ASHINGTON, Sept. 11 — President Bush vowed tonight to
retaliate against those responsible for today's attacks on New York
and Washington, declaring that he would "make no distinction between
the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor
"These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation
into chaos and retreat, but they have failed," the president said in
his first speech to the nation from the Oval Office. "Our country is
strong. Terrorist acts can shake the foundation of our biggest
buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America."
His speech came after a day of trauma that seems destined to
define his presidency. Seeking to at once calm the nation and
declare his determination to exact retribution, he told a country
numbed by repeated scenes of carnage that "these acts shattered
steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."
Mr. Bush spoke only hours after returning from a zigzag course
across the country, as his Secret Service and military security
teams moved him from Florida, where he woke up this morning
expecting to press for his education bill, to command posts in
Louisiana and Nebraska before it was determined the attacks had
probably ended and he could safely return to the capital.
It was a sign of the catastrophic nature of the events that the
White House kept his whereabouts secret during much of the day as he
was shuttled about on Air Force One, with an escort of F-16's and
Tonight, he looked tense and drawn, as he declared that "today
our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature."
"The search is under way for those who are behind these evil
acts," Mr. Bush said. "I have directed the full resources of our
intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those
responsible and to bring them to justice."
His mention of the terrorists and the countries they operate from
were the closest the White House would come to assigning blame for
the attacks. Intelligence officials said they strongly believed that
Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization was behind the attacks. But
Afghanistan and administration officials insisted there was no hard
evidence to connect Mr. bin Laden to today's attacks.
One of his national security officials said tonight, "I have
never seen the president so angry or so determined."
asked the country to pray tonight, for the thousands who are dead,
"for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose
sense of safety and security has been threatened." He quoted from
the 23rd Psalm: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow
of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me."
The nation and the world closely watched the president's demeanor
as they listened to his words tonight. This national moment was for
him as much about tone and bearing and emotional projection as it
was about the substance of his remarks. The coming days will require
him to master the images of sturdy authority and presidential
The president departed abruptly from an elementary school in
Sarasota, Fla. More than 12 hours later he was back in the White
House, the day's events having created a natural tension between
security officials who wanted to whisk Mr. Bush to safety and the
political desire to present him publicly as a leader firmly in
charge at the White House. But Mr. Bush's security team said it was
not safe to return to Washington earlier than this evening.
Mr. Bush, who staffers said was eager to return to the White
House, seemed as shaken as the rest of the nation when he made a
brief statement this morning at Barksdale Air Force Base near
Shreveport, La., the first stop of Air Force One on the president's
daylong odyssey. Leaving Florida, Air Force One took a zigzag course
— east to the Atlantic, then north, then west — and then to
Barksdale. It was unclear tonight why the jet took that course.
"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,"
the president said. "And freedom will be defended." He added that
"the full resources of the federal government" would help the
victims of the attacks.
"Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish
those responsible for these cowardly acts," Mr. Bush said. Then he
concluded: "The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But
make no mistake: we will show the world that we will pass this test.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Bush reboarded his aircraft and flew to
Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, the command post of America's
nuclear forces and one of the most secure military installations in
the United States. There Mr. Bush led a meeting of the National
Security Council by video phone to Washington with Vice President
Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security
adviser, who remained in a White House that had been evacuated
earlier in the day.
But the president's political aides had to face a central
question: How could Mr. Bush appear in control, and calm the nation,
from a bunker in Nebraska? But they also were aware that if Mr. Bush
returned too soon and was evacuated again, it would appear he was
fleeing the capital. So White House officials waited until it seemed
the attacks had ended, before allowing Mr. Bush to return to
Cameras tracked his movements as he flew by helicopter to the
South Lawn of the White House, snapped a salute to his Marine One
guard and walked across the lawn to the Oval Office. It was a
journey rich in symbolism: one of Mr. Bush's advisers said it was
critical to show that "the president was back in Washington and
there there is a return to something like normality." Mr. Bush
strode across the South Lawn at 7 p.m. and addressed the nation from
the Oval Office at 8:30 p.m.
Ari Fleischer, the president's press secretary, said that it was
Mr. Bush who made the decision that the hopscotching from one air
base to another had to stop, and that it was time to head back to
the White House. "The president wanted to get back to Washington,"
Mr. Fleischer said.
"He understood that there can be a period of caution so that the
security people can make a full and proper assessment about any
threats. They were afforded that opportunity. The president traveled
to a secure location while they took that opportunity. And now,
obviously, the president is returning home safely."
Republicans, who have worried for months whether Mr. Bush has
been appearing sufficiently presidential, described the speech as
the most important of his presidency and said it would be a test
like no other Mr. Bush has faced.
Mr. Bush was informed that a plane had hit the World Trade Center
in a telephone conversation with Ms. Rice shortly before walking
into a second-grade classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary
School in Sarasota, Fla. White House officials said he knew only
that it was a single aircraft and not necessarily a terrorist
attack. The president did not appear preoccupied until a few moments
later, around 9:05 a.m., when his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card
Jr., entered the room and whispered into the president's ear about
the second plane attack. At that moment Mr. Bush's face became
visibly tense and serious.
"This is a difficult time for America," Mr. Bush said. Air Force
One departed from Sarasota at 9:55 a.m. Among those on board were
Mr. Card; Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior adviser; Mr. Fleischer, and
Dan Bartlett, the communications director. Once on the ground at
Barksdale, the president's plane was surrounded by Air Force
personnel in full combat gear with M-16's. William J. Bennett, a
former education secretary under President Ronald Reagan and a drug
czar under former President George Bush, the current president's
father, said in an afternoon interview that it was important for Mr.
Bush to return to the White House as soon as possible.
"This is not 1812," he said. "It cannot look as if the president
has been run off, or it will look like we can't defend our most