Chapter One Making History
Just after 9:37 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, Officer Aubrey Davis of the Pentagon police was standing outside Donald Rumsfeld’s office on the third floor of the Pentagon’s E Ring. Inside, Rumsfeld, though aware that the World Trade Center towers in New York had already been hit, was proceeding with his regularly scheduled CIA briefing. Davis, on the other hand, had concluded from watching the TV news that the country was under attack and the Pentagon might be a target. Assigned to the defense secretary’s personal bodyguard, he had come on his own initiative, ready to move Rumsfeld to a better-protected location.
“There was an incredibly loud ‘boom,’” says Davis, raising his voice slightly on the last word. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, just as his radio crackled with a message, the door opened and Rumsfeld walked out, looking composed and wearing the jacket he normally discarded while in his office. “Sir,” said Davis, quoting what he had heard on his radio, “we’re getting a report that an airplane has hit the Mall.”
“The Mall?” replied Rumsfeld calmly. Without further word, the secretary of defense turned on his heel and set off at a sharp pace toward the so-called Mall section of the Pentagon. Down the hall, someone ran out of a VIP dining room screaming, “They’re bombing the building, they’re bombing the building.” Davis frantically waved for colleagues to catch up as the stocky, 5' 8? defense secretary marched ahead of his lanky escort.
The group, which grew to include several more police officers as well as Rumsfeld’s personal communications aide, turned into the wide passageway running along the Mall face of the building. Thick crowds of Pentagon staff, in and out of uniform, were hurrying past in the opposite direction. They could smell smoke, but there was no sign of any damage here. “I thought you said the Mall,” said Rumsfeld.
“Sir,” responded Davis, holding his radio, “now we’re hearing it’s by the heliport.” This meant the next side of the building farther along from the Mall. Rumsfeld set off again without a word, ignoring Davis’s protestations that they should turn back. “At the end of the Mall corridor, we dropped down a stairway to the second floor, and then a little farther we dropped down to the first. It was dark and there was a lot of smoke. Then we saw daylight through a door that was hanging open.” Groping through the darkness to the door, the group emerged outside. In front of them, just thirty yards away, roared a “wall of flame.”
“There were the flames, and bits of metal all around,” Davis remembers, as well as injured people. He noticed the white legs of a woman lying on the ground, then realized with a shock that she was African-American, horribly burned. “The secretary picked up one of the pieces of metal. I was telling him he shouldn’t be interfering with a crime scene when he looked at some inscription on it and said, ‘American Airlines.’ Then someone shouted, ‘Help, over here,’ and we ran over and helped push an injured person on a gurney over to the road.”
While the secretary of defense was pushing a gurney, Davis’s radio was crackling with frantic pleas from his control room regarding Rumsfeld’s whereabouts. “It was ‘Dr. Cambone [Rumsfeld’s closest aide] is asking, Dr. Cambone wants to find the secretary.’ I kept saying, ‘We’ve got him,’ but the system was overloaded, everyone on the frequency was talking, everything jumbled, so I couldn’t get through and they went on asking.”
An emergency worker approached, saying that equipment and medical supplies were needed. “Tell this man what you need,” said Rumsfeld, gesturing to the communications aide, apparently oblivious of the fact that there were no communications.
Once they had pushed the wounded man on the gurney over to the road, the bodyguard was finally able to lead his charge back inside the building. “I’d say we were gone fifteen minutes, max,” he told me in his account of what happened that morning. Given the time it took to make their way down those Pentagon corridors—each side of the enormous building is the length of three football fields—Rumsfeld was actually at the crash site for only a fraction of that period.
Yet those few minutes made Rumsfeld famous, changed him from a half-forgotten twentieth-century political figure to America’s twenty-first-century warlord. On a day when the president was intermittently visible, only Rumsfeld, along with New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, gave the country an image of decisive, courageous leadership. According to his spokesman, the sixty-nine-year-old defense secretary’s “first instinct was to go out through the building to the crash site and help.” Over time, the legend grew. One of the staffers in the office later assured me that Rumsfeld had “torn his shirt into strips” to make bandages for the wounded.
