White House Shoots Down Air Force One Story

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White House Shoots Down Air Force One Story

On September 11, President Bush was lecturing to a class of elementary school students in Florida. He was called outside the room and briefed on the attacks on the World Trade Center. He then went back into the room, briefly mentioned the deaths, and then departed for the airport.

A few hours later, he surfaced on national TV from a military air field in Shreveport, Louisiana. He spoke a few words, got back on the plane, and it took off. A few hours later, he surfaced in Omaha, at the Strategic Air Command site. The next day, he returned to Washington.

He took some heat from columnists who thought that he had belonged in the Capitol, not in Omaha. The most influential of these critics was William Safire, the New York Times columnist. In his column for September 12, he made critical remarks about the President’s absence.

At that point, the President’s spinmeisters got to work.

Someone with enough clout to be described by Safire in his September 13 column as a high White House official then called him. He gave Safire the official explanation for the President’s absence. Because the Times makes old columns available only for a fee, I rely here in the summary of events provided by the World Socialist Web Site (Sept. 28).

Stung by such criticisms, Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove and other top administration officials worked feverishly to reassure the political, corporate and military establishment, and bolster Bush’s authority among the population at large. By the afternoon of September 12, the Associated Press and Reuters were carrying stories, widely circulated throughout the media, that were intended to diffuse criticism of Bush’s actions the previous day. They quoted a White House spokesperson saying, “There was real and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were targets of terrorist attacks and that the plane that hit the Pentagon was headed for the White House.” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer repeated this claim at an afternoon news briefing that same day, saying the Secret Service had “specific and credible information” that the White House and Air Force One were potential targets.

In a further column in the New York Times on September 13, entitled “Inside the Bunker,” Safire described a conversation with an unnamed “high White House official,” who told him, “A threatening message received by the Secret Service was relayed to the agents with the president that ‘Air Force One is next.’ ” Safire continued: “According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.”

Safire reported that this information was confirmed by Rove, who told him Bush had wanted to return to Washington but the Secret Service “informed him that the threat contained language that was evidence that the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts.”

Safire fully understood the threat to the nation that a break of security regarding the code would mean.

Safire pointed to one such question in his September 13 New York Times column. Referring to the White House claim that the terrorists had knowledge of secret information about Air Force One, Safire asked: “How did they get the code-word information and transponder know-how that established their mala fides? That knowledge of code words and presidential whereabouts and possession of secret procedures indicates that the terrorists may have a mole in the White House — that, or informants in the Secret Service, FBI, FAA, or CIA.”

The story of the broken code was picked up by the Associated Press. The article is now old by Web standards, and is no longer easily available. Most of the links to it take you to dead ends. But I found one newspaper site that still carried it, Foster’s Daily Democrat a newspaper in S.E. New Hampshire. This is dated September 13. For the historical record, I reprint it here.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hopscotching across half the country while America was under attack, President Bush vented his frustration with Secret Service officials telling him Air Force One was at risk of a terrorist assault.

“I’m not going to let some tinhorn terrorist keep the president of the United States away from the nation’s capital,” he said during the six-hour flight that took him from Florida to Louisiana and Nebraska before returning to the White House. “The American people want to see their president and they want to see him now.”

White House counselor Karl Rove read the quote from several pages of notes he took on a legal pad while Bush dealt with attacks in Washington and New York.

Rove and other White House officials have slowly revealed details of the journey to counter critics who have questioned whether Bush overreacted by touching down at two Air Force bases before returning to Washington.

Bush’s top political strategist said some people raised questions with him, but their doubts were dispelled “when they were told there was specific and credible evidence of a threat” against the White House, Air Force One and the president himself.

Bush was in Florida, visiting a second-grade class, when White House chief of staff Andrew Card told him two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Bush stepped outside the classroom to get briefed on the events, then spoke publicly to condemn the terrorist strike.

Soon after, a plane slammed into the Pentagon. Bush and his entourage were rushed aboard Air Force One.

The hijacked plane “was on a flight path directly for the White House and it hit the Pentagon instead,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. National security officials monitoring intercepted communications speculated that the hijackers had trouble controlling the plane and spotting the White House for all the trees on the South Lawn, and so headed for the wide-open Pentagon instead, according to a Secret Service official briefed on the situation.

Within that same hour on Tuesday, the Secret Service received an anonymous call: “Air Force One is next.” According to a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, the caller knew the agency’s code words relating to Air Force One procedures and whereabouts.

“We want to get the plane up and we want to get it up very high,” the head of the Secret Service detail told Bush, according to Rove’s notes. They wanted to head toward the Florida panhandle to pick up fighter jets scrambling to give Air Force One air cover.

