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President, leaders govern in shadow of day's chaos

©Los Angeles Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001


WASHINGTON -- In the minutes and hours after hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the president's whereabouts were kept secret, his words short, and his movements seemingly erratic.

WASHINGTON -- In the minutes and hours after hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the president's whereabouts were kept secret, his words short, and his movements seemingly erratic.

Vice President Dick Cheney was in a command bunker underneath the White House within 15 minutes of the attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in his office when the plane hit on the opposite side of Pentagon, helped load casualties onto stretchers before hunkering down with top aides in the National Command Center, a secure section below his own office that serves as the nerve center of the Defense Department.

With chaos reigning outside, government leaders at the White House and federal agencies were focused on running the country -- and on keeping the leader of the free world hidden from view. Bush spent much of the day in the air, secreted between military installations in Louisiana and Nebraska, his route hidden, before flying back to Washington in the early evening. Former President Clinton said the Bush feint was part of a Secret Service and military plan to keep the president safe.

Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice were in constant contact with Bush from the command bunker, according to an administration official. They were accompanied by Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and one other aide. Aides said Bush convened a midafternoon National Security Council meeting by teleconference from Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska, as his government struggled to respond to an attack of unprecedented proportions.

Congressional leaders were also secreted away. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, third in line for the presidency, was helicoptered out to a secure location 74 miles from Washington, congressional aides said. By early afternoon the rest of the congressional leadership left by helicopter.

Other members of Congress and senators spent the day meeting in the headquarters of the Capitol police, about three blocks from the Capitol building, which had been evacuated.

First lady Laura Bush, who was to have made her debut testifying before the Senate on education, emerged grim-faced from the Capitol with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who announced that the hearing was postponed.

Mrs. Bush and a handful of aides were whisked away by motorcade to a secret location away from the White House, where they gathered around a television and channel-surfed for the latest news, according to one person in the group. She spoke with her husband on a secure military phone line before he took off from Sarasota, and with her twin daughters. The 19-year-olds, Barbara and Jenna, were also moved to secure locations.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was on his way to Milwaukee for a Justice Department event when the planes struck. His plane landed in Milwaukee and immediately headed back to Washington, Justice Department officials said.

Most top FBI and Justice officials huddled at a special information operation center within the FBI building.

When a caravan of three vehicles arrived carrying top officials, each car had a large automatic rifle pointed out the window, shocking onlookers along Pennsylvania Avenue.

While the long afternoon of intense meetings and briefings stretched on in Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was on his way back from Lima, Peru.

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