I was at a conference three blocks from the White House when the call came through. It was Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, a member of my counterterrorism staff. She said an aircraft had struck the World Trade Center.
“Until we know what this is, Dick, we should assume the worst.”
“Right. Activate the CSG on secure video. I’ll be there in less than five.”
The CSG was the White House counterterrorism security group. Its members were the leaders of each of the federal government’s counterterrorism and security organisations. I had chaired it since 1992.
Lisa called again: “The other tower was just hit.”
As I pulled my car up to the West Wing door, Paul Kurtz, one of the White House counterterrorism team, ran up. “We were in the morning staff meeting when we heard. Condi told me to find you fast and broke up the meeting. She’s with Cheney.”
I ran through the West Wing, oblivious to the stares. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice were alone in his office. The vice-president was famously implacable, but I thought I saw a reflection of horror on his face.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s an Al-Qaeda attack and they like simultaneous attacks. This may not be over.”
“Secret Service wants us to go to the bomb shelter,” Condi said.
I nodded: “I would and . . . I would evacuate the White House.”
Cheney began to gather up his papers. Eight Secret Service agents were ready to move him to the presidential emergency operations center (PEOC), a bunker in the East Wing.
Just off the main floor of the situation room on the ground level of the West Wing is a secure video conferencing centre, a wood-panelled room with a bank of monitors in the wall. As I hurried there, Ralph Seigler, the situation room deputy director, grabbed me.
“Where’s Potus?” I asked, using the White House jargon for the president of the United States.
On the screens of the video centre I could see people rushing into studios around the city: Donald Rumsfeld at the Department of Defence (DOD); George Tenet at CIA; Rich Armitage, number two at the State Department. Air force General Dick Myers was filling in for the chairman of the joint chiefs, Hugh Shelton, who was over the Atlantic.
“Do you want to chair this as a principals meeting?” I asked Condi.
As national security adviser, she chaired the principals committee, which consisted of the secretaries of state and defence, the CIA director, the chairman of the joint chiefs and now often the vice-president.
“No. You run it,” she said.
I pushed aside the chair at the head of the table and stood there, Condi visibly by my side. “Let’s begin. Calmly. We will do this in crisis mode, which means keep your microphones off unless you’re speaking. If you want to speak, wave at the camera. If it’s something you don’t want everyone to hear, call me on the red phone.”
“You’re going to need some decisions quickly,” Rice said off camera. “I’m going to the PEOC to be with the vice-president. Tell us what you need.”
I sent my White House fellow, Major Mike Fenzel, with her. The highly competitive process that selected White House fellows had turned out some extraordinary people over the years, including another army major named Colin Powell.
“Okay,” I began. “Let’s start with the facts. FAA, FAA, go.”
Jane Garvey, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, responded: “The two aircraft that went in were American flight 11, a 767, and United 175, also a 767. Hijacked.”
“Well, Jane, can you order aircraft down? We’re going to have to clear the airspace around Washington and New York.”
“We may have to do a lot more than that, Dick. I already put a hold on all takeoffs and landings in New York and Washington, but we have reports of 11 aircraft off course or out of communications, maybe hijacked.”
Lisa slowly whispered: “Oh shit.” All conversation had stopped in the studios on the screens. Everyone was listening.
“Eleven,” I repeated. “Okay, Jane, how long will it take to get all aircraft now aloft onto the ground somewhere?” “The air traffic manager says there are 4,400 birds up now. We can cancel all takeoffs quickly, but grounding them all that are already up . . . Don’t know how long it will take.”
I turned to the Pentagon screen. “JCS, JCS. I assume Norad has scrambled fighters and Awacs. How many? Where?” “Not a pretty picture.” Dick Myers, a former fighter pilot, knew the days when we had scores of fighters on strip alert had ended with the cold war. “Otis has launched two birds toward New York. Langley is trying to get two up now. The Awacs are at Tinker and not on alert.”
More jargon. Norad is the North American Aerospace Defence Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. Otis is an air national guard base on Cape Cod. Langley air force base is outside Norfolk, Virginia. Tinker, home to all of America’s flying radar stations, is in Oklahoma.
“Okay, how long to CAP over DC?” Combat Air Patrol, CAP, was something we were used to placing over Iraq, not over our own capital.
“Fast as we can. Fifteen minutes?” Myers asked, looking at the generals and colonels around him.
