief of staff Andrew Card, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Bush’s communications assistants Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes, former Cheney chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former press secretary Ari Fleischer, and current press secretary Scott McClellan (see January 2004). [MSNBC, 2/21/2007; Washington Post, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Fitzgerald

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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