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Context of '6:30 a.m. September 11, 2001: White House Situation Room Holds Anti-Terrorism Training Exercise'

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John Sherman (left) and Rob Hargis (right).John Sherman (left) and Rob Hargis (right). [Source: T.J. Kirkpatrick / MCT]A spontaneous training exercise is held in the White House Situation Room, based on the scenario of a terrorist bombing in Yemen. In recent months, the Situation Room has been extra vigilant due to the increased reporting of a possible terrorist attack on US interests in the Middle East. Presumably influenced by these concerns, Rob Hargis, the senior duty officer in the Situation Room, now holds an impromptu drill. He says to the others in the room: “Okay, there’s been a large bombing in Yemen. Who does what?” Further details of the exercise are unknown. Commenting on it, John Sherman, one of Hargis’s two assistants, will later say: “We were pretty keen on recognizing an event early. But we had no thoughts that morning about an attack on the homeland.”
Situation Room Is the 'Nerve Center' of Crisis Management - The Situation Room is a multi-room facility on the ground floor of the White House’s West Wing. It is staffed around the clock by personnel from each military branch, the State Department, and the intelligence agencies. (Bohn 8/29/2011) Its mission is to provide current intelligence and crisis support to the National Security Council staff, the national security adviser, and the president. Its watch teams provide 24-hour monitoring of international events. (Donley, O'Leary, and Montgomery 1997) Throughout the terrorist attacks later this morning, the White House Situation Room will serve as “the nerve center of presidential crisis management,” according to McClatchy Newspapers. However, its director, Navy Captain Deborah Loewer, is away from the White House on this day, accompanying President Bush on his visit to Florida. (Bohn 8/29/2011)

Captain Deborah Loewer.
Captain Deborah Loewer. [Source: Military Sealift Command]Navy Captain Deborah Loewer, director of the White House Situation Room, tells President Bush a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center when his limousine arrives at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, where he is going to attend a reading demonstration. (Associated Press 11/26/2001; Lance 8/17/2003) Loewer learned about the crash when Rob Hargis, the senior duty officer in the Situation Room, called her as she was being driven to the school and told her what had happened (see (Between 8:48 a.m. and 8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Bohn 8/29/2011; Priess 2016, pp. 239-240) As soon as the president’s motorcade arrives at the school (see (8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001), she runs toward Bush’s limousine to pass on the news to the president. (Lance 8/17/2003) She approaches Bush and Andrew Card, his chief of staff, as they are walking toward the school’s entrance. She says to Bush, “Mr. President, the Situation Room is reporting that one of the World Trade Center towers has been hit by a plane.” She adds, “This is all we know.” She also says experience has taught her that first reports are often wrong. Bush replies, “Thank you, Captain” as he continues making his way toward the school’s entrance and then says, “Keep me informed.” Loewer is “the first person to inform President Bush that terrorism had struck New York City,” according to the Associated Press. (Associated Press 11/26/2001; Stafford 9/9/2011; Bohn 2015, pp. 214; Priess 2016, pp. 240) However, some accounts will claim that either Karl Rove, Bush’s senior adviser, or Card is the first person to tell the president a plane has crashed into the WTC (see (Shortly After 8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Sammon 2002, pp. 41-42; Rove 2010, pp. 249-250; Graff 9/9/2016) After passing on the news about the crash, Loewer goes to the holding room next to the classroom where Bush is going to listen to some children reading. There, she will learn about Flight 175 crashing into the WTC when the attack occurs, at 9:03 a.m. (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Bohn 2015, pp. 214; Priess 2016, pp. 240-241)

