The President's Story

Bush Talks In Detail About His Sept. 11 Experience

Many accounts of Sept. 11 have been told and retold over the last year. But there is one story that has received much less attention: the President's story. President Bush spoke exclusively with Scott Pelley for the first time about his experiences that day, moment by moment.
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Tonight at 8 p.m.

From the flight across America in Air Force One to the evening address at the White House, the President and members of his Cabinet and staff talk about what happened behind the scenes on Sept. 11 and the days afterward.

President Bush recalled some of his first thoughts on Sept. 11: "I can remember sitting right here in this office [aboard Air Force One] thinking about the consequences of what had taken place and realizing it was the defining moment in the history of the United States. I didn't need any legal briefs. I didn't need any consultations. I knew we were at war."

The President also talked about the search for Osama bin Laden, the militant Muslim accused of masterminding the attack.

"I don't know whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive. I don't know that," Mr. Bush said. "He's not leading a lot of parades and he's not nearly the hero that a lot of people thought he was. This is much bigger than one person, anyway ..."

Mr. Bush remembered the moment he learned America was under attack. He was at a Florida school, listening to a group of second-graders read.

"I realized I was in a unique setting to receive a message that somebody attacked us," says Mr. Bush. "I'm being briefed about a reading program that works and I was looking at these little children and, all of the sudden, we were at war. So, I had to maintain my composure. I can remember noticing the press pool and the press corps beginning to get the calls and seeing the look on their face, and it became evident that we were, you know, that the world had changed."

Within that first hour on Sept. 11, Secret Service Director Brian Stafford executed the emergency plan to ensure the presidential line of succession. Stafford says that agents swept up those who stood to become president.

"There wasn't a lot of time for chitchat," says Stafford. "We knew there were unidentified planes tracking in our direction."

The Secret Service rushed Vice President Dick Cheney out of the office and into a bunker. "[The Secret Service agent] said to me, 'Sir, we have to leave immediately' and grabbed [me], put a hand on my belt, another hand on my shoulder and propelled me out the door of my office," says Cheney. "I'm not sure how they do it, but they sort of levitate you down the hallway. You move very fast."

Also on her way to the bunker, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice called the president. She could only have a brief conversation with him because the Secret Service wanted her out of the West Wing and into the bunker; but she did have time to suggest that he not return to the White House.

"They were hurrying me off the phone with the president and I just said, 'He said I'm coming back,' and we said, 'Mr. President, that may not be wise,'" remembers Rice.

Aboard Air Force One, Mr. Bush says some feared that the plane was also a target that day. Presidential pilot Mark Tillman says he asked for an armed guard at his cockpit door while Secret Service agents double-checked the identity of everyone on board.

"It was serious before that, but now ... we actually have to consider everything we say. Everything we do could be intercepted and we have to make sure that no one knows what our position is," remembers Tillman.

The threat to Air Force One was a false alarm, but it had a powerful effect at the time. With the president out of sight, some wondered who was running the government. Bush was not seen since the attack on Washington, except by those aboard Air Force One. Mr. Bush worried about this – he was overheard saying, "The American people want to know where their dang president is."

Later that week, Mr. Bush visited ground zero in Manhattan. A year later, those memories are still strong. "There was a lot of bloodlust," says Mr. Bush. "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,'" said Mr. Bush.

By Sept. 12, Mr. Bush was demanding a war plan. He had only been president for eight months and he'd never been tested as commander-in-chief. Did he think the country's military leaders had concerns about him?

"I don't know. I think they're all probably taking a step back and saying, 'Is this guy gonna lead us?' I never asked them what they thought because ... I knew exactly what had to be done ... and that was to set a strategy to seek justice, find out who did it, hunt them down and bring them to justice."

Check back at 8 p.m. for the rest of the story.