By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The notes are handwritten on a legal pad and provide a verbatim account of the shock, pain and grim determination aboard Air Force One on Sept. 11, 2001.
They were scribbled by Ari Fleischer, press secretary for President George W. Bush, and he is releasing them to mark the 15th anniversary on Sunday of the worst attack on American soil since Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
There are six pages in all, the only original verbatim text of what Bush said on Air Force One as he and his senior aides absorbed the news.
“We’re at war,” Bush told Vice President Dick Cheney. Hanging up and turning to his aides, he added: “When we find out who did this, they’re not going to like me as president. Somebody’s going to pay.”
Fleischer adopted the role of presidential note taker as Air Force One lifted off from Florida after the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon were attacked by hijacked passenger jets.
“I always took notes. It’s how you do your job,” Fleischer told Reuters. “But on Sept. 11 it was instantly clear how much more important it was to have a record of what the president did and said. I basically glued myself to his side almost the entire day and remained in his cabin on Air Force One to listen and take notes.”
Much of the material has been part of the public record. Fleischer has used them for annual tweets about Sept. 11 and in speeches and made them available to the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks. But he has not previously released them in full to the public.
The story that unfolds in Fleischer’s penmanship begins with the raw emotions Bush and his aides experienced, the president already itching to retaliate.
“I can’t wait to find out who did it,” Bush said. “It’s going to take a while and we’re not going to have a little slap on the wrist crap.”
There is a dramatic period in which Bush tries to overcome opposition from the Secret Service to letting him return to Washington. The plane first took him to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, then Offutt air base in Nebraska. He got back to Washington that night.
“I want to get home as soon as possible,” Bush said. “I don’t want whoever this is holding me outside Washington.”
An aide responded: “Our people are saying it’s too unsteady still.”
Bush said that was the message he was hearing from Cheney as well.
Bush chief of staff Andy Card said, “The right thing is to let the dust settle.”
Fleischer’s notes include an eerie reference to a communication heard on the plane from the ground that “Angel is next.” Because Air Force One’s codename at the time was “angel,” there was worry onboard that the plane was a target.
He said an armed guard was stationed outside the door leading to the Air Force One cockpit, just in case someone was a threat on the plane itself.
A month later, Bush and his team were told the reference to “angel” was a miscommunication from the ground. One offshoot of the 9/11 attacks was a major renovation of Air Force One’s communications abilities.
The president, only in office for eight months, had another priority in mind as well: making sure his family was safe. Bush’s wife, Laura, and their two daughters were whisked to secure locations.
“Barney?” Bush said, inquiring about his beloved Scottish terrier.
“He’s nipping at the heels of Osama bin Laden now,” said Card.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler)