SPIEGEL Interview with Andrew Card 'The President Will Never Forget 9/11'
Former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card discusses President George W. Bush, the Sept. 11 terror attacks and recent revelations uncovered by star reporter Bob Woodward about conflicts within the administration over the Iraq war.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Card, with his new book "The War Within," journalist Bob Woodward sparked a debate about the role of President George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001. Nobody was closer to the president on that day than you. Did you or he have any presentiment of the events to come?
Card: That morning, there was no indication that this would be a special day. We had landed in Florida the previous evening and early in the morning the president went jogging. I think he ran about four miles. He was just as sweaty as could be, but feeling very good about his run. He said: Well, I'll get changed and afterwards we will do the CIA briefing.
SPIEGEL: During this meeting, was there any warning or at least some kind of inkling of a catastrophe?
Card : Not the slightest hint. I can remember the intelligence that suggested that there would be hijackings of planes. I served in the White House under Ronald Reagan, Bush Senior and George W. Bush and there were repeated occasions when we had to deal with hijackings. It was usually demanding the release of prisoners or money, or relating to Cuba. It was not to use the plane as a weapon of mass destruction. Such a scenario never entered our thoughts.
SPIEGEL: So you unsuspectingly drove to the elementary school in Sarasota that the president wanted to visit?
Card : As we got over to the school and as we were walking in, I heard two people say something about a plane having just crashed into the World Trade Center. I know that one of them was Karl Rove, the White House senior advisor.
SPIEGEL: The president was not informed?
SPIEGEL: Then the president started reading to the children from a fairytale book.
Card : The president began his talk and the press pool TV cameras were running. I stood outside the door, when the same staffer of the National Security Council came and said, It looks like it was not a small twin-engine prop plane. It was a commercial jetliner. My mind flashed to the fear that must have been experienced by the passengers, but I still did not think of it as a terrorist attack. Then the staffer came back again and said, another plane hit the other tower.
SPIEGEL: What went through your mind?
Card : My first thought was: The president needs to know. My second thought was: How am I going to tell him? While sorting through my thoughts, I opened the door to the classroom, walked up to the president, leaned over and whispered the following two sentences: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."
SPIEGEL: And then?
Card : I stood back from him and stayed there for about 30 seconds, and then I left the room.
SPIEGEL: Bush continued reading, seemingly unmoved.
Card : I thought that the president acted entirely the right way. He did nothing to introduce fear to the very young students and he did nothing to demonstrate fear to the public or give any satisfaction to the terrorists. He remained calm and cool-headed, as one would expect from a president.
SPIEGEL: And you?
Card : I now had my hands full with logistical matters. I had to ensure that the Secret Service agents were ready to have the president depart and that Air Force One would be ready for take-off right away. I opened communication lines to the Situation Room in the White House (an information center for all kinds of crises). It was a challenge to track down all of the people we sought.
Card : Because I am sure that some were running around asking themselves what happened in New York? Is there going to be an attack here?
SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, the president had left the classroom. What were his first actions?
Card : He was in contact with a number of people. First his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, then the vice president and Bob Mueller, who had only been FBI director for about 10 days. Some of the calls were made when we were driving to the tarmac. We had a more difficult time tracking down Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld because the Pentagon had also become the target of an airplane attack and he had left his office. In all his conversations, the president tried to see though the fog of war.
SPIEGEL: Where there also conversations with foreign leaders?
Card : The president called Vladimir Putin and assured him not to worry or over react: Don't hit your button -- we have not hit ours.
SPIEGEL: Air Force One lifted off, flew very high in a serpentine pattern, but did not return to Washington. How was this decision arrived at?
Card : We flew to an Air Force base in Louisiana. They were in the middle of a drill that was a nuclear exercise. So they were on the highest alert as part of their drill. But the president did, in fact, want to fly back to Washington, D.C. He wanted to show the world that we were at work -- as always. I urgently counseled against returning.
Card : I was counseling the president that he could not because the Secret Service was counseling me that security in Washington was uncertain. There was a healthy tension between the president and myself.
SPIEGEL: Which means that you had a little disagreement above the clouds.
Card : No, not a little one, we had a long discussion. So we flew from Louisiana to an Air Force Base in Nebraska, where we went down into the bunker. There we followed the track of aircraft heading to the United States. It was reported that one plane was not responding to radio direction and could be another attack.
SPIEGEL: It soon proved to be erroneous information.
Card : Well, the fog of war.
SPIEGEL: What did the president do in the bunker in Nebraska?
Card : We held a secure video conference with the National Security team in Washington, including the vice president, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of defense and the CIA director. We learned a lot about the events of the day. Then the president determined to fly back to Washington. Upon our landing approach to Washington on the late afternoon of Sept. 11, we saw smoke billowing out of the Pentagon. Except for Air Force One and the accompanying fighter jets, the whole air space over D.C. was completely empty. It was eerie.
SPIEGEL: In the evening, the president made his long-awaited address to the nation from the White House. What did you do?
Card : I went into my office next to the Oval Office and called my wife. I regretted not having done so earlier because she was obviously scared. The next thing I know, a Secret Service Agent comes into my office and says that we've got to get down to the bunker.
SPIEGEL: Another false alarm?
Card : There were reports of a plane heading to the White House: But yes, it was a false alarm. I would rather have a false alarm than no alarm and a crash. We all ran into the bunker. The president and his wife, who had already retired for the night, were chased down as well. He in his going to bed-clothes, she without her contacts on, carrying the cat and the dog.
- Part 1: 'The President Will Never Forget 9/11'
- Part 2: "Bush Was a Good Leader"