On one of the television screens, the president was talking to the nation from Florida “. . . into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country”.
Brian Stafford, director of the Secret Service, pulled me aside. “We gotta get him out of there to someplace safe . . . and secret. I’ve stashed Flotus.” Flotus was Mrs Bush, first lady of the United States, now in a heavily guarded, unmarked building in Washington.
I called Fenzel at the PEOC. “Mike, somebody has to tell the president he can’t come right back here. Cheney, Condi, somebody.”
I resumed the video conference. “FAA, FAA, go. Status report. How many aircraft do you still carry as hijacked?”
Jane Garvey read from a list: “All aircraft have been ordered to land at the nearest field. Here’s what we have as potential hijacks: Delta 1989 over West Virginia, United 93 over Pennsylvania . . .”
Stafford slipped me a note. “Radar shows aircraft headed this way.” He was ordering the evacuation of the White House.
Roger Cressey, my deputy, announced: “A plane just hit the Pentagon.” I was still talking with the FAA, taking down a list of possibly hijacked aircraft.
“Did you hear me?” asked Roger. He was on loan to the White House from the Pentagon. He had friends there; we all did.
“I can still see Rumsfeld on the screen,” I replied, “so the whole building didn’t get hit. No emotion in here. We are going to stay focused. Roger, find out where the fighter planes are. I want Combat Air Patrol over every major city in this country. Now.”
Staff poured out of the White House compound, the residence, the West Wing and the Executive Office Building. Secret Service guards yelled at the women: “If you’re in high heels, take off your shoes and run — run!”
Our co-ordinator for Continuity of Government (COG) joined us. We will call him Fred here to protect his identity. COG was a programme left over from the cold war designed to relocate administration officials to alternate sites during periods of national emergency.
Paul Kurtz handed me the white phone to the PEOC. It was Fenzel. “Air Force One is getting ready to take off, with some press still on board. He’ll divert to an airbase. Fighter escort is authorised. And . . .” He paused. “Tell the Pentagon they have authority from the president to shoot down hostile aircraft.”
I was amazed at the speed of decisions coming from Cheney and, through him, from Bush. “Tell them I am instituting COG.”
Rumsfeld said smoke was getting into the Pentagon secure teleconferencing studio. Franklin Miller, special assistant to the president for defence affairs, urged him to helicopter to DOD’s alternate site. “I am too goddamn old to go to an alternate site,” Rumsfeld answered.
Ralph stuck his head around the door: “Secret Service reports a hostile aircraft 10 minutes out.”
Beverly Roundtree, my secretary, distributed gas masks.
“State, State . . .” I called to get Rich Armitage’s attention.
The deputy secretary of state had been a navy Seal — and looked it. He responded in tactical radio style: “State, here, go.”
“Rich, has your building just been bombed?” I asked.
“Does it f****** look like I’ve been bombed, Dick?” “Well, no, but the building covers about four blocks and you’re behind a big vault door.
“All right, goddamn it, I’ll go look for myself,” Armitage said, disappearing off camera.
Fred returned. “The streets and metro are jammed with people trying to get out of town. It’s going to be hard to get to alternate sites.”
Seigler was back: “Hostile aircraft eight minutes out.”
Dale Watson, counterterrorism chief at the FBI, was waving at the camera indicating he had an update. “Go ahead, Dale.”
“Dick, got a few things here. The Port Authority is closing all bridge and tunnel connections into Manhattan. . . . And Dick, call me in SIOC when you can.”
SIOC, the Strategic Information and Operations Center, is the FBI’s command centre. Dale had something he did not want to share with everyone in the conference.
I stepped out and called him on a secure line. “We got the passenger manifests from the airlines. We recognise some names, Dick. They’re Al-Qaeda.”
I was stunned, not that the attack was Al-Qaeda but that there were Al-Qaeda operatives on board aircraft using names that the FBI knew were Al-Qaeda. “How the f*** did they get on board then?” I demanded.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, friend. CIA forgot to tell us about them.”
Dale was one of the good guys at the FBI. He had been trying hard to get the bureau to go after Al-Qaeda in America with limited success.
As we talked, we both saw on the monitors that the second World Trade Center tower was collapsing in a cloud of dust. “Oh dear God,” Dale whispered over the line.
