Archive for Sunday, October 7, 2001

President Bush: A prayer for wisdom, an order to attack

October 7, 2001


— Bundled against Sunday's unseasonable cold, President Bush bowed his head in prayer for wisdom, for the salvation of firefighters killed in the crumble of the World Trade Center. He had already, in secret the night before, ordered retaliation for their deaths.

"We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it," Bush told the nation.

At midmorning Sunday, the president had returned to the White House from an outdoor service at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in rural Maryland. He strode into the Oval Office knowing that, within two hours, Tomahawk cruise missiles would fire upon terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

"I gave them fair warning," he told one adviser. He reached for the phone to alert Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Military action under Operation Enduring Freedom was "imminent," Bush told French President Jacques Chirac.

At 12:30 p.m. EDT, 26 days of horror, grief, investigation and ultimatums culminated in a shower of missiles over Kabul, the Afghan capital and headquarters of its ruling Taliban militia. The Taliban had refused Bush's demands to surrender prime terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer described the president's mood as resolute. There were signs of anxiousness, as well.

Minutes before he addressed the nation from the Treaty Room, Bush could be heard over an open audio feed impatiently ordering his personal aide to empty the room.

"Clear 'em out, Logan," Bush barked.

To the country, Bush announced, "The battle is now joined on many fronts." His speech, in the works for at least 36 hours, had gone through a half-dozen drafts. He acknowledged that many Americans fear the terrorists will strike again.

Underscoring that possibility, Vice President Dick Cheney was removed from his official residence to a secret, safer place. The streets in front of the State Department was closed.

Almost incongruously, Rollerbladers played hockey on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

Kap Kim, selling American flags on a folding table nearby, said he wanted Bush to be aggressive and kill the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks that killed thousands of Americans at New York's twin towers and at the Pentagon.

Bush, his piece said to the public, hunkered down inside to monitor military operations. He paused for lunch with senior advisers in the Roosevelt Room. It was then that bin Laden's videotaped statement first aired, thanking God that America was "full of fear."

Bush, Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell divided up a call list, together reaching more than a dozen foreign leaders from Canada to Israel to Egypt to Pakistan.

Bush gave House and Senate leaders the heads-up on Saturday night, telephoning senior Democrats and Republicans just after he gave the Pentagon his go-ahead order to strike as soon as strategic and intelligence officials knew the time was right. A small circle of advisers knew the operation would begin in the next day or two.

It was 12:34 p.m. EDT Sunday when word came that explosions over Kabul had knocked out the city's electricity.

"We are beginning another front in our war against terrorism," Fleischer announced eight minutes later from the West Wing press briefing room.

Publicly, Bush betrayed no hint of what was in store when he and first lady Laura Bush left Camp David in the morning, skipping Sunday services at the chapel there and heading straight for the nearby firefighters memorial.

In his heavy overcoat, Bush gripped his wife's hand, lowered his head, squeezed his eyes shut. Rev. Bevon Smith gave the invocation:

"We pray for our president, George W. Bush. Grant him wise judgment, determined leadership and firm resolve as he guides our great country through these difficult days."

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