While we are remembering Tim Russert and his years as moderator of “Meet the Press,” we would do well to recall his interview with Vice President Dick Cheney at Camp David on September 16, 2001, just five days after the 9/11 attacks.1 In fact, Cheney himself, during an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer the morning after Russert died, reminded us of that Camp David interview, saying: “I always, when I think of Tim and think of ‘Meet the Press,’ that's the show that always comes to mind. . . . It was a remarkable moment in American history.”2
Commenting that he himself “remember[ed] that interview vividly,” Lauer asked: “Anything stand out from that interview?” In his reply, Cheney said: “We went back and reminisced to some extent about what had actually happened on the morning of 9/11. So it was---it was a remarkable moment in my career.”3
It was indeed. In reminiscing about his movements that morning, Cheney contradicted what was to become a crucial element of the account that the 9/11 Commission would give of those movements.
In praising Russert’s tenure on “Meet the Press,” Cheney said: “He would ask you tough questions, he would remind you of quotes you made previously in other settings or on earlier shows, so you never got away with anything going up vis-à-vis Tim.”4
Given Cheney’s appraisal of his interview with Russert as a “remarkable moment” in both American history and Cheney’s own career, we should apply Russert’s method to this interview, reminding ourselves of exactly what Cheney said, then comparing it with what was said about Cheney by the 9/11 Commission.
The Camp David Interview
After discussing with Cheney the US response to the 9/11 attacks, Russert turned to September 11 itself, asking Cheney where he was when he learned of the first attack on the World Trade Center. Replying that he was in his White House office, Cheney said that, after seeing the second attack on television, he convened a meeting in his office with Condoleezza Rice and others, then talked by telephone to President Bush (who was in Florida), discussing the public statement the latter might make. (This call would have needed to take place shortly after Bush left the classroom, which was reportedly at about 9:12,5 if it was to help him prepare his address to the nation, which was to be given at 9:30. The New York Times wrote: “[A]t 9:12, [Bush] abruptly retreated [from the classroom], speaking to Mr. Cheney and New York officials.”6) Cheney then said:
“While I was there, over the next several minutes, watching developments on the television and as we started to get organized to figure out what to do, my Secret Service agents came in and, under these circumstances, they just move. They don't say ‘sir’ or ask politely. They came in and said, ‘Sir, we have to leave immediately, and grabbed me and. . .”7
Russert asked: “Literally grabbed you and moved you?” Cheney replied:
“Yeah. And, you know, your feet touch the floor periodically. But they're bigger than I am, and they hoisted me up and moved me very rapidly down the hallway, down some stairs, through some doors and down some more stairs into an underground facility under the White House, and, as a matter of fact, it's a corridor, locked at both ends, and they did that because they had received a report that an airplane was headed for the White House.”
After confirming Russert’s supposition that this was Flight 77, Cheney continued:
“And when it entered the danger zone and looked like it was headed for the White House was when they grabbed me and evacuated me to the basement. . . . [O]nce I got down into the shelter, the first thing I did--there's a secure phone there. First thing I did was pick up the telephone and call the president again, who was still down in Florida, at that point, and strongly urged him to delay his return.”
After discussing that advice in terms of the need to secure “presidential succession,” Cheney continued the narrative about his own movements that day, saying:
“Once I left that immediate shelter, after I talked to the president, urged him to stay away for now, well, I went down into what's called PEOC,8 the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, and there, I had Norm Mineta . . . . I had Condi Rice with me and several of my key staff people. We had access, secured communications with Air Force One, with the Secretary of Defense over in the Pentagon. We had also the secure videoconference that ties together the White House, CIA, State, Justice, Defense.”
After giving still more details, Cheney said: “I was in a position to be able to see all the stuff coming in, receive reports and then make decisions in terms of acting with it.” Cheney made clear, in other words, that he had everyone and everything he needed in the PEOC to take charge.
He then added: “But when I arrived there within a short order, we had word the Pentagon's been hit.”
Summary of Cheney’s Account to Russert
According to what Vice President Dick Cheney told Tim Russert, only five days after 9/11, the sequence of events went like this:
1. The Secret Service came into Cheney’s office to take him downstairs after they “received a report that an airplane was headed for the White House.” Although the plane “turned away and . . . flew a circle and came back in and then hit the Pentagon,” it was “when it entered the danger zone and looked like it was headed for the White House,” Cheney said, that “they grabbed me and evacuated me to the basement.”
2. The Secret Service agents hustled Cheney down to the underground corridor (which he also called the “immediate shelter,” evidently meaning the part of the bomb shelter that one reaches first).
3. While in this corridor, he used the secure phone to talk to the president again, this time urging him to delay his return to Washington.
4. He went from this corridor to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC (which is also called the “shelter conference room”).
5. After he arrived in the PEOC, he learned that the Pentagon had been hit. Cheney’s statement here---“[W]hen I arrived there within a short order, we had word the Pentagon's been hit”---is ambiguous. Did he mean that he arrived there within a short order? Or that, within a short order after arriving there, he learned that the Pentagon had been hit? The latter seems more likely. The main point, in any case, is clear: Cheney learned about the Pentagon attack---which reportedly occurred at about 9:38---only after arriving in the PEOC.
This is significant because it contradicts what the 9/11 Commission would state three years later.
The 9/11 Commission’s Account
According to The 9/11 Commission Report, the sequence of events was as follows.
1. At 9:33, the Secret Service learned that an unidentified aircraft was coming toward the White House, but “[n]o move was made to evacuate the Vice President at this time,” because the Secret Service learned at 9:34, just before sounding the alarm, “that the aircraft was turning south.”
2. Just before 9:36, the Secret Service, having learned that the plane had started circling back, “ordered the immediate evacuation of the Vice President.”
3. After being hustled downstairs, “The Vice President entered the underground tunnel leading to the shelter at 9:37. Once inside, Vice President Cheney and the agents paused in an area of the tunnel that had a secure phone, a bench, and television.”
4. While there, “[t]he Vice President [telephoned Florida] and asked to speak to the President, but it took time for the call to be connected.”
5. “He learned in the tunnel that the Pentagon had been hit, and he saw television coverage of the smoke coming from the building.”
6. Mrs. Cheney, having arrived at the White House at 9:52, “joined her husband in the tunnel.”
7. “[A]t 9:55, the Vice President was still on the phone with the President, advising that three planes were missing and one had hit the Pentagon.” (The Commissioners “believe this is the same call in which the Vice President urged the President not to return to Washington.”)
8. “After the call ended, Mrs. Cheney and the Vice President moved from the tunnel to the shelter conference room. . . . [T]he Vice president arrived in the room shortly before 10:00, perhaps at 9:58.”9
As a comparison of these two timelines shows, the 9/11 Commission’s account differs significantly from the account that Cheney gave to Russert.
Contradictions between the Two Accounts
According to Cheney, he arrived in the PEOC, or shelter conference room, before he learned about the attack on the Pentagon. According to the 9/11 Commission, by contrast, he entered the PEOC after