Today's conspiracies were yesterday's facts on the ground
Part III

William Safire hinted White House “mole” may have aided 9-11 terrorists


By Peter Duveen


PETER'S NEW YORK, Jan. 5, 2009—The discovery in my personal archives of issues of The New York Times and the New York Post from the days immediately following September 11, 2001 has become the basis for a several-part series on early reportage of the events of that day. The use of the original issues as opposed to electronic media has the advantage of easy reference, and absolute reliability regarding the source. This third essay will explore the remarkable drama surrounding the activities of President George W. Bush on that fateful day. We find that once New York Times columnist William Safire came into possession of the facts related to Bush’s 10-hour absence from Washington, he concluded that a “mole” in the White House may have cooperated with the 9-11 terrorists. He is thus joined at the hip with Robert Novak, who came to a similar conclusion in his column of the same day.

We start with an article that outlines in broad brushstrokes Bush's convoluted path back to the White House from a Florida classroom.

Quotations from The New York Times, Sept.12, 2001, A1, A4
“In Speech, Bush Says Terrorism Cannot Prevail”
by Elisabeth Bumiller with David E. Sanger
Datelined September 11:

The president's day, which began with an abrupt departure from an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., and ended more than 12 hours later at the White House, created a natural tension between security officials who wanted to whisk Mr. Bush to safety and the obvious 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 yesterday morning at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., the first stop of Air Force One on the president's daylong odyssey. As soon as he was whisked out of 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.

Further down in this revealing article, we are treated to additional details of President Bush's journey:

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?

Further down, more details emerge:

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.

Several paragraphs later, the authors begin to provide us with further information regarding Bush’s activities that morning:

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 and not (sic) 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.

Of course the appearance of Bush's facial features at the moment described above has since been given a very wide range of interpretations, many of which depart markedly from that of The New York Times writers.

Skipping a sentence, we are treated to additional background:

Air Force One departed from Sarasota at 9:55 a.m.

Among those on board were Mr. Card; Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior advisor; Mr. Fleischer, and Dan Bartlett, the communications director.

Around 11:30 a.m., reporters on board noticed Air Force fighters flying off Air Force One's right and left wings. The jets continued to hover near both wings of Air Force One during its descent at Barksdale. Once on the ground, the president's plane was surrounded by Air Force personnel in full combat gear with drawn M-16s.

Mr. Fleischer told reporters on the tarmac that Mr. Bush had talked during the flight to Mr. Cheney, members of the National Security Council and members of his cabinet.

Thus are the facts as set out by The New York Times of Sept. 12. The question of Bush's absence for such a long stretch and his failure to put in an appearance at the White House generated an intense debate over why Bush seemed to have turned tail at the moment the nation needed him most.

The following day, The New York Times published an article attempting to address some of these questions, although the answers may have provided small comfort to Americans.

The New York Times, Sept. 13, 2001, p. A1-A16
“Aides Say Bush Was One Target of Hijacked Jet”
By R.W. Apple Jr.

WASHINGTON, 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."

The writer compares Bush's behavior to that of other American leaders in crisis, and then continues to tackle the more weighty matters at hand.

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 teleconferencewith (sic) 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 president's plane.

"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 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.

In this same edition of The New York Times, and replicating much of the material in the above article, word for word in some instances (possibly because he and Apple were briefed by the same people at the same time), William Safire penned a column in which he asks some rather probing questions. The column, like the news article, tries to sort out the nature of the threat that kept Bush away from Washington and out of public view for much of the crisis.

Entitled "Inside the Bunker" (NYT 9/13/2001 p. A27), Safire's column begins:

At 9:03 a.m. Tuesday, as Vice President Dick Cheney was staring at the TV screen, the second hijacked airliner exploded against the Twin Towers. At that moment his Secret Service detail grabbed him and hurtled him down to "PEOC."

The President's Emergency Operations Center is an underground facility hardened to withstand blast overpressure from a nuclear detonation. On the way to the tubular structure, Cheney was told that another plane, or a helicopter loaded with explosives, was headed for the White House.

Safire adds this information:

According to a high White House official speaking to me on background, the airliner that had taken off at Dulles—AA Flight 77—"did a 360" (meaning it changed direction from the White House) and at 9:45 slammed into the Pentagon.

Further down, he gets to the crux of the issue:

A threatening message received by the Secret Service was relayed to the agents with the president that "Air Force One is next." According to the high official, American code words were used showing a knowledge of procedures that made the threat credible.

(I have a second, on-the-record source about that: Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, tells me: "When the president said 'I don't want some tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington,' the Secret Service informed him that the threat contained language that was evidence that the terrorists had knowledge of his procedures and whereabouts. In light of the specific and credible threat, it was decided to get airborn with a fighter escort.")

After quoting material also found in Apple’s article, Safire finally draws a conclusion:

The most worrisome aspect of these revelations has to do with the credibility of the "Air Force One is next" message. It is described clearly as a threat, not a friendly warning—but if so, why would the terrorists send the message? More to the point, how did they get the code-word information and transponder know-how that established their mala fides?

That knowledge of code words, 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, F.B.I., F.A.A. or C.I.A. If so, the first thing our war on terror needs is an Angleton-type counterspy.
 
Safire’s conclusions mirror those of fellow columnist Robert Novak, who began his column of the same day (New York Post, 9/13 p. 59) by saying that “Security experts and airline officials agree privately that the simultaneous hijacking of four airliners was an ‘inside job,’ probably indicating complicity beyond malfeasance.”

There appears to be no mention in the 9-11 Commission Report (2006, Barnes & Noble) of the "credible threat" to the president while he was traveling on Air Force One. In fact, the report is at odds in several respects with the above accounts. The most startling of these discrepancies is the time of Cheney's removal to the PEOC which, according to Safire, occurred at 9:03 a.m. The 9-11 Commission Report asserts that this occurred "just before 9:36" (p. 39). Safire's account is supported by the testimony of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who told the 9-11 Commission that he arrived at the PEOC "at about 9:20 a.m." and found Vice President Cheney already there. Assuming the accounts by Safire and Mineta are correct, one would be at odds to explain the preferential treatment of Cheney over Bush with regard to the actions of Cheney’s security detail at 9:03 a.m., when it was not yet known that Washington was directly threatened by an incoming flight. Bush was allowed to linger for many minutes in the Pensacola classroom while there was an ongoing threat to his life, albeit one not articulated at that moment, and it was not until 9:55 that he was whisked off by Air Force One.

The time of the alleged impact of Flight 77 with the Pentagon is also a bone of contention among researchers. In its 9/12 editions, The New York Times puts the moment “at about 9:30 a.m.” (NYT, 9/12/2001, p. A5, "A Hijacked Boeing 757 Slams Into the Pentagon, Halting the Government" by Don van Natta and Lizette Alvarez}, whereas on the next day, the same newspaper reports it as occurring at 9:45 a.m. {see Apple and Safire above; also, NYT, 9/13/2001, p. 21"A Route Out of Washington, Horribly Changed" by Elaine Sciolino and John H. Cushman Jr.). The 9-11 Commission Report establishes the time as "at 9:37" (p. 40).

Based on stopped clocks at the Pentagon and eyewitness testimony, some investigators place the time at about 9:32 a.m. Times are important, because their adjustment may be motivated by the need to support a particular storyline for the events of that day.


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