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America's New War: Bush Ordered Flights Shot Down if Threatened Capitol

Aired September 17, 2001 - 03:38   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: The death toll at the Pentagon remains at 188, as crews continue to work around the clock there to recover the victims.

Vice President Dick Cheney confirms that after the Pentagon was hit, President Bush gave the OK to shoot down any unauthorized commercial jets if they approached the White House or the Capitol.

CNN's Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre has more on that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pentagon sources tell CNN it was only after the third highjacked plane slammed into the Pentagon that President Bush gave the agonizing order to shoot down United Airlines Flight 93, with 45 people onboard, if it got close enough to threaten Washington.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I gave our military the orders necessary to protect Americans, do whatever it would take to protect Americans. And of course that's difficult.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President made the decision on my recommendation as well -- wholeheartedly concurred in the decision he made -- that if the plane would not divert -- if they wouldn't pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out.

MCINTYRE: The Boeing 757 crashed in Pennsylvania -- apparently brought down when passengers tried to overpower the highjackers -- before the grim orders had to be carried out.

Soon, the whole country would become a no-fly zone, enforced by U.S. military fighters.

In response to the unprecedented highjackings, the FAA ordered all flights to land.

And this replay of FAA radar data shows the amazing clearing of the skies, as 4,500 blue dots disappear. In retrospect, Pentagon officials say there was almost no time to react. It wasn't until United Airlines Flight 172 struck the second tower of the World Trade Center at 9:02 a.m. that it was clear the United States was under terrorist attack. Because of its peacetime posture, the U.S. military was simply not in position to respond.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Anyone who has looked around the skies over the past several years knows that we do not keep aircraft in the air to anticipate some local situation like that.

MCINTYRE: According to a time line provided by Pentagon officials, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, was notified at 9:25 a.m. Now the third plane was highjacked, and heading toward Washington.

Ten minutes later, at 9:35 a.m., three F16s screamed at supersonic speeds to Washington from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, covering the 130 miles in 14 minutes. But the Pentagon was hit just three minutes later, at 9:38 a.m. And by the time this F16 showed up at 9:49 a.m., the fighters could only circle and look for other hostile planes.

But even if the fighter jets had arrived on time, downing a jetliner over the congested urban area that surrounds the Defense Department might well have resulted in higher casualties than the 124 people killed in the fortress-like Pentagon.

Military pilots patrolling the Washington-New York air corridor do not have carte blanche to shoot down any suspect plane. That still has to be approved by the President on a case-by-case basis.

But if an airliner is highjacked, and it's headed for a densely populated area, the White House is ready to sacrifice the civilians onboard to potentially save more lives on the ground.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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