Former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was, famously, the man who broke the news of the full enormity of the Sept. 11 attacks to President Bush during an appearance at a Florida elementary school. Now in private life after six years in one of the toughest jobs in politics, he talked to msnbc.com’s Afsin Yurdakul about his experiences on that fateful day eight years ago. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Please tell me what the past eight years have been like for you, personally and professionally.
Obviously, September 11, 2001, changed an awful lot of things for America and the world and, yes, it changed me as well. It kind of put things in perspective. In terms of my own life, I think that my interest — or my expectation — as chief of staff was to be relatively invisible and not have people know who the chief of staff to the president was when I served, but that picture of me whispering in the president’s ear on September 11 gave me an identity that I have whether I like it or not, and, so, I will be remembered for that moment.
In terms of changing America, it taught us to pay attention to some of the realities of the world. That there are people in the world who want to do us harm, and that meant that we had to improve our ability to collect intelligence, analyze it and act on it.
In terms of the world, it showed us — and I think President Bush put it well — that “You’re either with us or against us” when it comes to fighting terror.
When you entered that classroom to inform the president about the attacks, what exactly were your feelings, as a human being, not only as chief of staff?
We arrived in Florida the night before after participating in an arrival ceremony for the prime minister of Australia in Washington, D.C. We arrived in this resort in Sarasota. And when we arrived, there was this terrible stench in the air, and that was because the fish had died and washed up on the beach — because of red tide — and it stunk. …
When I got up in the morning, I was worried about the stench more than I was worried about almost anything else. I knew the president was going to go for a run, a pretty serious run, in the morning and I didn’t know if he’d feel sick or not. So I talked to the president’s physician about whether the president would be sick and he said, “Oh no, he’d be fine.” And I went in and saw the president and said, “It stinks out there, but the doctor says you’ll be fine. When you get back, we’ll do our intelligence briefing and it will be an easy day.”
He went to his run and came back and we had our intelligence briefing and loaded into limousines and went over to the school. There was a buzz as we were getting to the school. Some people said, “Anybody hear about the plane crash in New York City?” but still not a lot of information. And the president, the principal of the school and I were standing at the door when one of the staffers for the National Security Council came up and said, “Sir, it appears there’s been a small twin-engine plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.” And the reaction, kind of unspoken, was “Oh, it’s a horrible accident. The pilot must have had a heart attack or something.” And the principal then opened the door of the classroom and escorted the president in and the door shut.
Then that staffer came back to me and said, “Sir, it looks like it wasn’t a small twin-engine plane, it was a commercial jetliner. My mind flashed (pauses) and I can’t explain why, but my mind flashed to the fear that must have been experienced by the passengers on the plane. I just thought “Gee, they must have known the plane is going up, it must have been a horrible experience.” I still thought, I guess, that it could have been an accident, a mechanical failure or something.
And then — it seems like a nanosecond later — that staffer came to me and said, “Oh my gosh” — he used another word — and said another plane hit the other tower at the World Trade Center. And I knew that it was not an accident, and it couldn’t have been a coincidence.
My mind focused on the al-Qaida network, because I knew that they had attacked the World Trade Center before. I don’t know why I thought that but I did and I just presumed that it was an Osama bin Laden or and al-Qaida attack, and I knew I had to tell the president.
I wrestled with that. You know, one of the tough jobs for the chief of staff is to try to decide what to tell the president needs to know. This was relatively easy — yes, the president needs to know. But what do I tell him?
I made the decision that I would pass on two facts, make one editorial comment and do nothing to invite a question or start a dialogue.
I opened the door to the classroom and the press pool was gathered at the back of the classroom. I walked up to the president and leaned over and whispered into his right ear: “A second plane” — I was very very succinct, very purposeful with my diction — “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” And I stood back from the president so that he couldn’t ask me a question and then I inched my way back to the door. I was all business. I was all business.
I'm guessing, but in order to be all business, you really had to not pay attention to your emotions, not only as chief of staff, but as a human being, as a citizen of this country. When did you actually face those emotions?
It wasn't until we were well out of harm's way, when we were on Air Force One. Obviously, the words I used with the president were grave words. When you say America is under attack, that’s (nervous chuckle) a pretty serious comment to tell the person responsible for protecting the country. So I knew the situation was serious — grave — and that there were a lot of things unknown.
But nevertheless, I tried to be very, very deliberate and focused and cool, calm and collected. Remember, by the time we got on the plane, the attack on the Pentagon had happened, and the plane (Flight 93) was heading towards Washington, D.C. We were going through all those emotions. We didn’t know how many victims there were. Estimates were floating around as many as 10,000 people would have died at the World Trade Center and you didn’t know if there were other attacks coming. …
I was very, very cognizant of the burden the president was carrying and his desire to have perfect knowledge, and it was never going to be there. It would always be, “Mr. President, this is all the information we have as of right now. Some of it may not be right, but you’ve got to make some tough decisions.”