“Dale, find out how many people were inside.” The number that popped into my head was 10,000.
“I’ll try . . . but you know one of them. John just called the New York office from there.”
John was John O’Neill, my closest friend in the FBI, a man driven to destroy Al-Qaeda until the bureau had forced him out for being too obsessive. He had just become director of security at the World Trade Center. Now he must be dead.
Cressey had an update for me: “United 93 is down, crashed outside of Pittsburgh. It’s odd. Appears not to have hit anything much on the ground.”
Frank Miller reported that DOD had gone on a global alert, Defcon 3: “That hasn’t happened since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.”
“State, State, go.” Armitage acknowledged the call. “Rich, DOD has gone to Defcon 3 and you know what that means.”
“It means I better go tell the Ruskies before they shit a brick.”
Armitage reappeared. “Damn good thing I did that. Guess who was about to start an exercise of all their strategic nuclear forces?” Cressey told me that Fenzel was looking for me. When I punched the PEOC button, the person answering the line grunted and passed the phone to Fenzel. “Who is the asshole answering the phone for you, Mike?” I asked.
“That would be the vice- president, Dick. And he’d like you to come over.”
I had walked from the situation room in the West Wing through the residence to the East Wing many times before, flashing my badge at the many guard posts along the way. Now there was no one there. No sound.
The guards had been ordered to assume a perimeter a block outside the White House fence. They had cordoned off streets and set up machineguns. Inside the fence, the White House was eerily empty.
At the bottom of the stairs in the East Wing, I turned the corner and found a machinegun in my face. Cheney’s security detail had set up outside the vault doors. Although they knew me, they were not about to open the vault door.
“Hey guys, it’s me. The Veep called me over here. At least call inside and let him know I’m here.” While they did that, they frisked me. Condi Rice’s deputy, Steve Hadley, came to the vault door to identify me and escort me in. Inside the vault there were more MP5s and shotguns in the narrow corridor lined with bunk beds.
In the PEOC, the monitors were blaring the news coverage from five networks. I grabbed Fenzel. “How’s it going over here?” I asked. “It’s fine,” he whispered, “but I can’t hear the crisis conference because Mrs Cheney keeps turning down the volume on you so she can hear CNN . . . and the vice-president keeps hanging up the open line to you.”
I squatted between Cheney and Rice. “Do you need anything?” I asked the vice-president. “The comms in this place are terrible,” he replied. His calls to the president were dropping off.
“Now you know why I wanted the money for a new bunker?” I could not resist. The president had cancelled my plans for a replacement facility. “It’ll happen,” Cheney promised.
I retraced my route through the abandoned executive mansion. On a screen in the situation room just before 3pm, we saw Bush stride into the underground bunker at Strategic Command, Offutt air force base, Nebraska. He stepped up to the video camera.
“I’m coming back to the White House as soon as the plane is fuelled,” the president said. “No discussion. Item two, briefing by Dick Clarke.”
I walked him through what had happened: from 0850 to 1006, four aircraft impacting the earth. The grounding of aircraft, the borders closed, the ports sealed, the forces on Defcon 3, the government moved to caves, the mortuary units en route to Manhattan.
George Tenet was up next. He left no doubt that Al-Qaeda had committed these atrocities. He had already been on the telephone to key counterparts around the world, lining up the forces for the counterstrike.
After the president was gone, I turned back to the video conference. “What’s next?” I asked.
“Look,” Armitage responded, “we told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that if this happened, it’s their ass. No difference between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda now. They both go down.”
“And Pakistan?” I asked.
“Tell them to get out of the way. We have to eliminate the sanctuary,” said Armitage.
“There are 42 major Taliban bombing targets,” General Myers said, reviewing a briefing handed to him.
Just before 7pm, Air Force One touched down at Andrews air force base and the president moved quickly to Marine One, close by. The helicopter, accompanied by two decoys, took a circuitous path over the city before diving onto the south lawn of the White House.
At 8.30pm the president addressed the nation from the Oval Office. Immediately afterwards, he met us in the PEOC, a place he had never seen before. Unlike in his three television appearances that day, Bush was confident, determined, forceful.
“I want you all to understand that we are at war and we will stay at war until this is done. Nothing else matters. Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, they’re gone. Any money you need, you have it. This is our only agenda.”
