March 24, 2004

September 11: The Threat to 'Angel'

Of all the strange parts of the government's reaction to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the strangest is the claim that Al Qaeda had threatened Air Force One--and that that was why it and George W. Bush were diverted to Offutt Air Force Base that day:

Scott Paltrow, Wall Street Journal, March 22 | : As Air Force One left Sarasota, the president intended to return directly to Washington, Mr. Bartlett said. Mr. Bush initially had ignored advice from Vice President Dick Cheney, calling while en route to a White House basement command center, that Washington appeared to be under attack and the president for his own safety should remain away, according to an official in the vice president's office. Once airborne, Mr. Bush spoke again on a secure phone with Mr. Cheney, who relayed a new message that changed the president's mind, White House officials later said. The vice president urged Mr. Bush to postpone his return because, Mr. Cheney said, the government had received a specific threat that Air Force One itself had been targeted by terrorists. Mr. Cheney emphasized that the threat included a reference to what he called the secret code word for the presidential jet, "Angel," Mr. Bartlett said in an interview.

In a press conference on Sept. 12, 2001, then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the threat tipped the scales for Mr. Bush. The president reluctantly agreed to remain away from Washington "because the information that we had was real and credible about Air Force One," Mr. Fleischer said.

Although in the days after Sept. 11, Mr. Cheney and other administration officials recounted that a threat had been received against Air Force One, Mr. Bartlett said in a recent interview that there hadn't been any actual threat. Word of a threat had resulted from confusion in the White House bunker, as multiple conversations went on simultaneously, he said. Many of these exchanges, he added, related to rumors that turned out to be false, such as reports of attacks on the president's ranch in Texas and the State Department. As for the Air Force One code name, Mr. Bartlett said, "Somebody was using the word 'angel,' " and "that got interpreted as a threat based on the word 'angel.' " (Former Secret Service officials said the code wasn't an official secret, but a radio shorthand designation that had been made public well before 2001.)

The vice president's office gave an account differing from Mr. Bartlett's, saying it still couldn't rule out that a threat to Air Force One actually had been made.

Days after the attacks, Mr. Cheney had said word of the threat had been passed to him by Secret Service agents. But in interviews, two former senior Secret Service agents on duty that day denied that their agency played any role in receiving or passing on a threat to the presidential jet.

An official in Mr. Cheney's office said in an interview that Mr. Cheney had been mistaken in saying the threat came to him via the Secret Service. The official said that instead, Mr. Cheney had received word of the threat from "a uniformed military person" manning the underground bunker. The official said the vice president and his staff don't know who the individual was. And the official said that he couldn't say definitively whether or not a threat had been made. "I'm not in a position to know the answer to that question," the official in the vice president's office said...

So there are three stories: (i) Bartlett's that somebody said, "Is there a threat to angel," and Cheney interpreted this as, "There has been a threat to 'Angel'," using that exact secret designation for Air Force One; (ii) Cheney's story number one, that a Secret Service agent told him that there had been a threat to 'Angel'; (iii) Cheney story number two, that a "uniformed military person" whom nobody since has ever been able to identify told him that there had been a threat to 'Angel.

We also now have Richard Clarke's account of what things were like on the morning of September 11 when he left the Situation Room for a brief trip to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, where Cheney was, from Against All Enemies:

p. 18: In the PEOC the cast was decidedly more political. In addition to the Vice President and Condi Rice, there was the Vice President's wife, Lynne; his political advisor, Mary Matalin; his security advisor, Scooter Libby; Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten; and White House communications director Karen Hughes. The monitors were simultaneously blaring the coverage from five networks....I grabbed Mike Frenzel. "How's it going over here?" I asked.

"It's fine," Major Frenzel whispered, "but I can't hear the crisis conference because Mrs. Cheney keeps turning down the volume on you [in the Situation Room] so she can hear CNN, and the Vice President keeps hanging up the open line to you [in the Situation Room]."

And there's Richard Clarke's account of his conversations on the morning of September 11 about what George W. Bush should do:

pp. 6-7: I picked up the open line to the PEOC. I got a dial tone. Somebody had hung up on the other end. I punched the PEOC button... When Major Fenzel got on the line I gave him the first three decisions we needed: "Mike, somebody has to tell the President he can't come right back here. Cheney, Condi, somebody. Secret Service concurs. We do not want them saying where they are going when they take off...

pp. 18-19: I moved in and squatted between Cheney and Rice. "The President agreed to go to Offutt," Cheney informed me. His manner implied that it had been a hard sell...

