In this special episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Stephen Hadley, who served as deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush on the day of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Hadley and Morell walk through the reactions and responses of White House officials who scrambled to understand the scope and origin of the attacks in real time. They also discuss President Bush’s early instructions to government agencies and his messages to the shocked and grieving nation.
Ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Morell will curate a series of conversations with former senior American officials who had notable proximity to the tragic events of the day and its immediate aftermath. Morell, who served as President George W. Bush’s daily intelligence briefer and was traveling with the president on the day the planes hit the towers, will also share personal reflections and new details about the CIA’s race to provide answers and protect the country from further terror attacks. The series will launch the week of August 9 and run for five weeks, with its first episode premiering on August 11, 2021 and its final episode running on September 8, 2021.
- The morning of the attacks: “[I]t was a day like any other day. We had an early morning meeting chaired by Dr. Rice of the National Security Council staff in the Situation Room in the White House. And during that meeting, we got word that a plane had had hit one of the one of the Twin Towers. We all thought it was probably a civilian airliner. Regrettably, a pilot sort of got disoriented. Then we heard it was an airliner and that got our attention. And then, of course, the time the second airliner hits the other tower, we clearly knew it’s something very different indeed.”
- Immediate response to the attacks: “We did get word that there might be a plane headed towards the White House. And the question was, was the White House then being evacuated? And the question was whether the group of us working in the Situation Room should leave as well. And I thought we that the president needed us to stay at our post to help him manage this crisis. And I asked the group whether they were willing to stay, notwithstanding this news of a potential threat. And everybody agreed we would stay, and so stay we did.”
- Keeping the president safe: “I think it was a day or two after, there was a number of alerts where we thought there might be some threat to the White House and people wanted to whisk the president down into the PEOC to protect him. And at one point, they wanted him to leave the White House again and to go up to Camp David or someplace more secure. And the president said, ‘I ain’t going anywhere. And you tell Usama bin Laden that if he wants to find me, he’ll find me right here in the Oval Office at the White House.'”
Intelligence Matters transcript: Stephen Hadley
Producer: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: Steve, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s always great to talk with you.
STEPHEN HADLEY: Nice to be back, Michael. Nice to be with you.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Steve, as you know, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 just around the corner, we’re going to do a series of episodes with a variety of people about that day itself. Our other guests are going to include Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff on 9/11, Sandy Winnefeld, who was the commander of the USS Enterprise on station in the Indian Ocean that day, and a number of officers from the intelligence community.
So we’re really honored to have you be part of this series and in fact, for you to be the first episode. So thank you very much for agreeing to have this conversation with us.
So, Steve, on 9/11, you were serving as President Bush’s deputy national security adviser and to kind of set the stage here, my listeners might not know this, but a deputy national security adviser is a really important job, has an enormous amount of influence in an administration. And I was wondering if you could just explain at a high level what the deputy national security adviser does and what a typical day for you prior to 9/11 looked like.
STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, the days are very long in this job. I used to try to get the office around 5:30 in the morning and around 8:30 at night, you might think about getting ready to go home. So the days are long. The whole National Security Council staff really does two things. One, you advise and staff the present president, get the president ready for meetings, trips, speeches, whatever, and background briefings on the issues that the president needs to decide.
But the other thing you do, you run what’s called the interagency process. I think most people, most of your listeners know about the National Security Council. It’s the president, the vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense by statute, and then others are invited. And this is when the president sits down and gets advice from his principal national security advisers in order to prepare for those meetings.
Many of the times – and you’ve attended many of these, Michael – there’s what’s called a Principals Committee meeting, which these same cabinet-level national security officials meet, but without the president present to sort of exchange views and set up the conversation with the president, they often meet based on a paper that is prepared then by what’s called the Deputies Committee. And the deputy national security adviser chairs the Deputies Committee.
