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?
Card : As we stood next to the principal and waited for the door to the classroom to open, a staffer of the National Security Council came and said, Mr. President, it looks like a small twin-engine plane crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. My first thought was: What a horrible accident.
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.
"Bush Was a Good Leader"
SPIEGEL: What is your judgement of the president under stress?
Card : He was a good leader. He had the right instincts and he also had the right frustrations. Why arent we getting better information? Why is it taking them so long to get the people we need on the phone? Again, trying to see through the fog of war.
SPIEGEL: One consequence of Sept. 11 was the war in Afghanistan and, a year and a half later, the war in Iraq. In your view, how did that come about?
Card : It was not our knee-jerk reaction to go to Baghdad. That developed.
SPIEGEL: But how?
Card : Within 48 hours the president invited everybody in the world to condemn the attacks and stand with us. If you are not with us, your are against us. And Saddam never said, I am standing with you.
SPIEGEL: And that made him a target?
Card : No. But the accumulation of non-compliance with UN Resolutions, weapons inspections, violations of no-fly zones and contributed to Saddam's regime being a target. Right after 9/11, the first person in a formal setting to hint at Iraq being attacked was Paul Wolfowitz. I was quietly asked by the president to make sure that we did not mix issues. So I went to Paul Wolfowitz and told him that this was not the time to talk about Iraq. Right now we are focused on al-Qaida and bin Laden.
SPIEGEL: But later on the president changed his mind.
Card : The president said that the world has changed with Sept. 11 and that we are going to be pre-emptive in our defense rather than reactive. That was a very significant change in posture for the US. We would no longer allow the dangers to mature. We were going to eliminate threats before they became a reality.
SPIEGEL: According to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, you supposedly cautioned against an invasion into Iraq. It could easily turn into a "second Vietnam," he quotes you as saying.
Card : I respect Woodward and I know that his quotes are always well documented. I think that also in this instance he quoted me accurately. But I do believe that he quoted me out of context.
SPIEGEL: What did you mean by a "second Vietnam"?
Card : I felt that our planers should always be able to describe possible exit strategies. My Vietnam comparison was made in that context. I wanted to know: How are we going to get out?
SPIEGEL: Good question.
Card : It is easy to go in. It is always hard to get out. I wanted us to think about that.
SPIEGEL: Were you for or against the invasion?
Card : If Saddam was a threat, I was someone who believed: Mr. President, you do not have much of a choice. Your constitutional oath is that you need to defend us. There is no conditional clause in the constitution. It does not say "if," it does not say "if everybody agrees". It does not say, "If the Germans and the French are on board." It says nothing of the sort. It says that the president has to preserve, protect and defend the constitution. It does not even say "if Congress likes it."
SPIEGEL: So your skepticism did not refer to the beginning, but to the ending of the Iraq war?
Card : I supported the president's decision. I just wanted to make sure that people gave thought to all of the issues. Even in the particular details of the war in Iraq, most of the pundits -- and I am not talking about the pundits in the media ... I am talking about the pundits in the planning of the war -- would participate in healthy debates. How many troops are necessary? Do we need more tanks or more aircraft? Should the Marines go in the frontline or the Special Forces? Do we have enough oil in storage? How many ships have to go through the Suez Canal? All these are important tactical decisions and they impact the strategic decisions.
SPIEGEL: If one is to believe Woodward, there was a downright war among the participants about the correct strategy for the Iraq war.
Card : There was a healthy and lively debate in the National Security Council. Most of the pundits focused on the preparations for war. I did not find as much attention given to civil order questions such as: Who is directing traffic in Baghdad? Who is making sure that the street lights go on or the water is turned on?
SPIEGEL: What answers do you get to your questions?
Card : I was told as part of the intelligence that there were sufficient civil servants in Iraq who loved their job and they would show up even if Saddam Hussein was gone. These people would see to it that traffic flows, lights are on and water comes out of the tap. There also would be a handful of generals or colonels who really are not too comfortable with Saddam. When we marched in, they would wave the white flag and assemble their units behind ours -- not to fight, but to keep order.
SPIEGEL: The reality after the invasion by the Americans looked different.
Card : Unfortunately, the bureaucrats didn't show up for work, because most of them were members of the Baath Party and were now afraid. And for some reason no units waved the white flag. I wish that there had been better planning for winning the peace.
SPIEGEL: What were your reasons for recommending to the president that he should fire Defense Secretary Rumsfeld?
Card: That overstates my counsel. Sometimes I would recommend changes and at others others I would caution against change. One of my tasks was to carefully advise the president about when changes should be made. For these cases I had a list, which I called the "Hit by the bus list." If "advisor X" or "cabinet member Y" get hit by a bus, who are the people the president should consider replacing them with.
SPIEGEL: Did the 9/11 terror attacks change the office of the presidency?
Card : This day brought something back to memory that one can easily forget. Most politicians are extroverts, they want to be with people, they want to be liked by people. It is the calling of a president to have the courage to be lonely because the oath is an exclusive responsibility. I saw that three days after the attacks. It was my most memorable day as the president's chief of staff. We went to New York and met the families of policemen and firefighters who were missing a relative. A mother gave him the badge of her dead son. The president said, America will forget, for that is the nature of our country. But I will never forget him. I am comforted that the president will never forget Sept. 11, 2001.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Card, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Gabor Steingart.