Think about (i) the focus of people inside the PEOC on the networks, (ii) the lack of attention paid inside the PEOC to the Situation Room information channel, and (iii) the fact that the Situation Room is the operational decision-implementation center to which information flows. Think about the sequence of events:

  1. A consensus decision is reached inside the White House that George W. Bush should not return to Washington immediately.
  2. Cheney takes on the task of persuading George W. Bush to go along.
  3. Cheney calls Bush, and tells him the Secret Service and the Situation Room want him to stay away from Washington.
  4. Bush balks--he wants to be back in his proper place as fast as possible.
  5. Cheney thinks about his failure, and calls again--this time with the story about 'Angel.'
  6. Bush agrees to go to Offutt.

Isn't the balance of the probabilities that Cheney decided upon a lie that he thought would scare George W. Bush into doing what he wanted him to do, and thought (correctly) that the normal Fog of War would keep him from being called on it? Is there any other way to explain why the "news" about the "threat to 'Angel'" flowed only upwards from Cheney to Bush, and not downwards from Cheney to the PEOC to the Situation Room?

Posted by DeLong at March 24, 2004 07:21 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

"Let's get George out of the way so we can get some work done." Unfortunately, I could believe it.

Posted by: Tim H. on March 24, 2004 07:40 AM


Brad's hypothesis also fits with Cheney's demonstrable propensity to lie in trying to get his way.

Posted by: jimBOB on March 24, 2004 07:44 AM


I can't believe I'm pointing this out, but getting the President out of the way is critical in crisis scenarios. What, you think he knows how to implement a threat response? He's a politician; that's something the career bureaucrats do.

I have to say I'm kind of depressed about how the book is being used as a weapon against Bush, and not against Bush policies. Yes, yes, there's plenty of stuff like this, but the parts where he eviscerates Bush's policy decisions are a lot more important.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on March 24, 2004 07:44 AM


Remind me again--I'm assuming here--why Bush trusts Cheney?


Posted by: charles on March 24, 2004 07:54 AM


Maybe the original discussion was about whether someone in PEOC had remembered to tape Angel.

Posted by: P O'Neill on March 24, 2004 08:13 AM


You don't have to plot to take things over when you're effectively already running the place.

Posted by: Tim H. on March 24, 2004 08:38 AM


Sorry, I know it's just a code name, but in light of how God speaks to Bush, I AM disturbed that the code name for Air Force One is Angel. It tells me a bit more how our code name for Afghanistan became Infinite Justice and how Bush first considered the war on terror to be his "crusade".

Posted by: anon on March 24, 2004 08:39 AM


I don't think there's anything really sinister afoot, merely something distasteful: namely, the inability of anyone in this administration (especially Vice-President Cheney) to ever admit that they were wrong.

There was much confusion on the morning of Sept 9/11. To cite a pertinent example, CNN ran a news alert about a car bomb at the State Dept which quickly turned out to be false. I find it quite plausible that the Vice-President and others in the PEOC may have wrongly gotten the impression there was a threat to Air Force One and that while under this impression the Vice-President convinced President Bush to take his long circuitous flight around the US that in retrospect provided much grist to the mills of us critics of the President.

I don't find it surprising that the Vice-President has chosen to stick by his story (all 3 of them) rather than admit that "Yes, by passing on information that was rapidly discredited---if indeed it was ever creditable---I made the President look kinda indecisive... heck, cowardly even. My bad."

Posted by: Bill on March 24, 2004 08:48 AM


If there's one rule which this administration has followed better than any before, it's "never apologize, never explain".

Posted by: Barry on March 24, 2004 09:03 AM


Re: "I can't believe I'm pointing this out, but getting the President out of the way is critical in crisis scenarios. What, you think he knows how to implement a threat response? He's a politician; that's something the career bureaucrats do.... Yes, yes, there's plenty of stuff like this, but the parts where he eviscerates Bush's policy decisions are a lot more important.
Posted by Jason McCullough at March 24"

I agree. I think Clarke and Cheney were right in wanting Bush in Omaha on September 11. But I'm intrigued by the how this is accomplished...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on March 24, 2004 09:15 AM


Aside from any specific report, in this case an apparent intercept, portraying a threat to Air Force One, one might well have anticipated such a threat from any of several sources: might the terrorists have surface to air missiles (the world is awash in SA7s, and there are unaccounted for Stingers)? Might a missing commercial airliner be targeted at Andrews AFB or even Air Force One in the air (or the White House complex)? And how many missing aircraft were there, as the FAA tried to clear the skies?