It is made up of the deputy secretaries or deputy agency heads from around the government. And that’s really the kind of workhorse level their job is to take the input that comes from interagency committees below them and put it into a form of a memo or briefing that would allow the principals, the National Security Council principals, to come to grips with the issue and ultimately present it to the president. So if you’re a deputy national security adviser, you chair a lot of meetings on a lot of different issues to get them ready for review and decision up the chain.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, and that’s where a lot of the, as you said, Steve, that’s where really a lot of the hard work gets done.
STEPHEN HADLEY: That’s exactly right, and it’s, if you like policy and if you like substance, it’s the best job in government, but stamina is required.
MICHAEL MORELL: Absolutely it is. And for those members of that Deputies Committee too, I can speak from experience. So, Steve, let’s go to September 10th, 2001, the day before 9/11. You or your boss, Condi Rice, the national security adviser at the time, were not on Air Force One as it went wheels up for what was supposed to be less than a 24-hour trip to Florida. Was that unusual that one of you were not with the president or was that typical on such short trips?
STEPHEN HADLEY: The goal was generally to have either the national security adviser or the deputy with the president. If it’s a day trip or a quick overnight, many times if we had other things to do, we would not travel with the president and someone from the Situation Room, usually the executive secretary of the NSC staff or one of the senior officers in The Situation Room, pretty much with an intelligence background, would go with the president mainly if something should happen and there needed to be information that could get directly to the president and quickly, that would be what that person would be doing. So if it ever were a same day trip out and back, probably Condi Rice would not have gone on an overnight trip. One of us might on an extended trip. One of us certainly would have.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Steve, on September 11th, do you have any recollection of what time you got to the White House that morning?
STEPHEN HADLEY: I really don’t and, you know, one of the things that’s interesting about that day is, I’m a lawyer by training and if you’re a lawyer by training, you take notes and you take notes on everything. And I had notebooks that I took around with me during the course of the day and made notes on meetings and things that needed to be followed up and the like.
In the wake of 9/11, we were asked to pull together any notes we had from that day as part of support of the 9/11 Commission. And interestingly enough, I did not have a single note that day. It’s in some sense a measure of how extraordinary that day was that it was all operational.
So I assume it was a day like any other day. We had an early morning meeting chaired by Dr. Rice of the National Security Council staff in the Situation Room in the White House. And during that meeting, we got word that a plane had had hit one of the one of the Twin Towers. We all thought it was probably a civilian airliner. Regrettably, a pilot sort of got disoriented. Then we heard it was an airliner and that got our attention. And then, of course, the time the second airliner hits the other tower, we clearly knew it’s something very different indeed.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you have a PDB briefing that morning?
STEPHEN HADLEY: We would probably not have because the president was not in the White House, so he would have gotten his PDB briefing down in Florida. Michael, you were, I think, with him, I think you probably briefed him
MICHAEL MORELL: I did. Yes.
STEPHEN HADLEY: Condi and I would have gotten the PDB book that morning and probably would have spent some time with our own individual briefers. But I think you would have briefed the president in Florida that morning.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Steve, when did you hear about the second plane?
STEPHEN HADLEY: It was on the margins of the staff meeting we were having at that time, I can’t tell you exactly the time, but at that point we were getting video or television feed into the Situation Room. So we would have seen it on the screen.
MICHAEL MORELL: And that thought that you had right after the first plane hit, that this was some sort of accident; your thought after the second plane hit?
STEPHEN HADLEY: No accident. This was something entirely different. And I think Andy Card said it right when he told the president, ‘We are under attack.’ And that’s clearly what it came out to be. A lot of confusion early on: Who’s doing this? Who’s behind it? Of course, all questions that needed to be answered and the intelligence community focused on those answers. But all we knew was two airliners driven into the two towers, the Twin Towers, and that’s no accident.
MICHAEL MORELL: Did you go to the secure area of the White House with the vice president and with Condi?
STEPHEN HADLEY: Not initially. The vice president, Condi and key members of the vice president’s staff, Scooter Libby, David Addington, went down to what’s called the PEOC which is a very secure room area under the White House, which is secure and and and pretty safe from attack. They went down. I stayed in the Situation Room to help orchestrate the effort that is going on. There is lots going on there.
First of all, there is there is the issue of what has just happened, who is behind it, all the things that the intelligence community got after.