When Rumsfeld noted that international law allowed the use of force only to prevent future attacks and not for retribution, Bush nearly bit his head off.
“No,” he yelled. “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
Refusing to spend the night in the bunker, he went to the Oval Office and began working the telephones. I returned to the situation room. The navy staff of the White House mess were distributing sandwiches. I grabbed one and walked outside with Cressey.
I realised that until today I had never briefed Bush on terrorism. I had not been allowed to. He had never seen my plan for going after Al-Qaeda aggressively, although I had briefed Cheney, Rice, Powell and others on his team in January.
The plan called for arming the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to go on the offensive against the Taliban, and pressing the CIA to use the lethal authorities it had been given by Clinton to go after Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda leadership.
Within days of Bush’s inauguration I had urgently requested a meeting of cabinet-level principals to approve the plan. Condi had sidelined it to a committee of deputy principals, where Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy, insisted Iraq was the real threat to the US and that Bin Laden was just “a little terrorist in Afghanistan”.
After months of delay, the principals had finally met on September 4, exactly a week ago. Nobody had disagreed with my plan, but Rumsfeld had reiterated the Wolfowitz line: whatever we did about Al-Qaeda, we had to deal with Iraq.
The next step would have been to walk the president through the plan. Now, I told Cressey, I thought it would be implemented anyway. “Well, that’s f****** great. Sounds like they’re finally going to do everything we wanted. Where the hell were they for the last eight months?” Roger asked.
“They’ll probably deploy the armed Predator now too,” he added, referring to his project to kill Bin Laden with an unmanned aircraft. The CIA had been blocking it.
Roger was fuming: “If they had deployed an armed Predator when it was ready, we could have killed Bin Laden before this happened.”
“Yeah, well, this attack would have happened anyway, Rog. In fact, if we had killed Bin Laden in June with the Predator and this still happened, our friends at CIA would have blamed us, said the attack on New York was retribution and talked again about the overly zealous White House counterterrorism guys.”
We walked back inside. Condi joined us in the situation room. The president wanted to be sure we were all going to get some sleep.
“I need you bright and fresh in the morning. Go home.” About 1am, I agreed to go home briefly to shower and change. I stopped on the Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac and watched the smoke still rising from the Pentagon. As I pulled up to my house in Arlington I heard the drone of a heavy four-engine aircraft. Awacs circling. An hour later, I found my Secret Service-issue .357 sidearm, thrust it in my belt and went back to the West Wing.
I expected a round of meetings examining what the next Al-Qaeda attacks could be, what our vulnerabilities were, what we could do about them in the short term. Instead, I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq.
At first I was incredulous. Then I realised with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.
By morning the Department of Defence’s focus was already beginning to shift from Al-Qaeda. The CIA was explicit now that Al-Qaeda was guilty of the attacks, but Wolfowitz was not persuaded. It was too sophisticated and complicated an operation, he said, for a terrorist group to have pulled off by itself without a state sponsor. Iraq must have been helping them.
By afternoon, Rumsfeld was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and “getting Iraq”. Powell pushed back, urging a focus on Al-Qaeda.
Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which, he said, had better targets.
At first I thought he was joking. But he was serious, and the president did not reject out of hand the idea of attacking Iraq. Instead, he noted that what we needed to do with Iraq was to change the government, not just hit it with more cruise missiles.
Throughout the day, the discussions wandered: what was our objective, who was the enemy? Gradually, the obvious prevailed: we would go to war with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The compromise consensus, however, was that the struggle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would be the first stage in a broader war on terrorism. It was clear there would be a second stage.
In the evening, I left the video conferencing centre and there, wandering alone around the situation room, was the president. He looked like he wanted something to do. He grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room.
“Look,” he told us, “I know you have a lot to do and all . . . but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way . . .”
I was incredulous, and it showed. “But, Mr President, Al-Qaeda did this.”
“I know, I know, but . . . see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred . . .”
“Absolutely, we will look . . . again.” I was trying to be more respectful, more responsive. “But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of Al-Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen.”
“Look into Iraq, Saddam,” the president said testily and left us.
© RAC Enterprises Inc 2004
Extracted from Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke published by Simon & Schuster UK at £18.99. Reprinted by permission of the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY. Copies can be ordered for £15.99 + £2.25 p&p from The Sunday Times Books First on 0870 165 8585 or at www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
The Armageddon Plan