It’s hard to imagine an American leader authorizing the shoot-down of civilian aircraft. But in the first hour following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when it was unclear how many passenger jets had been weaponized by terrorists—and then aimed at America’s seats of power—that’s exactly what happened.
According to what historic record exists from that chaotic morning, however, it’s unclear that the decision came directly from someone in the operational chain of command, which runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense down to military commanders. President George W. Bush, who began the day at an education event in Florida, was sequestered in the skies on Air Force One, frustrated by scant information, spotty communication and handlers determined to keep him safely away from the capital. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, became unreachable after the Pentagon itself had been struck.
That left Vice President Cheney, positioned in a bunker beneath the White House, in the decision-making hot seat.