The second thing is, is this the first of a series of attacks? Because that’s the thing you worry about, that it isn’t a stand alone, but it’s the first of a series of attacks that are coming. Then you need to figure out what you need to do to detect, deter, prevent those attacks. That’s the second thing that is going on.
And then the third thing is, of course, getting prepared for the consequences of those attacks. We had thousands of airplanes in the air, though some of them might have been hijacked as well as the the three that were involved in 9/11. We needed to find out which of – whether all those aircraft were safe and get them down on the ground. So we didn’t have other aircrafts going after other targets. So there’s a lot going on in that period of time.
And I was trying to supervise that in the Situation Room. We did get word that there might be a plane headed towards the White House. And the question was, was the White House then being evacuated? And the question was whether the group of us working in the Situation Room should leave as well. And I thought we that the president needed us to stay at our post to help him manage this crisis. And I asked the group whether they were willing to stay, notwithstanding this news of a potential threat. And everybody agreed we would stay, and so stay we did.
About 20 minutes into that, I got a call from Condi, she said, ‘You need to come down here in the PEOC and help me down here.’ And I said, ‘Well, I just got things set up here in The Situation Room. There’s a little bit of risk and we’ve all agreed we’re going to stand together. I’d rather not abandon them and go to a safe location. And she said, ‘Well, I understand that, but I need you down here.’ And so I left.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, so by that point, there had been three attacks, so by that point you knew the Pentagon had been hit as well, and you knew at this point that Flight 93 or you didn’t – perhaps didn’t know the flight number. There was a another hijacked plane heading towards Washington, is that right?
STEPHEN HADLEY: That’s correct.
MICHAEL MORELL: And so you go down to the PEOC and without saying anything classified, just wonder if you can explain to folks what that looks like down there. I know in the movies, right. It’s large. It’s dark. There’s a map of the world up there with with all sorts of information on it. And just wondering if you can describe what it’s like down there.
STEPHEN HADLEY: There’s a conference room table in front of a screen that has a news feed or any other information that needs to be called up on the screen. It’s not that big. There’s some telephones. The vice president sat at the center of that table, his staff around him, Condi around him, others around him to provide him support because he was taking direction from the president.
But then in the name of the president having to manage that crisis, right behind that room is another room, which is basically a communications center. And that was very important because, of course, keeping in touch with the intelligence community, with the Pentagon, with the military forces was terribly important.
And one of the things we did is we created an open line between a telephone, one phone with George Tenet and another open line to the National Military Command Center. And my job was to staff those two lines, because if there were orders that needed to be given, we didn’t want to have the delay of trying to get people on the phone.
And similarly, if there was intelligence that needed to be passed to the vice president, we didn’t want to have the delay. So there were two things going on. There was the vice president in communication with the president managing the crisis. And Norm Mineta, who was Secretary for Transportation, came into the PEOC and from a telephone sitting in a little side chair, basically coordinated the the bringing to the ground safely, the thousands of aircraft that were in the air, all of them needed to come down and land. He did that.
So, there was a lot in the front room going on operationally and in the back room. There was a lot of communication going on, making sure that we had open channels to the intelligence community, to the Pentagon, to the military forces so that everyone was at the ready.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Steve, the the order to shoot down any airliner that was not responding to instructions, that’s a obviously a very difficult order to give. If you could take us through, to the extent you can, the decision-making process on that extraordinarily difficult question.
STEPHEN HADLEY: If you read the president’s memoir, ‘Decision Points,’ he talks about how he gave instructions to the vice president that in those circumstances where we had an airliner that appeared to have been hijacked, and was heading towards a target, the president gave authority to shoot down that aircraft.
My recollection is we I conveyed that order from the president through the vice president to the Pentagon. One of the things that was a little tricky was that Donald Rumsfeld was a little bit hard to find because he’d actually gone in to try to help the first responders deal with the the aftermath of the strike on the Pentagon. So we had a little bit of difficulty finding Don Rumsfeld and getting him back in the chain of command.