It isn't clear what Cheney was referring to exactly, but 9-11 was a pretty threat laden day around Washington. I prefer all my other reasons for disliking Cheney, honestly.

Posted by: Jim Harris on March 24, 2004 09:27 AM


"He's a politician; that's something the career bureaucrats do.

I have to say I'm kind of depressed about how the book is being used as a weapon against Bush, and not against Bush policies. Yes, yes, there's plenty of stuff like this, but the parts where he eviscerates Bush's policy decisions are a lot more important."
Posted by Jason McCullough at March 24, 2004 07:44 AM

Jason, you ask why the attack is directed toward bush, but fail to realize you typed the answer only one sentance prior.

Although policy decisions are the results of bureaucrats, the only way to change the bureaucrats is to change the politicos. Thus attacking bureaucrats has no tangible effect except for the indirect association with bush. That sort of damage is easily deflected. If you direct it at the political animal FIRST, you put them on defense to start instead of giving them a chance to go on offense toward the expendable bureaucrats.

I'm sure sun tzu has alot to say about this.

Posted by: sampo on March 24, 2004 09:50 AM


As deeply as I loathe Cheney, I concur with Bill: I think this is more just a matter of Cheney refusing to admit he may have been less than perfect under trying circumstances.

The President and Vice-President definitely didn't need to be in the same building until the immediate threat was clearly past, so I have no problem with Bush going to Omaha.

I'm still not sure what the diversion to West Bum***k, Louisiana, was all about, but I assume there's a rational explanation. At the time, it made Bush look like a rabbit on the run, but I think the story that he wanted to head back to DC immediately is believable.

Posted by: RT on March 24, 2004 09:51 AM


The highly revered Saint Richard Clarke tells the TRUTH!

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

WASHINGTON The following transcript documents a background briefing in early August 2002 by President Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke to a handful of reporters, including Fox News' Jim Angle. In the conversation, cleared by the White House on Wednesday for distribution, Clarke describes the handover of intelligence from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration and the latter's decision to revise the U.S. approach to Al Qaeda. Clarke was named special adviser to the president for cyberspace security in October 2001. He resigned from his post in January 2003.

RICHARD CLARKE: Actually, I've got about seven points, let me just go through them quickly. Um, the first point, I think the overall point is, there was no plan on Al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.

Second point is that the Clinton administration had a strategy in place, effectively dating from 1998. And there were a number of issues on the table since 1998. And they remained on the table when that administration went out of office issues like aiding the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, changing our Pakistan policy -- uh, changing our policy toward Uzbekistan. And in January 2001, the incoming Bush administration was briefed on the existing strategy. They were also briefed on these series of issues that had not been decided on in a couple of years.

And the third point is the Bush administration decided then, you know, mid-January, to do two things. One, vigorously pursue the existing policy, including all of the lethal covert action findings, which we've now made public to some extent.

And the point is, while this big review was going on, there were still in effect, the lethal findings were still in effect. The second thing the administration decided to do is to initiate a process to look at those issues which had been on the table for a couple of years and get them decided.

So, point five, that process which was initiated in the first week in February, uh, decided in principle, uh in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda.

The sixth point, the newly-appointed deputies and you had to remember, the deputies didn't get into office until late March, early April. The deputies then tasked the development of the implementation details, uh, of these new decisions that they were endorsing, and sending out to the principals.

Over the course of the summer last point they developed implementation details, the principals met at the end of the summer, approved them in their first meeting, changed the strategy by authorizing the increase in funding five-fold, changing the policy on Pakistan, changing the policy on Uzbekistan, changing the policy on the Northern Alliance assistance.

And then changed the strategy from one of rollback with Al Qaeda over the course [of] five years, which it had been, to a new strategy that called for the rapid elimination of al Qaeda. That is in fact the timeline.

QUESTION: When was that presented to the president?

CLARKE: Well, the president was briefed throughout this process.

