Saturday, March 3, 2007

CHENEY AND THE SHOOT-DOWN ORDER

White House Conter-terrorism Czar Richard Clarke explained in his account of 9/11 how at 9:30 he told his deputy in the PEOC to inform Vice President Cheney “we need to authorize the Air Force to shoot down any aircraft […] that looks like it is threatening to attack […] Got it?” [1] Accounts differ as to whether or not the vice president “got it” at this point, but Clarke says the shoot-down order was agreed upon by Bush and Cheney some time before the president’s plane took off at 9:55. This was in a call he remembered getting from his deputy with Cheney who informed him “Air Force One is getting ready to take off […] fighter escort is authorized. And […] tell the Pentagon they have authority from the President to shoot down hostile aircraft, repeat, they have authority to shoot down hostile aircraft.” It’s not clear why this aide thought Clarke was a link in the Chain of Command to pass the order on, but Clarke wrote “I was amazed at the speed of the decision coming from Cheney and, through him, from Bush.” [2]

But at least one other account seems to back up an even earlier order. Recall that Cheney was informed of flight 77 closing in on Washington at about 9:33. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told the 9-11 Commission in 2003 that he saw Cheney give what he interpreted as a shoot-down order at this time. [3] The BBC documentary Clear the Skies records Mineta’s recollection of a plane reported coming in fast. Cheney was informed it was 30 miles out, and he ordered it shot down. He was informed again that it was 10 miles out and the aide asked if the orders still stood. Mineta recalls “the vice president sort of whipped his head around and said “of course they do.” [4] This account was placed in the documentary, which is based on a ticking timeline of the events, in the time slot right before the Pentagon impact at 9:37.

But the official story is that the order was finally transmitted from the President to Cheney, with a casual “you bet,” at just about 10:05, for sure before 10:10, or maybe 10:18 - this has been hotly contested. The 9-11 Commission, in a rare and curious show of contrariness, got into a bit of a brawl with Cheney over this phone call. In June 2004, as the final report was released, Newsweek reported:

“[S]ome on the commission staff were, in fact, highly skeptical of the vice president’s account and made their views clearer in an earlier draft of their staff report […] some staffers “flat out didn’t believe the call ever took place.” When the early draft conveying that skepticism was circulated to the administration, it provoked an angry reaction […] the White House vigorously lobbied the commission to change the language in its report.” [5]

Cheney and Rice share a tense moment in the PEOC on 9/11. Photo chosen for presence of Cheney on the phone.
The Commission finally caved to Cheney’s protests and simply concluded in their final report “there is no documentary evidence for this call.” But they did get some subtle hints of this earlier argument worked in. For example, they note that neither Cheney’s wife Lynn nor his Chief of Staff Libby, who were nearby, can recall this call being made. [6]

By 10:15, Cheney was ordering a phantom flight shot down, saying the President had “signed-off on the concept.” Cheney’s Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, Libby’s underling, urged Cheney to “confirm the engage order,” since he “had not heard any prior conversation on the subject with the President.” [7] This confirmation call, unlike the first, was logged at 10:18 and found by the commission. The final report also notes that Bush informed Press Secretary Fleischer at 10:20 that he had just passed on the historical shoot-down order.

The clear but subtle implication is that perhaps Cheney issued this order on his own and only ran it by Bush at 10:18 – or at least Libby, Lynn, Bolten, and the 9/11 Commission have made it look that way, for reasons that are unclear. But Bush stubbornly insists standard procedure was observed, and that he passed the order on whenever Cheney says he did. He said this in the secret hearing he had with the commission in Cheney’s presence, not under oath, off the record, with no recordings, minutes, or direct quotes allowed. They summed up Bush’s recollection:

“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 authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft.” [8]

Much has been made of Cheney’s aggressive application of the shoot-down order once he finally had it. In an incident eerily similar to Mineta’s recollection cited above, Cheney urged the shoot-down of United 93 as it was reported closing in at about 10:10. This was read by the Secret Service as a radar track, but, the Commission concluded, was actually a projection of 93’s path if it ,hadn’t just crashed. But it gave Cheney a chance to do something. Informed the plane was eighty miles out, Cheney quickly “authorized fighter aircraft to engage the inbound plane.” Again he was informed when the projected plane was 60 miles out and wanted to know if the order still stood. “Scooter” Libby described Cheney’s confirmation to the 9-11 Commission as swift - “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing.” [9] But he only started swinging almost the exact minute there was nothing left to swing at, giving an impression of decisive leadership without actually screwing up a perfectly good terror attack.

Besides the vague possibility of ordering the shoot-down of 93 without the Presiden't approval, another Cheney contribution to the 9/11 mythos is his instant response to the plane's crash. Once it became clear that 93 had gone down short of Washington, everyone wondered if it had been shot down. Yet without any of the evidence that would later surface from the audio record of the doomed flight’s last moments, without the benefit of having heard anyone cry “let’s roll,” Cheney already knew the official story. “The Vice President was a little bit ahead of us,” said Eric Edelman, Cheney's national security advisor. “He said sort of softly and to nobody in particular, ‘I think an act of heroism just took place on that plane.’” [10] What an eerily acurate guess.

[1] Clarke, Richard A. “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror.” New York. Free Press. 2004. Page 7.
[2] Thompson, Paul and the Center for Cooperative Research. "The Terror Timeline: Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute." New York. Regan books. 2004. Page 431.
[3] See [2]. Thompson. Page 431.
[4] "Clear the Skies." BBC Video. 2002.
[5] Klaidman, Daniel and Michael Hirsh. “Who was Really in Charge?” Newsweek. June 28, 2004.
[6] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. Authorized First Edition. New York. W.W. Norton. 2004. Pages 40-41
[7] See [5]. Klaidman and Hirsh.
[8] See [6]. Page 40.
[9] See [6]. Page 41
[10] CNN. “Cheney recalls taking charge from bunker.” September 12, 2002. Accessed at: http://archives.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/09/11/ar911.king.cheney/

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