But those orders were given. There was one airline that we thought represented that kind of threat and that a shoot down was authorized. Blessedly, it turned out that there was a phantom aircraft and it was not a real threat. And when we learned that, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
The president in his ‘Decision Points’ book points out that when he heard that the airliner had gone down in the fields of Pennsylvania, his initial worry was that, in fact, it had been brought down by our fighter aircraft and that it would have been brought down on his orders. And obviously, he was relieved, saddened at the loss of life, saddened that the tragedy that that had represented, but at the same time relieved that it was not something that had to happen on his order.
MICHAEL MORELL: Steve, you talked about the plane that went down in the fields of Pennsylvania just two weeks ago. I happened to visit the memorial there for the first time, actually; I had never been there before. And it is a remarkable place. And you come out a little bit different person than you went in, but it was a remarkable thing, what those passengers did to save the lives of other people.
STEPHEN HADLEY: They were real heroes, normal Americans showing that uncommon courage that Americans have, doing what needed to be done at a time of crisis, and they are heroes. They deserve our respect and our remembrance. And there are a lot of people alive today because of their heroism.
MICHAEL MORELL: Steve, do you remember the secure video teleconference with the president, the president was in Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, in the bunker there. Just wondering if you were part of that sivits.
STEPHEN HADLEY: I was part of that. I don’t remember so much the details, the drama that was going on, of course, at that time the president wanted to come back to Washington and take charge of this crisis and be visible to the American people managing this crisis.
He thought that was what the American people expected and it’s what they needed and it’s what he needed to do. And Andy Card and the head of his Secret Service detail and others were telling him, ‘No, Mr. President, we can’t guarantee your security in Washington. The situation is still too uncertain. You need to stay out.’
So initially, he went from Florida to Louisiana, an air base in Louisiana, made a presentation to the country from there, then went off an Air Force base. There was another, I think, Telecast at that point. And the question was, ‘What do we do then?’ And the president basically announced, ‘I’m coming to Washington.’ And various members said, ‘Well, Mr. President, we don’t think that’s a good idea.’ And president said, ‘Well, I think it’s a good idea and it’s what we’re going to do.’ And it was wheels up for Washington.
And I think one of the reasons was the president did not think that either of those telecasts that he did in initially in Florida after the event and then one either in Louisiana or Nebraska, I don’t know, which did not adequately convey what needed to be conveyed to the American people. And he really wanted to get back and do that from the Oval Office. And, of course, that’s what he did. It was really the first thing he did when he landed at Andrews Air Force Base and then heloed back to the White House.
MICHAEL MORELL: The president invited me into the sivits, into the command center where he was doing the sivits from. And there’s two things that I remember. One is the conversation about whether he should come back or not. And I remember exactly as you do how firm he was. And it was very it was very much, you know, a George Bush moment where he took command of the room.
And I remember him, you know, against all advice, saying, ‘I’m coming home.’ And I remember sitting there thinking, ‘That’s exactly the right thing to do.’
The other thing the other thing I remember, Steve, was George Tenet saying that they had run the flight manifests against their databases and had come up with, I believe it was two or three, two or three hits of known al Qaeda operatives. And I’m wondering if the sivits was the first time you had heard that or had George told you that earlier?
STEPHEN HADLEY: I believe that was the first time I had heard that, Michael, I think. I don’t know whether that was in that setting, but I know at one point the president, and he has it in his book, ‘Decision Points,’ turn to the CIA director, George Tenet, and he said, ‘Who did this?’
And Tenet said two words: al-Qaida. So at that point, it became clear as to who was responsible for this act and of course, a lot of that followed that judgment.
MICHAEL MORELL: What was your first instinct when you knew this was not an accident and you knew this was an attack? Was your first instinct al-Qaida?
STEPHEN HADLEY: You know, there was so much going on operationally to manage the crisis, to make sure that we were able to detect, prevent and defend against any follow-on attacks that might have occurred. You know, you weren’t really thinking much.
I think the president says in his ‘Decision Points’ book, you know, we were going to have to deal with those who were responsible for this, but that was for another day, right? That 9/11 was about managing the crisis, helping the situations in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, getting the aircraft down, putting ourselves in a possible posture where we could defend against and prevent any further attacks, that that was really what it was about, all of that.
