In his much anticipated new book, “In My Times: A Personal and Political Memoir,” former Vice President Dick Cheney talks candidly about some of the key moments, frank observations and difficult decisions during his history-making tenure in office. Here’s an excerpt.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
Special Agent Jimmy Scott burst through the door. “Mr. Vice President, we’ve got to leave now.” Before I could reply he moved behind my desk, put one hand on my belt and another on my shoulder, and propelled me out of my office. He rushed me through narrow West Wing hallways and down a stairway toward the “PEOC,” the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, located underneath the White House.
We stopped at the bottom of the stairs in a tunnel outside the PEOC. I watched as Secret Service agents positioned themselves at the top, middle, and bottom of the staircase, creating layers of defense in case the White House itself should be invaded. Agent Scott handed out additional firearms, flashlights, and gas masks. He’d evacuated me from my office, he said, because he’d gotten word over his radio that “an inbound unidentified aircraft was headed for ‘Crown,’” code name for the White House.
Within moments another report came in. “Sir,” Scott said, “the plane headed for us just hit the Pentagon.” Now I knew for certain that Washington as well as New York was under attack, and that meant that President Bush, who was at an elementary school in Florida, had to stay away. I turned to one of the agents in the tunnel. “Get me the president.” He picked up the handset of a phone on the wall to patch through a call.
This was the second call I had made to President Bush since hijacked airliners flew into the World Trade towers, and he’d been trying to reach me as well. A communications glitch had cut us off earlier, and as I waited to talk to him now, I watched images of the burning towers on an old television set that had been set up in the tunnel. When the president came on the line, I told him that the Pentagon had been hit and urged him to stay away from Washington. The city was under attack, and the White House was a target. I understood that he didn’t want to appear to be on the run, but he shouldn’t be here until we knew more about what was going on.
My wife, Lynne, had been in downtown D.C. when the planes hit, and her Secret Service detail brought her to the White House. She arrived in the tunnel shortly before 10:00 a.m., and when I finished talking to the president, she went with me into the PEOC. I took a seat at the large conference table that occupied most of the wood-paneled room. Underneath the table telephones rested in drawers. On the wall across from me were two large television screens and a camera for videoconferencing. A side wall contained another video camera and two more TV screens. The wall behind me was blank except for a large presidential seal.
We hadn’t been in the PEOC long when the television sets showed the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsing. Both Lynne and I knew we had just watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent people die.
Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, who’d been one of the first in the PEOC, was making lists of airline flight numbers, trying to figure out which planes were confirmed hijacked and crashed, and which might still be threatening us in the air. Norm was working two telephones, with the FAA on one and his chief of staff on the other, trying to get the skies cleared until we knew just what we were dealing with. A commercial airline pilot usually has wide discretion to handle his aircraft in an emergency, and apparently someone said something to Norm about pilots deciding when and if to bring their planes down. I heard him say in no uncertain terms that pilot discretion would not be the rule today. “Get those planes down now,” he ordered.
In those first hours we were living in the fog of war. We had reports of six domestic flights that were possibly hijacked, a number that later resolved to four. We had conflicting reports about whether the Pentagon had been hit by a plane, a helicopter, or a car bomb. We started getting reports of explosions across Washington, at the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, and the State Department. We heard there was an unidentified, nonresponsive plane headed for Camp David and another headed for Crawford, Texas; we also received word of a threat against Air Force One.
At about 10:15, a uniformed military aide came into the room to tell me that a plane, believed hijacked, was eighty miles out and headed for D.C. He asked me whether our combat air patrol had authority to engage the aircraft. Did our fighter pilots have authority, in other words, to shoot down an American commercial airliner believed to have been hijacked? “Yes,” I said without hesitation. A moment later he was back. “Mr. Vice President, it’s sixty miles out. Do they have authorization to engage?” Again, yes.
There could have been no other answer. As the last hour and a half had made brutally clear, once a plane was hijacked it was a weapon in the hands of the enemy. In one of our earlier calls, the president and I had discussed the fact that our combat air patrol—the American fighter jets now airborne to defend the country—would need rules of engagement. He had approved my recommendation that they be authorized to fire on a civilian airliner if it had been hijacked and would not divert. Thousands of Americans had already been killed, and there was no question about taking action to save thousands more. Still, the enormity of the order I had just conveyed struck all of us in the PEOC, and a silence fell over the room. Then Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten leaned forward in his chair and suggested we get in touch with the president to let him know what had just happened. At 10:18, I picked up the secure phone in the drawer beside me and called Air Force One, which had left Florida and was heading west as the president’s aides looked for a secure location from which he could address the American people. When the president came on the line, I told him about the shootdown order.
There soon followed some tense moments when we got word that an aircraft was down, south of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Had it been forced down? Had it been shot down by one of our pilots following the authorization I’d conveyed? Eventually we learned that an act of heroism had brought United Airlines Flight 93 down in the fields near Shanksville. Aware of the fates of the other planes hijacked that morning, the passengers on Flight 93 stormed the cockpit. By sacrificing their own lives, those brave men and women saved the lives of many others, possibly including those of us in the White House that morning.
Excerpted from "In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir" by Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney. Copyright © 2011 by Dick Cheney with Liz Cheney. Excerpted with permission by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.