Andrew Card.Andrew Card. [Source: Texas A&M University]Andrew Card, President Bush’s chief of staff, is told that a second plane has crashed into the World Trade Center and immediately thinks Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are responsible for the incident. (Yurdakul 9/10/2009; BBC 9/9/2011) Card, along with a number of other White House staffers, is in the “staff hold,” a room located next to the classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, where Bush is currently participating in a reading demonstration. (McClellan 2008, pp. 101; Rove 2010, pp. 250) He learned about the first crash at the WTC from Navy Captain Deborah Loewer, director of the White House Situation Room, when he arrived with Bush at the school (see (8:55 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Associated Press 11/26/2001; Lance 8/17/2003) Since then, he has been told, apparently by Loewer, that the aircraft that hit the WTC was a commercial jetliner rather than a small, twin-engine plane. (Yurdakul 9/10/2009; BBC 9/9/2011) Loewer now informs him that a second plane has crashed into the WTC. (Bohn 8/29/2011; McGinn 3/16/2013)
Situation Room Director Decided to Tell Card about the Crash - Loewer, who is in the staff hold, apparently learned about the second crash from Rob Hargis, the senior duty officer in the Situation Room, while she was on the phone with him. She heard the people in the Situation Room over the phone, shouting, “Holy shit!” presumably after they saw the second crash on television, at 9:03 a.m. (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). The president’s staffers, according to protocol, are meant to avoid distracting the president’s on-camera activities except when there is an emergency. Loewer was sure the current situation justified interrupting Bush’s activities and immediately decided to tell Card what had happened. (Bohn 2015, pp. 214; Priess 2016, pp. 240-241)
Card Thinks Al-Qaeda Is Responsible for the Crash - She says to him: “A second plane has impacted the towers. The nation is under attack.” (McGinn 3/16/2013) Card is unaware that the planes that hit the WTC are suspected of having been hijacked. But, he will later comment, “I knew that [the second crash] couldn’t have been a coincidence.” (Card 8/7/2002) He immediately thinks bin Laden and al-Qaeda are to blame for the crashes. (Yurdakul 9/10/2009; Justin 9/12/2016) “My mind flashed to three initials: UBL. Usama bin Laden,” he will recall. (Graff 9/9/2016) “My mind focused on the al-Qaeda network because I knew that they had attacked the World Trade Center before,” he will say. “I don’t know why I thought that, but I did and I just presumed that it was an Osama bin Laden or an al-Qaeda attack.” (Yurdakul 9/10/2009)
Card Decides He Must Tell Bush about the Crash - A White House chief of staff frequently has to decide whether the president needs to know about something. (Patel 4/16/2012; Graff 9/9/2016) Card determines right away, on this occasion, that Bush needs to be told what has happened. (Yurdakul 9/10/2009; BBC 9/9/2011) “I was very uncomfortable about interrupting the president during one of his events,” he will say. “But,” he will add, “I felt if I were president, I would want to know.” (Card 8/16/2002) He will therefore enter the classroom where Bush is participating in the reading demonstration, and tell the president about the second crash and that America is under attack (see (9:07 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Card 8/7/2002; Yurdakul 9/10/2009; BBC 9/9/2011)

The White House Situation Room.The White House Situation Room. [Source: Chuck Kennedy / White House]Staffers in the White House Situation Room remain where they are despite being advised to evacuate and a list of their names is sent out, in case an aircraft should crash into the White House. At 9:33 a.m., a supervisor at Washington’s Reagan National Airport called the Secret Service Joint Operations Center at the White House to report that an unidentified aircraft was heading toward the White House. The supervisor warned, “[I]f you’ve got people [at the White House], you’d better get them out of there” (see (9:33 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Federal Aviation Administration 9/14/2001; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 9; Bohn 8/29/2011) Most personnel evacuated from the White House at around 9:45 a.m. (see (9:45 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (CNN 9/11/2001; CNN 9/12/2001)
Situation Room Personnel Decline the Advice to Leave - Meanwhile, Rob Hargis, the senior duty officer in the Situation Room, receives a call from a National Security Council official, who urges him and his colleagues to get out of the White House. Hargis turns to the others in the Situation Room and says: “We have been ordered to evacuate. If you want to go, go now.” However, everyone stays silent and no one gets up to leave. Hargis therefore tells the caller, “We’re staying.” He thinks the White House would be disconnected from the crisis if the Situation Room stopped operating at such a critical time. (Bohn 8/29/2011) According to Franklin Miller, a senior aide to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, at some point Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley gives the instruction to keep the Situation Room running and there is in fact never any question about its personnel leaving. (Sanger 3/30/2004)
Counterterrorism Chief Allegedly Asks the Staffers to Evacuate - White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke will later claim that, apparently around this time, he is concerned for the safety of those with him in the Situation Room, and so he huddles them together and asks them to leave. He tells them: “We will be the next target. It’s no shame to relocate. Some of you have kids too. Think about them.” But the staffers all decline his request. (Clarke 2004, pp. 12) However, Miller will dispute whether Clarke makes this offer, calling his claim “a complete fiction” (see March 30, 2004). (Sanger 3/30/2004)
List of the Staffers' Names Is Sent to the CIA - All the same, Miller is concerned for the safety of those in the Situation Room. “The White House could be hit; we could be going down,” he thinks. He therefore quietly compiles a list of the names of everyone in the room, he will recall, “so that when and if we died, someone would know who was in there.” The list is passed to Scott Heyer, a communications officer in the Situation Room, and Heyer e-mails it to the CIA operations center. (Miller, Gerth, and van Natta 12/30/2001; Bohn 8/29/2011) For the rest of the day, about a dozen staffers will remain in the Situation Room, working frantically to keep information flowing to President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and key White House personnel. (Gardham 9/10/2010; Bohn 8/29/2011)


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