QUESTION: But when was the final September 4 document? (interrupted) Was that presented to the president?

CLARKE: The document went to the president on September 10, I think.

QUESTION: What is your response to the suggestion in the [Aug. 12, 2002] Time [magazine] article that the Bush administration was unwilling to take on board the suggestions made in the Clinton administration because of animus against the general animus against the foreign policy?

CLARKE: I think if there was a general animus that clouded their vision, they might not have kept the same guy dealing with terrorism issue. This is the one issue where the National Security Council leadership decided continuity was important and kept the same guy around, the same team in place. That doesn't sound like animus against uh the previous team to me.

JIM ANGLE: You're saying that the Bush administration did not stop anything that the Clinton administration was doing while it was making these decisions, and by the end of the summer had increased money for covert action five-fold. Is that correct?

CLARKE: All of that's correct.


QUESTION: Are you saying now that there was not only a plan per se, presented by the transition team, but that it was nothing proactive that they had suggested?

CLARKE: Well, what I'm saying is, there are two things presented. One, what the existing strategy had been. And two, a series of issues like aiding the Northern Alliance, changing Pakistan policy, changing Uzbek policy that they had been unable to come to um, any new conclusions, um, from '98 on.

QUESTION: Was all of that from '98 on or was some of it ...

CLARKE: All of those issues were on the table from '98 on.

ANGLE: When in '98 were those presented?

CLARKE: In October of '98.

QUESTION: In response to the Embassy bombing?

CLARKE: Right, which was in September.

QUESTION: Were all of those issues part of alleged plan that was late December and the Clinton team decided not to pursue because it was too close to ...

CLARKE: There was never a plan, Andrea. What there was was these two things: One, a description of the existing strategy, which included a description of the threat. And two, those things which had been looked at over the course of two years, and which were still on the table.

QUESTION: So there was nothing that developed, no documents or no new plan of any sort?

CLARKE: There was no new plan.

QUESTION: No new strategy I mean, I don't want to get into a semantics ...

CLARKE: Plan, strategy there was no, nothing new.

QUESTION: 'Til late December, developing ...

CLARKE: What happened at the end of December was that the Clinton administration NSC principals committee met and once again looked at the strategy, and once again looked at the issues that they had brought, decided in the past to add to the strategy. But they did not at that point make any recommendations.

QUESTIONS: Had those issues evolved at all from October of '98 'til December of 2000?

CLARKE: Had they evolved? Um, not appreciably.

ANGLE: What was the problem? Why was it so difficult for the Clinton administration to make decisions on those issues?

CLARKE: Because they were tough issues. You know, take, for example, aiding the Northern Alliance. Um, people in the Northern Alliance had a, sort of bad track record. There were questions about the government, there were questions about drug-running, there was questions about whether or not in fact they would use the additional aid to go after Al Qaeda or not. Uh, and how would you stage a major new push in Uzbekistan or somebody else or Pakistan to cooperate?

One of the big problems was that Pakistan at the time was aiding the other side, was aiding the Taliban. And so, this would put, if we started aiding the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, this would have put us directly in opposition to the Pakistani government. These are not easy decisions.

ANGLE: And none of that really changed until we were attacked and then it was ...

CLARKE: No, that's not true. In the spring, the Bush administration changed began to change Pakistani policy, um, by a dialogue that said we would be willing to lift sanctions. So we began to offer carrots, which made it possible for the Pakistanis, I think, to begin to realize that they could go down another path, which was to join us and to break away from the Taliban. So that's really how it started.

QUESTION: Had the Clinton administration in any of its work on this issue, in any of the findings or anything else, prepared for a call for the use of ground forces, special operations forces in any way? What did the Bush administration do with that if they had?

CLARKE: There was never a plan in the Clinton administration to use ground forces. The military was asked at a couple of points in the Clinton administration to think about it. Um, and they always came back and said it was not a good idea. There was never a plan to do that.

(Break in briefing details as reporters and Clarke go back and forth on how to source quotes from this backgrounder.)

ANGLE: So, just to finish up if we could then, so what you're saying is that there was no one, there was no plan; two, there was no delay; and that actually the first changes since October of '98 were made in the spring months just after the administration came into office?

CLARKE: You got it. That's right.

QUESTION: It was not put into an action plan until September 4, signed off by the principals?

