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Behind the 9/11 White House Order to Shoot Down U.S. Airliners: ‘It Had to be Done’

September 9, 2019 in History

By Garrett M. Graff

The harrowing decision was made during the first hour after the attacks—by Vice President Cheney.

It’s hard to imagine an American leader authorizing the shoot-down of civilian aircraft. But in the first hour following the , I interviewed dozens of top U.S. officials who were with the president and vice president that day—as well as culled official oral histories conducted by the Pentagon and other institutions in the wake of 9/11—to create one of the most detailed pictures yet of the national decision-making that unfolded that morning.

One particular moment of that first hour in the bunker would prove among the day’s most controversial moments: that order from Cheney authorizing fighter jets to shoot down hijacked airliners. Did he actually have the authority to give the order? And did he and President Bush connect before or after Cheney ordered the fighters into battle?

READ MORE: 9/11 Timeline

The scramble to safety

Vice President Cheney with senior staff in the President’s Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), the Cold War-era bunker under the White House.

The White House bunker, known officially as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), dates back to World War II, when officials set up a modest bunker for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the event of a surprise German attack on the capital. Harry Truman expanded the facility dramatically for the Cold War as part of a large White House renovation during his presidency. In the years since, the bunker has been updated technologically; and while officials and presidents had used it as part of drills and exercises, it had never been used for its intended purpose—until 9/11.

READ MORE: Inside the Government’s Top Secret Doomsday Hideouts

Still, the facility is staffed 24 hours a day, and that morning the team on duty had been gathering for its normal Tuesday morning staff meeting when the towers were struck. Within minutes, Vice President Cheney and other officials arrived. Navy Commander Anthony Barnes was on duty that morning, and in his first-ever interview, he recalls that he looked around and saw National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, White House Communications Director Karen Hughes, Cheney aide Mary Matalin and Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta: “Mr. Mineta put up on one of the TV monitors a feed of where every airplane across the entire nation was. We looked at that thing—there must have been thousands of little airplane symbols on it.”

Barnes, who served on 9/11 …read more


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