Bush returning to White House

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Associated Press Writer

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. (AP) -- As chaos unhinged New York and Washington, President Bush was spirited from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska -- and then back to the nation's capital.

Bush planned to address the nation Tuesday night.

"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 earlier as terrorist strikes on the nation's centers of commerce and government forced him into virtual hiding.

He bounced between military installations here and in Nebraska, in what former President Clinton said was part of a Secret Service and military plan to keep the president safe.

"He needs to take every conceivable precaution in the event there are more attacks planned and there is a plan to attack the leadership of the United States," Clinton said in an interview.

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.

By teleconference, Bush joined 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 and Camp David 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 was 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 Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base, home to the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls the nation's nuclear weapons. Until three years ago, the Strategic Command also housed the so-called Doomsday Plane that had been specially equipped to serve as a flying White House in the event of nuclear war.

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.

Camp David, in the mountains of Maryland, was evidently the target of a hijacked plane that crashed 85 miles northwest of the presidential retreat. Amid all the signs of conspiracy, 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 to a secret location away from the White House, which had been evacuated but for the small corps of foreign policy advisers who staffed the basement Situation Room.

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


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

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