CLARKE: That's right.

QUESTION: I want to add though, that NSPD the actual work on it began in early April.

CLARKE: There was a lot of in the first three NSPDs that were being worked in parallel.

ANGLE: Now the five-fold increase for the money in covert operations against Al Qaeda did that actually go into effect when it was decided or was that a decision that happened in the next budget year or something?

CLARKE: Well, it was gonna go into effect in October, which was the next budget year, so it was a month away.

QUESTION: That actually got into the intelligence budget?

CLARKE: Yes it did.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, did that come up in April or later?

CLARKE: No, it came up in April and it was approved in principle and then went through the summer. And you know, the other thing to bear in mind is the shift from the rollback strategy to the elimination strategy. When President Bush told us in March to stop swatting at flies and just solve this problem, then that was the strategic direction that changed the NSPD from one of rollback to one of elimination.

QUESTION: Well can you clarify something? I've been told that he gave that direction at the end of May. Is that not correct?

CLARKE: No, it was March.

QUESTION: The elimination of Al Qaeda, get back to ground troops now we haven't completely done that even with a substantial number of ground troops in Afghanistan. Was there, was the Bush administration contemplating without the provocation of September 11th moving troops into Afghanistan prior to that to go after Al Qaeda?

CLARKE: I can not try to speculate on that point. I don't know what we would have done.

QUESTION: In your judgment, is it possible to eliminate Al Qaeda without putting troops on the ground?

CLARKE: Uh, yeah, I think it was. I think it was. If we'd had Pakistani, Uzbek and Northern Alliance assistance.

Posted by: Adrian Spidle on March 24, 2004 09:52 AM


To Adrian:

What's the preface to Clarke's opening "Actually, I've got about seven points..." ? Was he asked a big, multipart question and thus was just saying his answer was going to be big and multipart as well? Or was this background briefing of the common type "The National Security Council has issued a new set of talking points for the coming week, let me go down them one by one." ?

In short, can this truly be seen as a sneak-peak Clarke's true opinions circa August 2002, or is this just a rendition of that convoluted kabuki play officials from any modern Administration alas now perform which goes like: "I'll now pretend to take questions, which I'll answer with this predetermined set of talking points so we in the Administration can all can stay 'on message'. Therefore, you are forwarned any seeming logical flow between question asked and answer given is strictly coincidental."

[No offense meant to the venerable Japanese tradition of kabuki. :) ]

Posted by: Bill on March 24, 2004 10:33 AM


"I can't believe I'm pointing this out, but getting the President out of the way is critical in crisis scenarios. What, you think he knows how to implement a threat response? He's a politician; that's something the career bureaucrats do."

Seems like Cheney was deeply involved in the decision making process.

Also, re GWB's communications and actions on 9/11, here's a painstakingly assembled timeline: (It has a bit of a conspiracy feel to it, but most of the findings are corroborated by the 9/11 commission.)

Posted by: ogmb on March 24, 2004 10:36 AM


Now I know who really runs the show ---- Lynn Cheney. Makes me sleep better.

Posted by: Hal on March 24, 2004 11:40 AM


Did it strike anyone else as, well, distinctly ODD, that Lynn Cheney and Dick Cheney did quite a bit to prevent Clarke's communications from coming through to the staff in the Emergency Operations Center?

Why would they do that?

Posted by: Curiouser on March 24, 2004 03:18 PM


"I can't believe I'm pointing this out, but getting the President out of the way is critical in crisis scenarios. What, you think he knows how to implement a threat response? He's a politician; that's something the career bureaucrats do."

So, following that reasoning, Bush should be re-elected not because he is a strong leader but because he is a strong politician.

Posted by: Dubblblind on March 24, 2004 03:21 PM


Hmmmm. Can anyone imagine Gore pulling such a stunt on Clinton? Lying to someone for their own protection is such a parental kind of thing. Perhaps if Bush had not continued to read the goat story with the kids after being informed that the country was under attack he may have had the info he needed to make the best decision himself. I don't think I would have been able to take the strain that Bush's entourage had to have felt as they all stood around, knowing that the country was considered to be under attack, and being forced to watch Bush sit there and read with those kids.

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Once airborne, Mr. Bush spoke again on a secure phone with Mr. Cheney, who relayed a new message that changed the president's mind, White House officials later said.

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