Bush promises government will track down terrorists

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Associated Press Writer

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AP) -- As chaos unhinged New York and Washington, President Bush deplored the acts of "a faceless coward" and commanded the United States military to high-alert status worldwide.

"The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake, we will show the world that we will pass this test," Bush declared Tuesday as terrorist strikes on the nation's centers of commerce and government forced him into virtual hiding. He was secreted between military installations here and in Nebraska.

The United States received no warning of the attacks on the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center towers, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. For now, Bush was concerned about the victims, not any failure of U.S. intelligence.

"First things first," Fleischer said. "There will come an appropriate time to do all appropriate look-backs. His focus is on events this morning."

Bush considered making a televised address to the nation Tuesday night after joining by teleconference a meeting of his National Security Council in Washington.

"Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward and freedom will be defended," he said from this tightly guarded Louisiana air base.

With the White House itself under threat of attack, the president's whereabouts were kept secret. He made a brief statement from a conference room here, assuring Americans that he is in regular contact with his command post in Washington: Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the White House national security team.

"Our military at home and around the world is on high-alert status and we have taken the necessary security precautions to continue the functions of your government," Bush said, his back to a pair of American flags and the portraits of Air Force leaders.

"We have been in touch with the leaders of Congress and with world leaders to assure them that we will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans."

He then boarded Air Force One at 1:30 p.m. EDT for a secret destination that turned out to be Offett Air Force Base in Nebraska. From the plane, he telephoned New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

White House officials were sensitive to any appearance that Bush was not at the helm. Fleischer said Bush wanted to be in Washington, where Cheney led the crisis operations center at the White House, but "he understands that at a time like this, caution must be taken" with his location.

The president lingered in Louisiana for just 90 minutes. Military fighter jets escorted his arrival from Florida where he had intended to make an education speech.

At the first reports of attacks on New York's World Trade Center, Bush told his Sarasota elementary school audience that he was hastening back to Washington. All of that immediately changed -- and he was diverted to Louisiana -- when a plane slammed into the Pentagon, and Washington, too, was under attack.

Secret Service agents took the extraordinary step of "sweeping" White House aides for explosives and weapons before they were allowed to board the president's plane for his flight out of Sarasota.

On Capitol Hill, first lady Laura Bush, who was to have made her debut testifying before the Senate on education, tried to soothe a horrified nation.

"Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they're safe," she said grim-faced as she and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., announced their hearing was postponed.

Mrs. Bush and a handful of aides were whisked by motorcade straight to a safe and secret location away from the White House, which had been evacuated but for the small corps of foreign policy advisers who manned the basement Situation Room.

Mrs. Bush and her sequestered group huddled around a single TV in their hide-out and channel-surfed for the latest news, according to one person in the group. She spoke with her husband by a secure military phone line before he took off from Sarasota, Fla., and also checked with her twin daughters at college to make sure they were safe.

Fleischer said the 19-year-old girls, Barbara at Yale University and Jenna at the University of Texas, were also moved to secure locations.

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Associated Press writer Sandra Sobieraj contributed to this report from Washington.

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