A decade after the terrorist attacks that defined his presidency, George W. Bush said he doesn't regret any decisions he made after 9/11, including the war with Iraq and the use of controversial interrogation techniques that some considered torture.
Asked if he believes those polices — including the USA Patriot Act, which widened government access to Americans' communications and records — prevented another attack, he said, "Yes, I do."
"Some of the tactics could have been different" in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Bush said in an interview with USA TODAY. "Same with Afghanistan, same with the terrorist surveillance program" that eavesdropped on suspected terrorists' international communications.
Still, he said, objective historians will conclude his policies "were necessary in order to protect the country."
Bush said the events that led to the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May began during his administration.
"The work that was done by intelligence communities during my presidency was part of putting together the puzzle that enabled us to see the full picture of how bin Laden was communicating and eventually where he was hiding," he said. "It began the day after 9/11."
Saturday, Bush and his wife, Laura, will lay a wreath at the Pentagon and speak at the dedication of the Shanksville, Pa., memorial to Flight 93. Sunday, he'll attend the New York 9/11 ceremony.
Bush said he is concerned the nation is "becoming isolationist" and will "grow weary to the point where we say it doesn't matter" whether young democracies survive.
"Democracies, when they take hold, yield peace," Bush said. The Middle East "is the part of the world that needs peace, and we'll be successful — unless, of course, we quit," he said. "My concern is that isolationist tendencies … cause America to retreat from the world."
Except for his wedding and twin daughters' birth, he said, 9/11 was "the most profound moment" of his life: "It will always be vivid."
Bush also shared his thoughts on:
•What he remembers most about that day after he learned of the attacks in a Sarasota, Fla., second-grade classroom. "I, of course, remember (White House Chief of Staff Andy Card) whispering in my ear. I remember the faces of the children. … It was a moment of clarity because people were going to watch how I reacted, and I had enough experience with crises to understand that if you're head of an organization, it's important to project calm in the initial stages of a crisis."
•His first thoughts. "The key thing that I tried to do was to say let's gather facts so we know what's happening. The problem that I faced — and the truth of the matter is, many in my administration faced — was during certain moments during the day, there was a fog of war, and the information flow was just really inaccurate. … We needed to take steps to make sure that the attack was a four-plane attack, not a 10-plane attack. We just didn't know. … My mind eventually became focused on finding out who did it and seeking justice, but initially it was respond and prevent."
•Watching on TV as thousands of Americans died. "There were moments when I said I'd like to be alone and just thinking through the ramifications and making sure that my thoughts were clear. I prayed for the victims. I prayed for our country. I would see people jump off buildings, and it just was horrific, but I was also determined to lead the country."
•His televised remarks from Florida and Louisiana. "The first two statements were on the fly. I didn't realize I had missed the mark. … I just did the best I could do given the circumstances, but obviously it wasn't the best setting for a president to try to calm the nerves of the country. I wanted to speak from the Oval Office. I wasn't going to address our nation from a bunker. It would have been a huge psychological victory for the people who attacked."
•What he learned about himself. "The job of the president was to say here are the facts, here's what we're dealing with, and deal with them. Not to feel sorry for yourself, or not to say why did it happen under my watch? That's not a leadership trait that is admirable. … I felt like I had the capacity to deal with the crisis, and you don't know until it happens. When I look back on it, I don't feel a sense of being overwhelmed."
•Whether he wishes he had done anything differently. "Not that I can think of. I mean, I think the response, laying out tools so that future presidents can have a better chance to protect the country, it's a legacy that I hope historians will say, 'It's a good legacy: He used tools that he thought were necessary and then he helped work with the Congress to codify them, so future presidents, if they so choose, can use those tools.' "
•The night of 9/11, when an erroneous report of an incoming enemy aircraft prompted Secret Service agents to move him and Laura Bush from their bed to the White House's underground bunker. "My mind was just churning over the events, the response, the information that had been given through a variety of National Security Council meetings. … And then just as I was kind of dozing off, (a Secret Service agent said) 'Mr. President,' and off we go. I had the T-shirt on and the running shorts and grabbed Laura, who didn't have her contacts on, grabbed (dog) Barney. We must have been looking like a motley crew as we headed down. … It was almost surreal, these big pneumatic doors as you're heading into the bowels of the White House, guys in black uniforms and guns.
"I didn't want to sleep down there because I knew I needed to be rested for the next day, and the bed looked horrible. Harry Truman must have bought the bed. It was one of those pullouts with a metal bar in the middle. I was envisioning Laura and I kind of fighting for the soft space."