As we shall see, Rumsfeld was first and foremost a politician, though not always a successful one. The weeks before the attacks had been one of the unsuccessful phases, with rumors spreading in Washington that he would shortly be removed from his post. Only the day before he had lashed out at the Pentagon workforce, denouncing the assembled soldiers and civilians as “a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America.” Now, his instinctive dash to the crash site could inspire loyalty and support among those he had derided. An official in the Office of Plans, Analysis and Evaluation, whose office was close to Rumsfeld’s, saw him walking swiftly down the hall in the first minutes after the crash. Later, when he heard where Rumsfeld had been, he thought, “very astute, politically.”
Hatred and resentment among those in his wake had been a regular feature of Rumsfeld’s career, and 9/11 proved no exception. I first realized this while discussing that day with a senior WhiteHouse official who had been in the Situation Room, desperately trying to coordinate a response to the bewildering disaster of the attacks. As he reminisced, I mentioned that despite the legend, it didn’t seem as if Rumsfeld could have had much time for rescue work that morning.
“What was Rumsfeld doing on 9/11?” said the former official with sudden anger. “He deserted his post. He disappeared. The country was under attack. Where was the guy who controls America’s defense? Out of touch!”
“He wasn’t gone for very long,” I observed mildly.
My friend waved his coffee mug in emphatic rebuttal. “How long does it take for something bad to happen? No one knew what was happening. What if this had been the opening shot of a coordinated attack by a hostile power? Outrageous, to abandon your responsibilities and go off and do what you don’t need to be doing, grandstanding.”
This conversation took place in March 2006, just before it became commonplace in Washington to speak disrespectfully of Rumsfeld, at least in anything louder than a whisper, so I was taken aback by the vehemence of his response. A minute later, this sober bureaucrat burst forth with renewed passion. “He’s a megalomaniac who has to be in control at all times,” he fumed. “He is the worst secretary of defense there has ever been, worse than [Robert] McNamara. He is playing a major part in destroying this presidency.”
Clearly, Rumsfeld was reviled in certain parts of the Bush administration. Yet such antagonisms occur in every presidency. But what did it mean, I wondered, that Rumsfeld had “deserted his post”? Though most people assume that the chain of command runs from the president to the vice president, the cold war bequeathed a significant constitutional readjustment. In an age when an enemy attack might allow only a few minutes for detection and reaction, control of American military power became vested in the National Command Authority, which consists of the president and the secretary of defense. Collectively, the NCA is the ultimate source of military orders, uniquely empowered, among other things, to order the use of nuclear weapons. In time of war, therefore, Rumsfeld was effectively the president’s partner, the direct link to the fighting forces, and all orders had to go through him.
Such orders were supposed to be transmitted from a two-story complex at the end of a narrow passageway across the corridor from Rumsfeld’s office. This was the National Military Command Center, staffed twenty-four hours a day with as many as two hundred military officers and civilian staff and equipped with arrays of communications systems, including multiple screens for video conferences. “All very Star Trek,” recalls an official who formerly served there.
This was the operational center for any and every crisis, from nuclear war to hijacked airliners. The command center organized conference calls enabling key officials around the government to communicate and coordinate. At 9:39 a.m. that morning, just over a minute after the Pentagon was hit, the navy captain in charge of the command center announced on the “air threat conference call” that had just begun that “an air attack on North America may be in progress,” and asked that the secretary of defense come to the center. A few minutes later, the secretary’s office reported back that he was nowhere to be found. The chain of command was broken.1
In fact, Rumsfeld was at the crash site, though eventually it occurred to him that he might perhaps be in the wrong place: “…at some moment I decided I should be in here,” he told Parade magazine in his office a month later, “figuring out what to do, because your brain begins to connect things.”
Rumsfeld was back in the building by ten o’clock, but despite the anxious pleas from the military, he did not go to the command center. Instead, he headed for his office, where he spoke to President Bush, though afterward neither man could recall what they discussed. Next, in his words, he moved to “a room about 30 yards away here in this building…that’s sealable.” That would have been the Executive Support Center, conference rooms “secure” against electronic eavesdropping right next door to the military command center.
