Sept. 11 drama on Air Force One unfolds in Bush aide’s handwritten notes

“We’re at war” — former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer releases his handwritten notes — locked in a vault for 15 years — that detail President George W Bush’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

BEDFORD, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (SEPTEMBER 7, 2016) (REUTERS)- The notes are handwritten on a legal pad and provide a verbatim account of the shock, pain and grim determination aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001.

They were scribbled by Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, and he is releasing them to mark the 15th anniversary on Sunday of the worst attack on American soil since Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

There are six pages in all, the only original verbatim text of what Bush said on Air Force One as he and his senior aides absorbed the news.

‘We’re at war.’ Being next to the Commander-in-Chief when he says ‘We’re at war,’ and he says it to the Vice President, he says it to the Secretary of Defense and you know what America will be doing next as a result. That just sent a chill down my spine,” said Fleischer.

Fleischer, who is revealing them publicly for the first time in their entirety to coincide with the 15th anniversary.

Fleischer adopted the role of presidential note taker on Air Force One on the day that remade Bush’s presidency.

“Every time I went into the Oval Office a senior staff meeting, you take notes. It’s how you do your job,” he explained.

“I always took notes every day I was on the job. The September 11th notes just have a different place in history.”

Bush learned about the attacks in Sarasota, Florida, then began making decisions and firing off orders aboard his plane, unable to fly back to the White House because it was deemed too dangerous with the crisis still unfolding.

Later that night when he was able to return to Washington, Bush did not declare war in an Oval Office address, saying that “a great people has been moved to defend a great nation.” He would not officially declare war on the perpetrators in Afghanistan until Sept. 20.

But on the plane that morning, between 9:45 a.m. and 10:20 a.m., Bush was already talking about a war. Turning to aides on his plane, the Texan said:

“That’s what we’re paid for boys. We’re going to take care of this. When we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president. Somebody’s going to pay.”

On the ground, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were collapsing and the Pentagon was ablaze, both victims of hijacked plane attacks. A third hijacked plane was was eventually downed by a passenger rebellion, slamming into the ground at Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

For a time, the occupants of Air Force One believed a total of six planes had been hijacked and that the presidential aircraft itself might be a target.

Fleischer’s notes include an eerie reference to a communication heard on the plane from the ground that “Angel is next.” Since Air Force One code name at the time was “angel,” there was worry onboard that the plane was a target.

Fleischer said in an interview that an armed guard was stationed outside the door leading to the Air Force One cockpit, just in case someone was a threat on the plane itself.

Later, the plane’s occupants realized the reference to “angel” was a miscommunication from the ground. One critical offshoot of the 9/11 attacks was a major renovation of Air Force One’s communications abilities.

The plane ascended to 45,000 feet, flying in a zigzag pattern reminiscent of Cold War procedures aimed at avoiding a decapitation of America’s leadership.

“They claim we can outrun anybody,” Bush’s chief of staff, Andy Card, said.

Bush spoke to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney, ordering troops be put on a special status. American fighter jets had already been scrambled.

The president, only in office for eight months, had another priority in mind as well: Making sure his family was safe. His wife, Laura, and two daughters were whisked to secure locations.

“Barney?” Bush said, inquiring about his beloved Scottish terrier.

“He’s nipping at the heels of Osama bin Laden now,” said Card, a clear indication that the al Qaeda leader was already being considered a leading suspect behind the attacks.

“My notes are a very factual telling. They lack color. There’s really nothing in my notes about mood, about descriptions of the room, things of that nature,” said Fleischer.

“I was a witness and I wrote down what I witnessed.”


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