Bush told Card, “I want to move on to Washington.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, holed up in a secure bunker beneath the White House, told Bush the threat should be taken seriously and he should not return to Washington just yet.

Bush was told there were six planes unaccounted for, all potential missiles. “The situation is not stable,” the head of Bush’s detail told the president. Cheney’s lead Secret Service agent, meanwhile, told the vice president he had no choice but to remain inside the complex because there was no time to bring a helicopter in and taking him out by car through gridlocked streets was too risky.

After landing at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Bush scheduled a national security meeting at 4 p.m. — several hours away.

“I want to go back home as soon as possible,” Bush said, according to Rove, who was with the president all day Tuesday.

Replied the agent: “Our people are saying it’s unstable still.”

The president was told he could get to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska more quickly than to Washington, thus allowing him to conduct the national security meeting at a secure location and address the public for a second time.

Off he went.

The New York Times picked up the story, which was picked up by the Seattle Times on September 16

There was no follow-through. The story of the broken code was dropped by the mainstream American press. It was amplified by a report posted on World Net Daily regarding multiple code-breaking successes. Even Pravda ran a version of the amplified story. But not the mainstream press.

Ari Fleischer’s Deflection Two-Step

On September 26, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer about the September 11 warning. Without warning, Fleischer began to do the “deflection two-step,” which every White House Press Secretary learns within days of his appointment. The Washington Post reported this in a story buried on page 8 (Sept. 27). “I’m not going to comment on any particular threats coming toward the White House,” he said. He went on: “. . . it is not an uncommon occurrence for people to threaten the government of the United States, regardless of whether it’s President Bush or any of his predecessors. And that’s why there are security precautions taken at the White House as a matter of routine.”

So, the threat to Air Force One was just another routine story. You know: like the twin towers being hit with jet planes, along with the Pentagon. According to Mr. Fleischer, “it is not an uncommon occurrence for people to threaten the United States.”

This man must think that the press is made up of gutless wonders and fools. I mean, if they weren’t gutless wonders and fools, this nonsensical reply would have been front-page news on September 27.

The Post ran it on page 8. Other major papers ignored it completely.

Let’s talk about “routine.” Routine in this case involved flying the President to Louisiana and then to Nebraska. It involved putting the Vice President into a nuclear bomb-proof bunker. “But that’s not what this is about,” Fleischer continued. “This has nothing to do with anything . . . that may or may not have been directed at President Bush. This is about an attack that took place on our country.”

Was that really all that this was about? Was it only about the war in general, or was it about answering William Safire’s September 12 column on the President’s refusal to return immediately to Washington? Wasn’t it about the White House’s telling Safire that the caller had cracked the White House’s daily code?

Fleischer got away with this. He knows his audience.

Safire is too well respected by readers and too feared by politicians for some high-level official to attempt such a snow job on his own authority. Someone put him up to it. What idiot was behind this broken code story? Safire wrote: “According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.” Someone in a position to know either lied — really, truly stupid and highly risky — or else he really believed that the code had been used by the informant, whoever he was. But Ari Fleischer says to forget about it. And the press has done just that.

When the story began to spread regarding a code-break, the White House was trapped. It had to choose: (1) admit that some crank had called in, and the Secret Service then panicked, making up the story about the code; (2) admit that the story was a deliberate fake to make Bush look prudent; (3) admit that an unknown security agent had issued the warning anonymously on his own authority, and the Secret Service decided to keep Air Force One away; (4) admit that the code had been broken; (5) verbally dance around the whole thing. Fleischer chose strategy #5.

But what was the real cause? Again, I am guessing, but I will go with version #1: a crank call. The White House security people panicked. Then they later tried to cover up their panic with the story about the code. This was a risky strategy, but it turned out to be effective. Fleischer danced around the whole thing, and he got away with it — just the way Clinton always did.

Lying is now seen as basic to the Presidency. No one really cares, and surely not the press.

Some White House pooh-bah ordered someone a little lower in authority to feed Safire a phony story, and Safire reported both the story and its implications. The press bit, but only lightly. The story was not pursued aggressively. Some of the press figured out that the White House had lied. So, Fleischer danced. Then the media buried the not-quite-a-retraction story.


Truth is the first casualty of war. In wartime, representative government is almost impossible to control from the bottom. The spinners at the top feed us what is convenient. The press really doesn’t care, now that Nixon is gone.

Where is Deep Throat, now that we need him?

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© 2001 LewRockwell.com

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