When chief of staff Andrew Card knelt down and told George Bush “America is under attack” 15 years ago Sunday, the words he whispered in the president’s ear in a Florida classroom launched what was supposed to be a planned, orderly response to a national emergency. 

But what followed instead was chaos, a breakdown in communication and protocol that risked international conflict and could have made Sept. 11, 2001, a still bigger tragedy. There were live nukes on the tarmac at U.S. airbases, a failed communications system, and a security protocol for the president and his potential successors — the “continuity of government” plan — that only one top official followed.

Based on a review of newly unclassified documents, memoirs and other published accounts, and interviews with U.S. officials, NBC News has learned that:

  • Three dozen live nuclear weapons were aboard U.S. Air Force bombers at three airbases when al Qaeda struck New York and Washington.
  • Because of inadequate communications equipment and procedures, top U.S. officials couldn’t talk to each other or to anyone else. Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to speak to Bush to know why the U.S. was preparing to go to DEFCON 3 — but the White House couldn’t put him through to Air Force One. Bush had no way to receive phone calls.
  • After Bush left Florida, where he had been reading a book to schoolkids, his plane was low on fuel but for hours had nowhere to land.
  • Most of the top 10 people in the president’s line of succession, including Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, either refused to follow the protocol and go to their designated secure sites, or were out of the country, or were never contacted.
  • Now-disgraced Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, third in line, observed protocol and was taken to an underground bunker in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But that left him out of touch with all other top government leaders.
  • Attorney General John Ashcroft was in a government plane and tried to return to Washington, but was turned away by the FAA.
  • Education Secretary Rod Paige, 16th in line to the White House, was left on the tarmac in Sarasota, Florida. He rented a car and drove back to Washington.

Because of the confused response on 9/11, the U.S. made several changes to its continuity of government protocol and its security preparations in the event of another attack on the capital.

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