Did you worry about your family at that moment?
You know, I didn’t. … I wasn’t worried over things that I had no control. That sounds cold, but I was so disciplined. I was the acting chief of staff when the first President Bush was traveling in Japan and ended up vomiting on the prime minister — I don’t know if you remember that — and that was a time when we were half the world away from the media centers of New York and Washington, D.C., and I knew that America had many questions about whether the president was too sick to do his job or something. I remembered going through that crisis, which paled in comparison to the reality of the crisis of September 11, and I wanted to a good job for the president and a good job for the country. So I was very focused and I tried to be unemotional. I was really not allowing emotions to get in the way of the job that I had to do.
What kind of emotions were you not allowing to get in the way?
Well, I didn’t want to be parochial, I didn’t want to worry about Andy Card (laughs). I tried to worry about the president doing his job.
The thought of worrying about Andy Card actually visited you and you ignored it?
I am always tempted to say, you know, “Gee, I should have called my wife,” or checked on the kids — we have three children and five grandchildren — and I think it’s normal to say, “Gee I want to get on the phone and call my wife.” But I am not sure that would have been the right priority when you’re flying on Air Force One.
Did you revise those words (to President Bush) in your head at all? How did you come up with those two sentences?
I don’t know. … I realized that I would have a responsibility to be cool, calm and collected. And, to the extent possible, have peripheral vision when you’re asking other people to have tunnel vision.
What are your thoughts on the war on terror?
I think there is a war on terror. Maybe the words aren’t used anymore, but there’d better be a war on terror, because the terrorists want to do war on us. Terrorists declared a war on the U.S. and Great Britain and Spain and other thriving democracies.
How would you evaluate its strengths and shortcomings?
First of all, I don’t think it should ever be complacent. I think we have to be on our toes. And we have to challenge the intelligence community to pay attention to what is happening around the world — in dark places — and analyze to the best of their ability what the potential dangers are to the United States and try to mitigate those dangers and hopefully eliminate them. I don’t think there’s any one thing that I would point to but just take it seriously and don’t play politics with homeland security, don’t play politics with national security.
Do you feel safe today?
I feel a lot safer knowing that there’s a stronger foundation of intelligence collection and analysis than there was prior to September 11, 2001. And that we are better organized as a government. But I know that the threat continues to be real. I do feel safer but I am not going to abandon the appropriate level of paranoia that I came to recognize having read most of the intelligence reports all those six years as chief of staff. I think the intent of the al-Qaida network and other terrorist organizations remains a threat to the United States. And I don’t know if they’ll be able to act on their intent. But there’s not a doubt in my mind that they continue to intent to do harm on us.
What are your 9/11s like? How do you spend that very difficult day?
I usually spend it in respect to those people who died. I can’t tell you how many people I knew, or I knew about, who perished in New York or in the Pentagon or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I don’t want to forget. I do not want to forget. I don’t want America to forget. There’s a great tendency for us to move on, but we should not — we should move on remembering what had happened and the sacrifices that were made by the people as they tried to improve our ability to protect ourselves.
Eight years later, when you look at the picture of you whispering the news to the president’s ear, how do you feel? Does it take you back to that moment?
I will never ever, ever forget that moment. It’s amazing the clarity of the vision that I have about what was around at the time. I remember walking in that classroom. I can almost still describe where (then-Secretary of Education) Rod Paige was standing, where the principal was standing, where the photographers were. I mean, it is amazing. I was a man with a purpose when I opened that door.
Do you have a copy of that picture?
I do. I think the photographer gave it to me.
Where do you keep it?
I don’t have it permanently displayed or anything like that. I have it in a photo album, but, no, I don’t have it sitting up on a wall. I try to have my photos organized chronologically, so I’m sure it’s under a September 2001 file.
How many times in the past eight years have you gone back to the album to see that picture?
I pull it out in every once in a while, usually when I’m asked to sign it.
Actually, that was not my most memorable day during my years at the White House. … My most memorable day was when the president went to New York City on September 14, 2001. That was right after the dust had kind of settled. And it was an unbelievable day.
How did you feel when you were there?
I was filled with resolve. And I promised myself that I would not forget that day. That I would not forget September 11. And I would not forget the victims. And I would not forget the heroes who tried to rescue victims and became the victims themselves. The resolve of helping the president doing his job.
There was a lot of criticism of the president not being immediately available on the day of the attacks. What do you have to say about that?
There should be no criticism for the way the president responded to the attacks on September 11. I thought he was masterful and disciplined and inclusive and decisive. If people are criticizing him, they are criticizing from afar, and not from the reality of the moment.