Bush on 9/11: 'I Didn't Have a Strategy. I Was Living Day by Day,' Former President Tells National Geographic Channel

Former president talks of doing his best in "the fog of war."

August 23, 2011, 10:21 PM

Aug. 24, 2011 — -- At the very moment that George W. Bush was advised about attacks on the United States in Sept. 11, he was reading to a group of elementary school students in Florida. He famously continued reading the book, "The Pet Goat," for several minutes afterward, because, he later said, he "didn't want to rattle the kids."

Members of the media who were present in the classroom were also getting the news of the attacks.

"And it was like watching a silent movie," the former president told the National Geographic Channel in an interview for the channel's special program on the 9/11 attacks. "In the back of the room, reporters were on their cell phones. They were getting the same message I got. Which meant that a lot of people would be watching my reactions to these crises."

George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview premieres Sunday, August 28 on the National Geographic Channel.

Even though his first reaction was "anger, who the hell … would do that to America?" the 43rd president said he "made the decision not to jump up immediately … I didn't want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm."

The interview focuses on Bush's experiences on that day. In it, he talks about the hard decisions he had to make, including giving the order to shoot down any commercial aircraft that failed to obey orders to land – and the difficulties of being a wartime president forced to make life and death decisions.

"I never campaigned on you know, 'Please elect me, I'll be a … the kind of wartime chief you'll be proud of.' The war came upon us unexpectedly … And I made the decisions as best I could in the fog of war," he said.

Bush also opens up about his fears for his own family's safety on that day, and the relief he felt when he learned his wife, Laura, and their two daughters were safe.

An estimated 3,000 people were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Another jet – reportedly bound for the White House -- crashed onto a field in Shanksville, Pa., when passengers fought the terrorists for control of the craft.

Living 'Day by Day'

Bush was whisked away from the school and rushed onto Air Force One, where Secret Service told him he wouldn't be going back to the nation's capital, out of concerns for his safety. He protested.

But the Secret Service -- and then-White House chief of staff Andy Card -- held their ground.

There was "a lot of sadness" on Air Force One as those aboard watched the images of destruction unfold, he added.

He was flown first to Barksdale Air Force base in Shreveport, La., and then to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

"I was frustrated I wasn't at the command center in Washington. I was frustrated that I was flying around the country. I was frustrated we had been attacked, and I was frustrated the communication system wasn't working any good," he said. "But, in a moment of crisis like this, it's important not to be frustrated. It's important to be focused on the task at hand, which was to gather information. And make decisions -- in this case on how to protect the country and respond to the attacks."

He told the Secret Service to take him back to Washington, D.C.

The day that began with him jogging in Florida ended with the country changed forever, facing a different kind of enemy.

"September the 11th affected my presidency, and it caused … it caused me to make many decisions. Some of which were extremely controversial. All of which were designed to protect the homeland. I didn't have a strategy. I was living day by day," he said.

After the attacks, he pledged to hunt down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind, but critics have said he failed to make that a top priority of his presidency.

Bush discussed his reaction to news that the 9/11 mastermind had been killed by U.S. special forces on May 1. He had been having dinner with his wife in a restaurant when he received word that President Barack Obama would be calling him.

'Sense of Closure' Over bin Laden's Death

"I decided to take the call at the house. And President Obama called me, told me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. And my response was, I congratulated him, and the special operators that conducted a very dangerous mission.

"And so I was grateful," he added. "I didn't … feel any great sense of happiness. Or jubilation. I felt a sense of closure. And I felt a sense of gratitude that justice had been done."

"Eventually September the 11th will be a date on the calendar, it'll be like Pearl Harbor day. For those of us who lived through it, it'll be a day that we'll never forget."

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