ASHINGTON, Sept. 12 — Stung by suggestions that President
Bush had hurt himself politically by delaying his return to
Washington on Tuesday, the White House asserted today that Mr. Bush
had done so because of hard evidence that he was a target of the
terrorists who hijacked airliners and slammed them into the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, said this
afternoon that officials had "real and credible information" that
the White House, not the Pentagon, had been the original target of
American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked about 45 minutes
after leaving Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Another senior official said that after that plane hit the
Pentagon, a chilling threat was phoned to the Secret Service.
"Air Force One is next," the official quoted the caller as
saying. The threat was accompanied by code words that indicated
knowledge of White House procedures, the official said.
Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's adviser, said in an interview this morning
that Mr. Bush had twice on Tuesday — in the morning and in the early
afternoon — argued strenuously that he should return immediately to
the capital. Mr. Rove reported that the Secret Service insisted that
the situation here was "too dangerous, too unstable" for the
president to come to Washington.
"We are talking about specific and credible intelligence," Mr.
Rove said, "not vague suspicions."
But neither Mr. Rove nor other officials explained why this
information was not made public on Tuesday. Partly because it was
not, Mr. Bush was criticized for spending the day traveling a zigzag
route from Sarasota, Fla.; to Barksdale Air Force Base near
Shreveport, La.; then to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha; then back
to Washington. He did not land at the White House until 7 p.m.,
almost exactly 10 hours after he learned of the first attack.
In addition, much remained unclear about the sequence of events.
Some officials suggested that airplanes other than the four known to
have been hijacked had in some unspecified way jeopardized the
safety of President Bush.
On television, in newspapers and in animated discussions in
offices across the country, Mr. Bush's conduct was compared
unfavorably with that of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, who
went to the scene of the attacks in Lower Manhattan; to John F.
Kennedy, who stayed in Washington throughout the Cuban missile
crisis of 1963, when many feared that nuclear war was imminent, and
to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who remained at the
Pentagon after it was hit and for a time helped in the evacuation of
the dead and wounded.
The president's conduct, said an article this morning in the
staunchly conservative Boston Herald, "did not inspire
The official who reported the threat to Air Force One, speaking
on condition that he not be identified, said Vice President Dick
Cheney called the president early on Tuesday and urged him not to
return to Washington immediately.
According to the official, Mr. Cheney, a former secretary of
defense, suggested that Mr. Bush go to Offutt, which has excellent
secure communications that could be used to hold a video
teleconference with the National Security Council. A senior officer
at the Pentagon said that a preliminary stop had been made at
Barksdale because it would be unexpected by anyone tracking the
"It would have been irresponsible of him to come back, pounding
his chest, when hostile aircraft may be headed our way," the
official said. "Any suggestion that he do so was ludicrous."
Still, Mr. Bush suggested exactly that at least twice, according
to notes Mr. Rove took and read to a reporter this morning.
As Air Force One, flying north from Sarasota, crossed over the
Florida Panhandle, Mr. Rove said, Mr. Bush made it clear that he
wanted to go to Washington and nowhere else. That would have been
sometime between 10 and 11 a.m., after planes had hit the two Trade
Center towers and the Pentagon. The Pentagon attack, the third in
the sequence, occurred at 9:45 a.m.
The other official said that Mr. Cheney was first told that the
plane heading for the White House might be an airliner, private
plane or helicopter loaded with explosives. But by the time Mr. Bush
made his first request to return to Washington, which was rebuffed
by the Secret Service, that plane was no longer any threat to the
White House, since it had hit the Pentagon.
Another hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, plunged into a
field southeast of Pittsburgh about 10:10 a.m., and word of that
crash took some time to seep out. The security officers may still
have considered it unaccounted for, and hence a threat, when they
warned the president.
But at 1:25 p.m., Mr. Rove's notes show, Mr. Bush turned to his
chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., as Air Force One sat on the
tarmac at Barksdale, and renewed his demand to return to Washington.
Mr. Rove quoted him as saying, "The people of America will expect to
see me and hear from me in Washington." But the president's words,
Mr. Rove said, were "saltier."
Again Mr. Bush was rebuffed. By then the Pittsburgh crash was big
news on the networks, and television anchors were starting to
suggest, sometimes not very gently, that Mr. Bush was absent at a
time of national crisis.
So what constituted the threat at that point?
The senior official said that Mr. Cheney had originally been told
there were six airliners unaccounted for, presumably including the
one that crashed near Pittsburgh. It may have been headed for the
White House before something — perhaps a bomb explosion on board,
perhaps a cockpit struggle — stopped it.
Presumably, the five other airliners continued to be regarded as
a threat, but it is not known for how long. Four were over the
Atlantic, and they landed in Canada; one was inbound from South
Korea, and it landed in Alaska.
Exactly what times those planes landed is not known, but the
Federal Aviation Administration issued its order to clear the skies
at 9:40 a.m., three and a half hours before Mr. Bush insisted to Mr.
Card that he return to Washington.
Once the White House account of the threats to the president and
the White House was made public today, some steam went out of the
criticism of Mr. Bush. Today's comments on Capitol Hill, for
example, were nearly all supportive.
Representative Randy Cunningham, a conservative Republican from
California who was shot down on his 300th mission as a Navy pilot
over Vietnam, said of Mr. Bush's journey on Tuesday: "It was done
exactly as it should have been done. Think what would have happened
if we we had lost the president."
Representative David Dreier, a moderate Republican, also from
California, said, "With this news of the White House and possibly
Air Force One as possible targets, it becomes very clear that he
made the right decision."
Only a Republican senator from a Western state, unwilling to
speak for the record because, he explained, he wanted to "maintain a
united front," offered any criticism.
"The president could have overruled the security people and come
back earlier, and maybe he should have," the senator said. "The
Secret Service works for him, after all, and not the other way