The Shootdown Order

On the morning of September 11, when it became clear that terrorists were deliberately crashing planes into buildings, Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the military to shoot down unresponsive aircraft. He said that he consulted with President Bush about this order before giving it. President Bush also said that he had approved the order before Cheney gave it. However, the commission's reconstruction of the events of that morning casts doubt on that claim.

The commission's report presents a timeline of where the president and vice president were, and what they did.

It says President Bush was about to read to children in a classroom in Sarasota, Florida, when he was told that a small, twin-engine plane had struck the World Trade Center. He assumed it was an accident.

Vice President Cheney was at the White House and, according to the 9/11 Commission report, "had just sat down for a meeting when his assistant told him to turn on his television because a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The Vice President was wondering 'how the hell could a plane hit the World Trade Center' when he saw the second aircraft strike the south tower."

President Bush soon learned of the second crash, too. He was still in the Florida classroom when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered to him, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

According to the report, "The president told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The press was standing behind the children; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring." About five minutes later, he left the classroom. He spoke to Vice President Cheney and a number of other officials by phone.

The vice president was still at the White House when the Secret Service got word that air traffic controllers had picked up an unidentified airplane a few miles away. The plane did not respond to attempts to contact it. The Secret Service ordered the vice president to evacuate the White House. The report says, "Agents propelled him out of his chair and told him he had to get to the bunker."

The unidentified plane was American Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, the president left the grade school for the airport, where he boarded Air Force One. The report says he called the vice president from the plane and they discussed whether he should return to Washington. "According to notes of the call," the report says, "at about 9:45 the president told the vice president: 'Sounds like we have a minor war going on here, I heard about the Pentagon. We're at war … somebody's going to pay.'"

The report doesn't mention any discussion of a shootdown order in either of these earlier conversations. The question of whether to authorize a shootdown does not arise until Cheney's arrival in the conference room of the White House bunker.

According to the report, "The vice president recalled being told, just after his arrival [in the conference room], that the Air Force was trying to establish a combat air patrol [CAP] over Washington." Cheney later told the commission that he called President Bush then, and that the two of them discussed what the engagement rules for the CAP should be.

Cheney "recalled feeling that it did no good to establish the CAP unless the pilots had instructions on whether they were authorized to shoot if the plane would not divert," the report says. "He said the president signed off on that concept. The president said he remembered such a conversation, and that it reminded him of when he had been an interceptor pilot. The president emphasized to us that he had authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft."

There is no record of this call. According to the report, "Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning, there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete."

Some of the people who were with the vice president said they remembered this call.

"The vice president's military aide told us he believed the vice president spoke to the president just after entering the conference room, but he did not hear what they said," the report says. "[National Security Advisor Condoleeza] Rice, who entered the room shortly after the vice president and sat next to him, remembered hearing him inform the president, 'Sir, the CAPs are up. Sir, they're going to want to know what to do.' Then she recalled hearing him say, 'Yes sir.'"

On the other hand, the report says, "Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the vice president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the president and vice president immediately after the vice president entered the conference room."

Shortly after the vice president's arrival in the conference room, the Secret Service told the people gathered there that a fourth flight was headed toward Washington. This was United Flight 93. The Secret Service did not receive word right away that the plane had crashed in Pennsylvania.

According to the report, a few minutes after the crash, believing the plane was still in the air, an aide told Cheney "that the aircraft was 80 miles out." It says Cheney "was asked for authority to engage the aircraft. His reaction was described by Scooter Libby as quick and decisive, 'in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing.' The vice president authorized fighter aircraft to engage the inbound plane. He told us he based this authorization on his earlier conversation with the president."

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten was in the conference room when Cheney gave the authorization. According to the staff report, "Bolten watched the exchanges and, after what he called 'a quiet moment,' suggested that the vice president get in touch with the president and confirm the engage order. Bolten told us he wanted to make sure the president was told that the vice president had executed the order. He said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the president."

Although there is no record of the earlier call, there is documentary evidence that Cheney called President Bush after giving the shootdown order. He authorized shooting down planes sometime between 10:12 and 10:18, the report says, and then he called Air Force One.

"The vice president was logged calling the president at 10:18 for a two-minute conversation that obtained the confirmation," the report says. "On Air Force One, the president's press secretary was taking notes; Ari Fleischer recorded that at 10:20, the president told him that he had authorized a shootdown of aircraft if necessary."

Regardless of whether the order came initially from the president or the vice president, it came too late for fighter pilots to get to the hijacked plane.

This order was communicated over a military chat log at 10:31, but the commission's staff estimates that if it hadn't crashed, Flight 93 could have reached Washington by 10:13, and would probably have gotten there no later than 10:23. The commission determined that the hijackers' target was probably either the Capitol or the White House, but the passenger revolt aboard the plane prevented the hijackers from completing their mission.

Back to Witnesses to Terror

©2018 American Public Media