Part II: The Days After

Anger And Grief

When Sept. 12 dawned, President Bush was demanding a war plan.

No one in the White House or the Pentagon could be sure of what the president would do. In office for just eight months, he'd never been tested as commander-in-chief.

"I never asked them what they thought, because I didn't really – because I knew what I was gonna do," says President Bush. "I knew exactly what had to be done, Scott. And that was to set a strategy to seek justice. Find out who did it, hunt them down and bring them to justice."

In the cabinet room, the president made clear what was next: "The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror, they were acts of war."

To the war cabinet, al Qaeda was no surprise. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice says the administration had been at work on a plan to strike bin Laden's organization well before Sept. 11.

"The president said, 'You know I'm tired of swatting at flies, I need a strategy to eliminate these guys,'" recalls Rice.

In one of the worst intelligence failures ever, the CIA and FBI didn't pick up clues that an attack in the United States was imminent. Without a sense of urgency, the White House strategy the president had asked for came too late.

Chief of Staff Andrew Card recalls that the plan Mr. Bush had asked for was "literally headed to the president's desk, I think, on the 11th, 10th or 11th, of September."

Now, the war cabinet was debating the full range of options - who to hit and how to hit them.

There were some at the Pentagon who worried in the early hours that Mr. Bush would order up an immediate cruise missile strike, of the kind that had not deterred bin Laden in the past.

"Well, there's a lot of nervous Nellies at the Pentagon, anyway," Mr. Bush tells Pelley.

"A lot of people like to chatter, you know, more than they should. But no, I appreciate that very much. Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld early on discussed the idea of making sure we had what we called 'boots on the ground.' That if you're gonna go to war, then you've gotta go to war with all your assets."

The president says he wanted to "fight and win a guerilla war with conventional means."

It was an innovative but risky idea being proposed by CIA Director George Tenet, who wanted to combine American technology and intelligence with the brute force of Afghan fighters hostile to the Taliban government. The president liked what he heard and gave his staff 48 hours to come up with a war plan.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Bush went to the battlefield himself. Just the day before, he had called the Pentagon the "mightiest building in the world." Now, one-fifth of it was in ruins.

The wreckage of American Flight 77 was being examined by Navy investigators. And before Mr. Bush left, he made a point of speaking personally with the team recovering the remains of the first casualties of war on his watch.
The next day, Sept. 13, there was another warning of attack that the public never heard about. Threats had been were coming in constantly but one sounded credible: a large truck bomb headed to the White House. The Secret Service wanted the president back in the bunker.

"He wasn't real receptive to that, to that recommendation," remembers Brian Stafford, director of the Secret Service. "And he ordered a hamburger and said he was going to stay in the White House that evening and that's what he did."

But Friday, Sept. 14, would be one of the longest and the most difficult for the president.

First Lady Laura Bush was involved in planning the memorial service and she says she wanted it to be both dignified and comforting: "I wanted the Psalms and everything to be read to be comforting, because I think we were a country, that needed, everyone of us, needed comforting."

"We are here in the middle hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation's sorrow," says Bush at the service. "The nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. The conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing."

"As we stood to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, you could feel the entire congregation and I could certainly feel myself stiffen, and this deep sadness was being replaced by resolve," says Rice.

"We all felt that we still had mourning to do for our countrymen who had been lost but that we also had a new purpose in not just avenging what had happened to them but making certain that the world was eventually going to be safe from this kind of attack ever again."
Next came a visit to Ground Zero. And the president was not prepared for what he encountered there.

"You couldn't brief me, you couldn't brief anybody on Ground Zero until you saw it," says Mr. Bush. "It was like – it was ghostly. Like you're having a bad dream and you're walking through the dream."

The president found the scene very powerful, particularly when the men and women at Ground Zero began to chant, "USA! USA!."

"There was tears, there was anger," recalls the president. "There was a lot of bloodlust. People were, you know, pointing their big old hands at me saying, 'Don't you ever forget this, Mr. President. Don't let us down.' The scene was very powerful. Very powerful."

When Mr. Bush tried to speak, the crowd kept shouting, "We can't hear you."

The president responded: "I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

Mr. Bush had been in New York just a few weeks before. He'd posed with the firemen who always stood by whenever the president's helicopter landed there. Now, five of the men who stood with the president in the picture were dead – lost at Ground Zero.

When the president arrived Sept. 14, Manhattan was papered with the faces of the lost. Families, unable to believe that so many had vanished in an instant, held onto the hope that their loved ones were just missing. It was a place where a child comforted a grieving mother.
At a meeting the public never saw, the president spoke with several hundred of these families in a convention hall.

"People said to me, 'He'll come out. Don't worry, Mr. President, we'll see him soon. I know my loved one, he will - he'll find a place to survive underneath the rubble and we'll get him out,'" says Mr. Bush.

"I, on the other hand had been briefed about the realities, and my job was to hug and cry, but I remember the whole time thinking, 'This is incredibly sad because the loved ones won't come out.'"

One little boy handed the president a picture of his father in his firefighter uniform and as he signed it, Mr. Bush remembers, he told the boy, "Your daddy won't believe that I was here, so you show him that autograph."

It was an effort "to provide a little hope," says the president. "I still get emotional thinking about it because we're dealing with people who loved their dads or loved their mom, or loved their…wives who loved their husbands. It was a tough time, you know, it was a tough time for all of us because we were a very emotional, and I was emotional at times. I felt, I felt the same now as I did then, which is sad. And I still feel sad for those who grieve for their families, but through my tears, I see opportunity."

The president was supposed to be with the families for about 30 minutes. He stayed for two and a half hours. It was there that he met Arlene Howard. The body of her son, George, was among the first to be found at Ground Zero.

"I called the police department," remembers Howard, "and they said he hadn't called in for roll call and to call back in an hour. And I said, 'No, I don't need to call back.' If he hadn't called in, I knew where he was."

George Howard had rescued children trapped in an elevator back in 1993 when the World Trade Center was bombed. He had been off duty that day, and he was off duty on Sept. 11, but couldn't stay away. The police department gave his badge to his mother and she gave it to the president.

"He (the president) he leaned over to talk to me," Howard recalls. "And he extends his sympathy to me and that's when I asked him I'd like to present George's shield to him in honor of all the men and women who were killed over there."

By the end of that day, Mr. Bush flew to Camp David visibly drained.

"He was physically exhausted, he was mentally exhausted, he was emotionally exhausted, he was spiritually exhausted," recalls Card.
The next day – Saturday, Sept. 15 - Mr. Bush met members of his war cabinet at the presidential retreat for a last decisive meeting.

"My message is for everybody who wears the uniform – get ready. The United States will do what it takes," Mr. Bush told them.

As Powell remembers it, "He was encouraging us to think boldly. He was listening to all ideas. He was not constrained to any one idea. He wanted to hear his advisors talk and argue and debate with each other."

When he left that meeting on Saturday night, he still hadn't told the cabinet what he was planning.

"I wanted to just think it through," Mr. Bush remembers. "Any time you commit troops to harm's way, a president must make sure that he fully understands all the consequences and ramifications. And I wanted to just spend some time on it alone. And did."

What were his reservations?

"Could we win? I didn't want to be putting our troops in there unless I was certain we could win," says President Bush. "And I was certain we could win."

Nine days after the attacks on America, before a joint session of Congress, the president committed the nation to the War on Terror.

"Each of us will remember what happened that day and to whom it happened," Mr. Bush told the Congress and the nation.

"We'll remember the moment the news came, where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire or a story of rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever. And I will carry this. It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. It is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end."

Part III: The Next Step

Part I: The President's Story

  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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