Waiting here was a small group, distinguished above all else by their personal loyalty to Rumsfeld. One was Stephen Cambone, the aide who had been inquiring so anxiously for his whereabouts minutes before. Of all in Rumsfeld’s court, Cambone cast the longest shadow, energetically accumulating power thanks to the protective embrace of his mentor and his acknowledged intelligence. Also there was Rumsfeld’s personal chief of staff, Larry Di Rita, a former naval officer who had moved into Rumsfeld’s orbit from the right-wing staff of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Di Rita’s defining characteristic was his devotion to the boss. (An Olympic-standard squash player, he would still dutifully lose to Rumsfeld.) The third person in the room was his spokesperson, Victoria (Torie) Clarke, a consummate public relations professional, artful enough to promote Rumsfeld—who was so secretive that he would refuse to tell his own deputy what had happened in White House meetings—as a paragon of openness and transparency.2
After a brief discussion with this select group, Rumsfeld finally made his way to the military command center. It was almost 10:30. Only then, as he later explained to the 9/11 Commission, did he begin to gain “situational awareness” of what was going on. After a brief interval he spoke with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in a bunker under the White House and for the previous forty minutes had been issuing orders to shoot down suspicious airliners.
“There’s been at least three instances here where we’ve had reports of aircraft approaching Washington—a couple were confirmed hijack,” Cheney told Rumsfeld in his favored clipped, macho style. “And pursuant to the President’s instructions I gave authorization for them to be taken out.”
Actually, the presidential authorization cited by Cheney consisted, at best, of the words “You bet” from Bush as Air Force One streaked out of Orlando, Florida. In any event, it was Rumsfeld, not Cheney, who was legally in the chain of command and authorized to give such an order.
“So we’ve got a couple of [military] aircraft up there that have those instructions at this present time?” asked Rumsfeld, still catching up.
“That is correct,” replied Cheney. “And it’s my understanding they’ve already taken a couple of aircraft out.”3
Together, these two men dominated the U.S. government for six years. They must have had thousands of conversations, but this snatch of dialogue, as released by the 9/11 Commission, is the only known publicly available sample of a private conversation between them. Though brief, it is instructive. Not for the last time, they were reacting to information that was wholly inaccurate—there were no more hijacked airliners in the sky. One of the planes Cheney had ordered “taken out” was United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania ten minutes before he issued the command. The other was a low-flying medevac helicopter on its way to the Pentagon. Neither man seemed concerned that the president was not involved. Cheney was usurping his authority, since he was not in the chain of command. Lacking any experience in the military, the vice president may not have realized that military commanders like precise orders, and will not proceed without them, which was why the fighter commanders chose not to pass on his aggressive instructions to the pilots.
Rumsfeld, once he had finally settled into his place at the command center, got to work on the “rules of engagement” for the fighter pilots. This was an irrelevant exercise for he did not complete and issue them until 1:00 p.m., hours after the last hijacker had died.
Later, when asked why he had taken no part in military operations that morning, Rumsfeld blithely insisted that it was not his job. “The Department of Defense,” he told the 9/11 Commission in 2004, “did not have responsibility for the borders. It did not have responsibility for the airports…a civilian aircraft was a law enforcement matter to be handled by law enforcement authorities and aviation authorities.” Expanding on this theme, he explained that the Defense Department’s only responsibility when a civilian plane was hijacked was to “send up an aircraft and monitor the flight, but certainly in a hijack situation [the military] did not have authority to shoot down a plane that was being hijacked.”4
This statement was flat out untrue, but none of the commissioners dared call him to account.
Having absented himself from military involvement while the al Qaeda attacks were actually in progress on the morning of 9/11, Rumsfeld began the afternoon with the first fateful steps toward the war that would secure his historical reputation. At 12:05 p.m., CIA director George Tenet called to report that just fifteen minutes after the Pentagon had been hit, the National Security Agency (NSA) had intercepted a phone call between a known associate of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and someone in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The bin Laden associate announced that he had heard “good news,” and that another target was still to be hit (presumably the intended target of Flight 93). Tenet also reported that one of the hijackers on the Pentagon plane had been linked to someone involved in the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Here was clear confirmation that the millionaire Saudi leader of al Qaeda was behind that day’s attacks.
