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After 10:20 a.m. September 11, 2001: White House and Pentagon Lawyers Consider the Legality of Shooting Down a Commercial Aircraft

William Haynes.William Haynes. [Source: C-SPAN]Timothy Flanigan, the deputy White House counsel, and John Bellinger, senior associate counsel to the president and legal adviser to the National Security Council, discuss whether the president has the legal authority to order the shooting down of a civilian aircraft and Flanigan then consults a Pentagon lawyer to get his opinion on the issue. [C-SPAN, 2/28/2009; Eichenwald, 2012, pp. 35-36] President Bush authorized the US military to shoot down hostile aircraft in a phone call with Vice President Dick Cheney at 10:18 a.m., according to the 9/11 Commission Report (see 10:18 a.m.-10:20 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 41] Flanigan, who is in the White House Situation Room, has heard about this and understands the reasons for Bush’s directive, but is concerned about its legality. He approaches Bellinger, mentions the shootdown order, and asks, “Do we have the legal authority nailed down for this?” Bellinger hands him an instant transcript of the conversation between Bush and Cheney. “Here’s the authority,” he says.
White House Lawyer Wants to Know the Opinion of the Military - Flanigan will later recall that he is currently certain of two things regarding the shootdown authorization. Firstly, since it has already been given, “any legal analysis was going to be woefully behind the event.” And secondly, he knows it “was completely justified as a matter of the president’s exercise of commander-in-chief authority to repel an immediate attack.” All the same, he feels uncomfortable. He realizes this is an issue for the military to consider. He therefore instructs an officer in the Situation Room to track down Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes. He is soon on the phone with the lawyer, who is at the Pentagon this morning, and tells him what he read in the transcript of Bush and Cheney’s conversation. Haynes says he already knows about the shootdown authorization. “We need the best possible rational legal basis for this,” Flanigan explains. “We’ve got commander-in-chief authority,” he continues, but adds, “Is there any other authority we can rely on?” Haynes says he will look into this.
Pentagon Lawyer Determines that Only the President Can Issue a Shootdown Order - Haynes thinks the most obvious issue with the shootdown authorization is constitutional, according to journalist and author Kurt Eichenwald. “Under the 14th Amendment, the passengers on those planes could not be deprived of their rights to life, liberty, and property without due process of law,” and “shooting them out of the sky didn’t meet that standard,” Eichenwald will write. Furthermore, Haynes thinks, the Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable search and seizure,” and shooting down a commercial aircraft “would be quite a dramatic seizure” of the citizens on board. All the same, he knows that “the preamble of the Constitution spoke of providing for a common defense and promoting the general welfare,” and, “Under Article 2, the president was the commander in chief of the military.” He therefore determines that the issue of possibly shooting down a commercial aircraft is “a matter of self-defense, of protecting the citizenry, balanced against the rights of the passengers.” With this in mind, he concludes that a shootdown order “could be lawfully issued… but only by the president.” He soon returns to the phone and gives Flanigan his opinion.
Lawyer Says a NORAD Statute Authorizes Shooting Down Hostile Aircraft - However, according to Flanigan’s later recollection, Haynes gives a very different explanation why the president’s shootdown authorization was legal than the reasoning Eichenwald will describe. Flanigan will recall that Haynes tells him someone has already looked into the matter. “There is authority under…” he says, and then cites a “NORAD statute that gives the national command structure authority to deal with imminent threats in US airspace.” [C-SPAN, 2/28/2009; Eichenwald, 2012, pp. 35-36]

Entity Tags: William J. Haynes, Timothy E. Flanigan, John Bellinger

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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