Military insiders recall Bush’s 9/11 stop at Stratcom
September 7th, 2011
Bellevue, NE – On September 11, 2001 some Nebraskans could not believe their eyes. Overhead was Air Force One, one of the few planes still allowed to fly that day, gliding in for a landing at Offutt Air Force Base.
NET News spoke to two men who experienced first-hand, the terse and unnerving day when the President found a safe haven in Nebraska. They have never shared their stories publicly before.
On September 11, 2001, two things highlighted the schedule of the Commander of the United States Strategic Command. First: greeting dignitaries on hand for an event with Warren Buffett. Second: monitor a major war game exercise in which America would fight a fictional nuclear war. Thatâ€™s when Admiral Richard Meis got the phone calls that would radically alter his schedule.
â€œI got a second call from my command duty officer who informed me that a second plane that hit the World Trade Center,â€ Meis recalled, â€œand at that point, it was obvious that we were to some degree under attack, and so I immediately proceeded to the Command Center.â€
Ironically, because of the war game under way, the Command Center was fully-operational even before the first plane hit. STRATCOM was already at battle stations.
â€œ30 minutes â€¦ after the second airplane hit, it was just total chaos,â€ said Al Buckles, who worked as the Deputy Director for Operations and Logistics with the Strategic Command in 2001: the Commanderâ€™s top civilian advisor.
â€œAnd so itâ€™s a just a real Wild West thing going on here for a couple of hours,â€ Buckles said.
As always, STRATCOMâ€™s most important job was keeping the President in contact with his military.
â€œWe knew where the President was,â€ Buckles said. â€œWe had to assure that the President was safe. Weâ€™re talking to the Pentagon who is feeding us (where) the Secretary of Defense and the Vice-President is. We know that we have the continuity of government still tacked together.â€
The war game abruptly ended just before a third plane hit the Pentagon. Buckles and Admiral Meis monitored military communications and network news coverage as President Bush flew out of Florida. By midmorning, Air Force One was using the STRATCOM base in Louisiana to speak to the nation.
â€œFreedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,â€ announced President Bush to a reeling country.
It was not long after that Admiral Meis got the call.
â€œWe learned, I think about a half hour out, that the President was going to come to Offutt,â€ Meis said. â€œAnd it was a logical place for the President to come, if the Secret Service was not willing to let him go back to Washington at the time, where he could communicate with the appropriate people in the Washington area.â€
The next step was to implement the by-the-book plans to receive the commander in chief, according to Al Buckles.
â€œOffutt does have a presidential reception checklist,â€ Buckles said. â€œYou know, when he comes to your place, heâ€™s going to need certain capabilities because really he has to stay in contact all the time. His number one thing is to be visible to the people of the United States.â€
STRATCOMâ€™s computer and communications team moved quickly. Team member Chad Vann understood that never before was secrecy so critical.
â€œSo we took measures to try to protect that information from getting out,â€ Vann said. â€œEven things as innocent as someone calling their spouse on a cell phone, people can intercept that very easily. So it was trying to keep that as close-hold as possible that he was coming.â€
Only military aircraft were authorized to be airborne over America when Air Force One glided over Bellevue, Nebraska that afternoon.
â€œAt the appropriate moment I left the Command Center with my driver to go out and meet the aircraft,â€ Meis said. â€œYou have to appreciate there wasnâ€™t going to be a lot of pomp and ceremony when the President arrived.â€
There is only about ten minutes of footage of the Presidentâ€™s stop at Offutt. It shows a grim George W. Bush stepping off Air Force One, saluting the guards. Admiral Meis, in his khaki battle flight suit, shakes hands. Bush pats him on the back. You can see the motorcade drive past the elaborate front entrance of STRATCOMâ€™s headquarters and stop at a tiny beige brick building with a single door.
â€œWell, I made the decision that it was senseless to go into the front entrance of our Command headquarters, and then walk into the underground facility,â€ Meis said, â€œwhen that really is much more readily accessible by a non-traditional means, which was a fire escape.â€
The President was brought in the back door. Civilian advisor, Al Buckles was there.
â€œHis entrance into the Command Center was through a spiral staircase that goes straight down for 75 to 80 feet,â€ Buckles said. â€œYouâ€™re just spiraling down a staircase. He went into it, like a cave.â€
â€œThe President sat down,â€ Meis recalled, â€œand I briefed him on each of the screens and what each of screens was displaying.â€
Buckles added, â€œWe had the picture of all the FAA airplanes thatâ€™s in the air, how many of those they were coming down, whatâ€™s the state of readiness for all the rest of the forces in the U.S.â€
President Bush spent about 15 minutes in the theater sized Command Center. From there he was taken to a super-secure Video Teleconference Room where he could see and talk to his National Security Team.
â€œEveryone in that area has the highest security clearances in the world,â€ Buckles said. â€œI do not know what went on in that room. You donâ€™t even ask to know what goes on in that room.â€
Of the half dozen photos released by the White House from that day, one shows the President in a sparse, white room flanked by his Chief of Staff and STRATCOM Commander Meis.
â€œIt was interesting from my standpoint that most of the discussion focused on the importance of and the desire of the President to get back to Washington, to reassure the American people, re-instill confidence,â€ Meis said.
By the end of that phone call, the President got the Secret Service and his staff to agree to get him back to Washington.
Al Buckles, the civilian STRATCOM advisor, felt the Command did itâ€™s job well that day.
â€œWhat was the most important contribution? It was maintaining the assurance that the President could always use these forces if he needed to use these forces,â€ Buckles said. â€œWe know how to recover and get and bring it back, in providing support to the President and to his cabinet and to everybody to get back to normal.â€
STRATCOM provided one last essential service that afternoon. The Commands Airborne Command Post, a plane used in wartime emergencies that looks much like Air Force One, was for the first time ever deployed as a decoy.
The Presidentâ€™s plane took off a short time later, safely delivering him back to Washington, where to spoke to a still shocked and hurting nation.
To see photos and extended interviews, visit Stratcom 9:11 – A Different Doomsday, and watch the documentary on NET 1.
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