Rumsfeld was having none of it. According to Cambone’s cryptic notes, the secretary felt this intelligence was “‘vague,’ that it might not mean something, and that there was ‘no good basis for hanging hat.’” So whatever the terrorists might be saying on the phone, the secretary of defense was reserving judgment. The moment was a textbook example of Rumsfeld’s standard reaction to information that did not suit his preconceptions. It would recur in the years to come.5
In a brief televised press conference at 6:40 that evening, in which Rumsfeld’s calm demeanor much impressed viewers, veteran Reuters Pentagon correspondent Charlie Aldinger asked, “Mr. Secretary, did you have any inkling at all, in any way, that something of this nature and something of this scope might be planned?”
“Charlie,” responded Rumsfeld quickly, “we don’t discuss intelligence matters.” The response appeared to reflect his tough-minded prudence in times of crisis. Yet in retrospect, it is easy to understand his reluctance to pursue the subject. Two months before, an intelligence report prepared for the National Security Council (NSC) had concluded “we believe that UBL [Usama bin Laden (sic)] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.”6
It is an inescapable and now well-documented fact that the Bush administration had serial warnings prior to 9/11 that bin Laden was preparing a major attack, and routinely dismissed these warnings. On July 10, 2001, one such alarm was delivered to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the form of a briefing from Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black. According to some accounts Rice did take this presentation seriously. (When news of the warning first surfaced in Bob Woodward’s book State of Denial, Rice denied that it happened at all, then recalled that it had.) On her recommendation, Rumsfeld received the same briefing on July 17, along with Attorney General John Ashcroft.7
Ashcroft immediately stopped flying on commercial airliners.8
Rumsfeld’s reaction has never been previously revealed, but according to several intelligence sources his response was one of vehement dismissal, complete with cutting observations about the CIA falling victim to “vast doses of Al Qaeda disinformation” and “mortal doses of gullibility.” It had been a classic example of how Rumsfeld reacted to anything he thought might become a problem. He took this position, so the CIA believed, because agitation about terrorist threats might pose a distraction from his cherished goals of shrinking the army, investing in a new generation of high-technology weapons, and deploying a ballistic missile defense system.
Now Osama bin Laden and his teams of hijackers had proved Rumsfeld spectacularly wrong. So, on the afternoon of September 11, with part of his building still burning and smoke eddying through the corridors, Rumsfeld was already pondering how to shift attention in a new direction. At 2:40 p.m., still in the command center, he told General Richard Myers to find the “[b]est info fast…judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. @ same time—not only U.B.L.” S.H. was of course Saddam Hussein, while U.B.L, in Cambone’s preferred spelling, was Usama bin Laden. “Hard to get a good case,” mused Rumsfeld, pondering what he needed from his intelligence agencies. “Need to move swiftly—Near term target needs—Go massive—sweep it all up, need to do so to get anything useful. Things related and not.”9
It was the first step on the road to Baghdad. The notion of attacking Iraq had been rumored in the Pentagon since George W. Bush and the Republicans had taken power. But this had been wishful thinking rather than any firm decision. Now, thanks to the events of the morning, war became inevitable.
Most of the things we need to know about Donald Rumsfeld were on display that day. The country was under attack, but he went off to micromanage operations at the crash site. He had clearly defined responsibilities, but later claimed he did not. As was often the case, his actions enraged colleagues. As usual, he turned first for advice to a small group on whose loyalty he could count. He worked closely with Vice President Cheney. He disregarded intelligence he did not want to hear. Warnings he had dismissed were now horribly vindicated, so he opted to change the subject. At the end of the day he gave a powerful performance on TV, impressing the country with his leadership qualities.
For Rumsfeld, in other words, it was a day much like any other. On 9/11, his future was assured. But to understand why his future took the path it did, we must visit his past.