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The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York. AP/Press Association Images
The Turn to War

DECLASSIFIED: CIA intelligence official describes spending 9/11 with the US President

A fascinating account of 9/11 with the US President.

“HE PUT DOWN the newspaper and said, “Anything of interest this morning?”

Those were the actions of US President George W Bush on the morning of 11 September 2001, before any news of disturbances on domestic flights emerged.

Fascinating details about the morning – and the subsequent events – have been released through a declassified article that appeared in the CIA’s in-house intelligence journal.

Michael Morell was eight months in his assignment with the President on 11 September 2001. As part of his role, the CIA analyst was tasked with briefing the president on the agency’s information and analysis every day.

“Twenty-one years into my career as an analyst, I was doing a job that few would ever have,” he wrote. “And I was having the time of my life.”

Here’s what he says about that fateful morning, before the world changed.

“A little after 8am, Chief of Staff Card opened the door, said ‘good morning’, and motioned us in. We found the president seated at a table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He seemed surrounded by plates of fruit and pastries.

“When he saw us, he asked if we had enjoyed our night on the beach. I reminded him that my schedule did not allow for late evenings out, adding that I heard some waves but had not actually seen any. He said, ‘Michael, you need to get a new job.’

He put down the newspaper and said, ‘Anything of interest this morning?’

“On arguably the most important day in President Bush’s tenure, his intelligence briefing was uneventful.”

The briefing ended at 8.25am – four minutes after the transponder on American Flight 11 stopped transmitting its identification friend.

As planned, the president’s motorcade then made its way to Booker Elementary school in a working-class neighbourhood in Sarasota. During the drive, the first plane slammed into the north side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

ATTACKS COLLAPSE AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The journal entry continues:

“Within minutes of Flight 11′s impact, just as we were pulling up to the school, Fleischer’s cell phone rang. He listened for a few seconds and flipped his phone off. He turned to me and asked, ‘Michael, do you know anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?’

I said ‘no’ but I told him I would make some calls. As the motorcade came to a stop, I said, ‘Ari, I sure hope this is an accident and not terrorism.’

Morell’s assumption at that point was that the incident was an accident – a small plane losing its way in a storm or fog, with a death toll of two or three people.

One call later, his “mental image of what happened started to unravel” because the CIA Operations centre had told him the aircraft in question was a large commercial jet.

…a few minutes later…a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. There was now no question: this was not an accident but a deliberate act of terrorism.

In the classroom next door, the White House chief made his way to the president who was speaking with a number of second graders. That picture, of him saying “America is under attack”, has been widely seen over the past 13 years.

SEPT. 11 ANNIVERSARY Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers into the ear of the President to give him word of the plane crashes into the World Trade Center AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Morell details how he soon became worried about the President’s safety – afterall, the trip to the Sarasota school had been publicly documented for days.

Soon, the entourage had to make their way to Air Force One, and even the most secure aircraft in the world had managed to ramp up its protection with more agents with rifles and bomb-sniffing dogs.

“The plane was eerily quiet in those first few moments after the take-off,” wrote Morell. “Most of the people on board were still in shock and were anxious about what still might happen. The president was in his office with a small number of close aides. From there, he ordered the nation’s military to a high state of alert.”

Surprisingly, there was a lot of ‘sitting around’ for Morell that day. Later, as he talked to a congressman on the president’s plane, he mused:

I told him I would bet every dollar I had that Usama Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida organisation was responsible.

That quote ended up in newspapers the next day, but before that the president asked him for more of his personal thoughts on the matter.

“I said the culprit was almost certainly a nonstate actor, adding that I had no doubt that the trail would lead to the doorstep of Bin Laden and al-Qa-ida.”

Before long, there would be evidence linking three of the hijackers to the terrorist group, but Morell was not the first to tell the Commander in Chief the definitive update, something he regrets.

“He didn’t say a word, but his look told me he had been let down,” he wrote as he recalled the moment.

During the next briefing while in the Offutt bunker, Building 7 of the World Trade Center collapsed – the “last destruction resulting from the attacks nine hours earlier”.

Bush decided – against Secret Service advice – to return to Washington DC.

TERROR ATTACKS President Bush watches television as he talks on the phone with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki aboard Air Force One AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“It was early evening as we approached Andrews Air Force Base. Everyone on board was tired. It had been a very long day. The lights inside Air Force One had been turned off.

“Some of those in the staff section had their eyes closed; others were flipping, seemingly mindlessly, through newspapers or magazines. The president’s military aide was standing in the aisle, looking out the window.

“He pointed out the window and told me to look. The view was surreal. One hundred yards off the tip of Air Force One’s wing was an F-15. The military aide whispered, ‘There is one off the other wing as well; they’re from the DC Air National Guard.’ The fighter was so close we could see the pilot’s facial features.”

On seeing the Pentagon, with smoke rising from the northeast section, Morell said the tears welled up in his eyes.

But he did not cry until he was out of Air Force One and back in his own car, making his way home to his wife and three children.

“On the way to our bedroom, I went into each of my three children’s rooms. They were asleep, surrounded by stuffed animals. They looked as they did any other night, peaceful and content.”

Morell adds that in the weeks that followed 9/11 that his workload increased and his days lengthened.

It meant getting to work three hours earlier, sifting through more information and making more sacrifices – but ones that “pale in comparison to those of our intelligence officers and military personnel in Afghanistan and other places overseas”.

The declassified articles were released on Thursday as part of a lawsuit settlement with a former employee. They can be explored here.

Read the document in full here>

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