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Threat kept Bush on the move

Specific and credible" threats to the White House and Air Force One delayed the president's return yesterday.

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001

WASHINGTON -- President Bush was told by federal investigators that the White House, Air Force One and, presumably, the president himself, were intended targets of terrorists who slammed their hijacked airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on Tuesday.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer made this disclosure Wednesday, in an apparent effort to explain why the president was flown to Air Force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska before Air Force One returned to Washington Tuesday evening. Fleischer said he was basing his statement on "specific and credible information" uncovered by investigators.

Officials had said Tuesday that they were following the Secret Service and military plans for national emergencies when they moved the president from one undisclosed location to another.

Considering how close Bush may have come to being singled out by the attackers, his mood and that of the White House staff was steady and businesslike Wednesday. Among other things, Bush met with congressional leaders, telephoned heads of state around the world and visited the Pentagon to see the wreckage left there in the aftermath of the attack.

"It is not business as usual, but the business of the nation and the government is going on," Fleischer said.

The president also has sought the advice of his father, former President Bush. But White House officials refused to disclose what confidences passed between father and son.

According to Fleischer, the airliner that hit the Pentagon was intended for the White House. He said it flew over the president's residence before slamming into the Defense Department's massive headquarters on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

It was not clear how Air Force One, the president's specially equipped Boeing 747, could have come under attack by any of the four hijacked planes. At the time the hijacked airliners crashed in New York and Washington, Air Force One was parked at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

Just as the president departed Florida Tuesday morning, according to Fleischer, the government had reports that there still were planes in the air that had not been identified. He said that is why Bush decided not to return directly to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, where the plane is kept when the president is not traveling.

Instead, Bush was flown first to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and then to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of the U.S. Strategic Command and an underground bunker with specialized equipment. He did not return to the White House until about 7 p.m.

"On the flight to Nebraska from Louisiana, the president indicated he wanted to get back to Washington as soon as possible," Fleischer said. "He was advised at that point, the recommendation to him was it would not be prudent to return to Washington at the time, given the information that we had here in Washington."

Fleischer refused to say on what information the recommendation was based. By that time, according to government officials, there were no more suspicious planes in the air over the United States and the White House had been evacuated. Vice President Dick Cheney remained inside in "secure locations," including the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing, where he and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were in contact with the president via video teleconference.

Early Wednesday, Fleischer said, Bush had two telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told him that the Russians were going to have a national moment of silence dedicated to the victims of the attacks. The president also talked with the leaders of Britain, France, Canada, Germany and China.

Fleischer said Bush made these calls to build an international coalition that will take a stand against the sponsors of these terrorists attacks. But he declined to specify what kind of retaliation the president has in mind.

The president's meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday morning was described as a patriotic lovefest. Bush agreed with Congress to a $20-billion emergency funding authorization for aid and security, according to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

"It was a striking meeting, in that the leaders of our nation in Congress, regardless of party, and in the White House are resolute and are shoulder to shoulder," Fleischer said.

Bush has expressed a strong desire to travel to New York City to view the destruction and meet with survivors and rescue workers, Fleischer said. But he will not travel immediately, apparently because he fears his visit would only delay the work of the rescue teams.

Instead, Bush make a quick trip late Wednesday afternoon to the Pentagon, where firefighters who still were trying to quell the blaze unfurled a giant American flag in the president's honor. Wind blew the acrid stench of the burning building into Bush's face as he toured the site, and dump trucks continued to haul away debris.

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