And then secondly, of course, managing the president and managing what the president needed to be saying to the American people in this hour of crisis.
MICHAEL MORELL: And Steve, do you remember what the mood was like down in the PEOC during the day, what the feeling was in the room. Can you describe that?
STEPHEN HADLEY: It was somber, but very businesslike. You know, we all had jobs to be done. A president to be supported, a vice president should be supported. So it was very businesslike, grim, but businesslike.
There was one problem that the PEOC is a sort of sealed area which has its own oxygen supply and its own support systems. But one of the things we realized was that actually there was a limit on the occupancy of the PEOC. And we well exceeded that limit by the number of people who were in. So we were over there, we were overtaxing the oxygen supply and CO2 was building up in the room.
It’s a little question about what are we going to do about that problem? If you saw the movie Apollo 13, of the space capsule, but that problem got resolved. And so it wasn’t a problem. But it was, you know, this is managing a crisis.
And one of the reasons I think the president picked the team he picked is that these were people who had been through crisis before. And so he, you know, expected them to be professional, serious and effective at what they were doing. And that’s what we all tried to be.
MICHAEL MORELL: You know, people ask me about the mood on Air Force One. And, you know, I answer it exactly the same way that you just answered my question. And I think people are surprised that there wasn’t more emotion, right. But there wasn’t time to be emotional.
STEPHEN HADLEY: Right. But – people need to understand. There was an enormous amount of resolution. And I remember, I think it was a day or two after, there was a number of alerts where we thought there might be some threat to the White House and people wanted to whisk the president down into the PEOC to protect him. And at one point, they wanted him to leave the White House again and to go up to Camp David or someplace more secure.
And the president said, ‘I ain’t going anywhere. And you tell Usama bin Laden that if he wants to find me, he’ll find me right here in the Oval Office at the White House.’ So one of the things I think there was an enormous determination and resolution that we were going to manage this crisis. We were going to hold those responsible for it accountable, and that we were going to then get the country back on its feet so that this would be a blow, but not a defeat for America.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Steve, the president returns to the White House and there’s two things that are happening that are somewhat visible to the public. One is, he has a meeting with his national security team and then he speaks to the nation. Just wonder if you could talk a little bit about what happened from your perspective when he returned to the White House that evening.
STEPHEN HADLEY: One of the things that I think – and the vice president had done a wonderful job managing this crisis – but I think when the president walked into the PEOC and sat down on the other side of the table and convened the meeting, you know, there’s a little bit of, ‘Yeah, this is how it should be.’ Not a sigh of relief, but a sense that, ‘OK, we’re now – everybody is back. Everybody’s in position. This is how it should be. And let’s let’s see where we go from here.’
And the president then began asking a series of questions about where we were and in both responding to the crisis and making sure that there weren’t more attacks coming and then how we were beginning the process of bringing the country back. So it was a very businesslike, sober session. And then, of course, the president made his speech to the to the American people from the Oval Office, which was, I think, a very important moment for rallying the country, reassuring the country that the government was in place and was in charge and was managing this crisis and that we were going to get through it, that this was a blow, but it was something that we would get beyond.
And the tone that the president said – and he said it more explicitly a day or two later, he said at one point, you know, ‘We’ve got to recover from this crisis and then America needs to get back to work and get back to normal. But that we here in this room will not get back to normal. Our job now is to be ever vigilant and to defend this country against this kind of attack so that the American people don’t need to be ever vigilant and can get back to get back to normal.’ That was an important goal.
MICHEAL MORELL: You know, I remember watching it on TV. I mean, I, you know, got off of Air Force One and got into a car and made my way home and I remember watching on TV with my wife and I thought he accomplished an amazing number of things, right. He was the commander in chief and he showed great strength vis a vis our adversaries.
He, as you said, reassured the country about what the future was going to look like. And he was also the comforter in chief because of, just the horror of what just happened. And he did all that. And I’ve often wondered – and I thought about asking Ari Fleischer this question – Did folks actually think about accomplishing all those things or, you know, did that just happen? Did that just flow from who George Bush was?
