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Cheney recalls taking charge from bunker

Cheney in the White House underground bunker  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As horrified Americans watched the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, unfold on their television sets, Vice President Dick Cheney directed the U.S. government's response from an emergency bunker.

The actions included moving key members of Congress to a secure location and having the Secret Service bring his wife, Lynn, to the bunker.

Cheney was in his West Wing office when he received word that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. He watched TV and hoped that his instincts were wrong.

"It was a clear day, there were no weather problems, and then we saw the second airplane hit in real time," Cheney told CNN's John King in an interview in the vice president's office.

"At that moment, you knew this was a deliberate act. This was a terrorist act."

He called President Bush in Florida and spoke with top aides. Then his door burst open.

"My [Secret Service] agent all of a sudden materialized right beside me and said, 'Sir, we have to leave now.' He grabbed me and propelled me out of my office, down the hall, and into the underground shelter in the White House," Cheney said.

In White House terminology, it is the PEOC, short for the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.

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"I didn't know that it existed until I was actually down there, and I'm sure I could find my way back there to this day," said Mary Matalin, a counselor to the vice president.

A relic of the Cold War, the deep underground bunker became the vice president's base of operations on the first day of a new war.

After the planes struck the twin towers, a third took a chunk out of the Pentagon. Cheney then heard a report that a plane over Pennsylvania was heading for Washington. A military assistant asked Cheney twice for authority to shoot it down.

"The vice president said yes again," remembered Josh Bolton, deputy White House chief of staff. "And the aide then asked a third time. He said, 'Just confirming, sir, authority to engage?' And the vice president -- his voice got a little annoyed then -- said, 'I said yes.'"

It was a rare flash of anger from a man who knew he was setting the tone at a White House in crisis.

"I think there was an undertone of anger there. But it's more a matter of determination. You don't want to let your anger overwhelm your judgment in a moment like this," Cheney said.

Word came that Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. Aides frantically called the White House to find out whether a military jet had shot it down.

"The vice president was a little bit ahead of us," said Eric Edelman, Cheney's national security advisor. "He said sort of softly and to nobody in particular, 'I think an act of heroism just took place on that plane.'"

Cheney and staffers watched in horror as the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Matalin remembered the moment.

"Oddly everything just stopped. Not for long, but it did stop totally at that moment," she said. "[Cheney] emoted in a way that he emotes, which was to stop."

After the brief lull, Cheney and the White House staffers got back to business, which included checking the tail numbers of the last airplanes unaccounted for when national air traffic was ordered to halt.

"It was about 12:15 or 12:20 [p.m. ET] when I said to the vice president, 'Mr. Vice President, all the planes are down, and he said, 'Great, thank you very much,'" Edelman said.

Some aides suggested that Cheney was a possible target and should not stay at the White House. He said no.

"I had communications with the president, communications with the Pentagon, Secret Service and so forth. And we could continue to operate there, and if I left, I'd lose all that," Cheney said.

Lynn Cheney was a constant presence. She leaned in at one point to tell the vice president that their daughters were fine.

"It's something you think about, but again, it's not so much a personal consideration at that point. It may have been for people who didn't have anything to do," Cheney said.

It was the bunker's first test in an actual emergency, a day of crisis with some hitches.

Cheney wanted to track TV reports of the devastation and listen in on communications with the Pentagon.

"You can have sound on one or the other and he found that technically imperfect," Matalin recalled.

Cheney returns to the White House by helicopter from a secure undisclosed location on September 12, 2001.  

The vice president had a few words with the president just before the latter's address to the nation. CIA Director George Tenet watched from the bunker, waiting for Bush to convene a late-night meeting of the National Security Council.

"I guess the thing I was struck by was the extent to which he had begun to grapple with these problems and to make decisions, that we were in a war on terror," Cheney said.

Cheney spoke once more to the president, and then took a nighttime ride past the Pentagon, heavily damaged in the attacks.

"I recall watching the vice president, who was staring out the window at the Pentagon, and wondering what he may be thinking about, the responsibilities he would have in the future. A pretty sobering moment," said Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.

It is a memory that Cheney said has shaped every day since then.

"As we lifted off and headed up the Potomac [River], you could look out and see the Pentagon, see that black hole where it'd been hit. A lot of lights on the building, smoke rising from the Pentagon," he said.

"And you know, it really helped to bring home the impact of hat had happened, that we had in fact been attacked."




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