STEPHEN HADLEY: It flowed from who he was, but it was also no accident. I mean, the president, when he would ask his speechwriters to do a speech, he would usually up front, in very simple terms, say what he wanted the speech to do. And again, in the ‘Decision Points’ book, which I read last night, he talks with respect to the speech he gave at National Cathedral three days later, four days later, he was very clear with Mike Gerson in the speech writing team what he wanted the speech to accomplish. And I think that’s exactly that’s how we operated.
And that’s what he would have done with that speech that night. He would have told the speech writing team, these are the things I want this speech to do. They would have given him a draft and he would have gone over the draft himself several times to make sure that, as he used to say, the folks in West Texas will know that it sounds like me and it’s me who’s giving this speech. It needed to be the themes he wanted to strike, but it needed to be in his voice. And one of the things Mike Gerson and the speech writing team did very well, I think was exactly that. Follow his guidance on the purpose and the objectives to achieve by the speech and then make it sound like George W. Bush.
MICHAEL MORELL: Steve, just a couple of kind of big picture questions. People often ask me, did I on 9/11 really understand the significance of the day and how it was going to change the government and what the government did? And to some extent, the country?
And, you know, I always say, ‘Gosh, I was I was too consumed with doing my job,’ and sounds like you would say the same. But I’m wondering when it kind of hits you about the significance of this event and to what extent it would shape the next, you know, 10, 15 years of America. And to some extent today as well.
STEPHEN HADLEY: You know, I think I had the same reaction as you: you were all too busy doing our jobs to think about that, but the person who was thinking about that was actually George W. Bush. And I think I first began to appreciate the significance listening to him talk about the significance. And he caught it very quickly. As you know, he said that we have – now he thought he was going to be a peacetime president with a domestic agenda. He now knew that he was going to be a wartime president and that dealing with the problem of terrorism was going to be in the national security threat it represented, was going to be now central to his presidency.
He also saw very quickly that it was going to change the missions. I can remember very early on he was talking to the FBI director, Mueller, and he said to him, ‘Your mission is now changed. Your job is, in addition to running down people after they’ve committed crimes and prosecuting and putting them to jail – your primary mission now is not to go after the terrorists after the fact. Your primary mission is to prevent the terrorist attacks before the fact, before they’ve happened. It is now a preventive mission in addition to the traditional prosecutorial mission that the FBI had under Robert Mueller.’
So I think the president actually very quickly saw the significance of the moment. A third example is when, early on after 9/11, he signed a series of executive orders going after terrorist financing. He said, you know, ‘This is a different kind of war. It’s going to have phases, it’ll have active phases. It’ll have quiet phases and we will use different kinds of instruments.’
He really, I think, saw early on that this was going to define his presidency, that it was a different kind of war. It was a war. This was an attack on our country. It was a war. But it was a different kind of war, going to have to be fought in different kind of ways and was going to take a long time and wasn’t going to end up with a surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But it was going to end in a very different way and was going to be a long struggle.
So I think he saw that in some sense quicker than any of us and and showed in pretty stark terms what we were up against and what the challenge was we were going to have to face.
MICHAEL MORELL: Steve, do you remember what time you got home that evening?
STEPHEN HADLEY: I don’t even remember if I got home that evening. I do remember finally getting in touch with the family, making sure they were they were OK. I will, just on a personal note, I found out after the fact that my wife went to – when she heard that there was potentially a threat of an airplane heading to Washington, either to the Capitol or the White House, she got in the car and went and picked up our two daughters from their respective schools, because if she didn’t want them hearing, you know, over the school P.A. system that a plane had, you know, flown into the White House and maybe killed their father.
This was a remarkable moment for thousands and thousands of Americans all over this country and one that I think none of us are ever going to forget.
MICHAEL MORELL: Steve, thank you very much for joining us and for sharing your thoughts about that terrible day. Thank you very much.
STEPHEN HADLEY: Delighted to be here.