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November 26, 2020
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Rumsfeld reflects on Offutt Air Force Base role on 9/11
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TIMELINE: 9/11 at Offutt Air Force Base

Prepared by NET News

A minute-by-minute review of the events of September 11, 2001 through the eyes of personnel at STRATCOM and Offutt Air Force Base

On September 11, 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt the Pentagon shake and smelled smoke as it filled the hallways shortly after terrorists flew a plane into the building. He already knew the World Trade Center in New York had been targeted. Rumsfeld was also in contact with the United States Strategic Command, known as STRATCOM, headquartered in Bellevue, Neb. There were concerns about securing the country's nuclear weapons during the attacks and about finding a safe place for the President when Washington D.C. seemed at risk.

As part of its coverage of the unique role Nebraska-based STRATCOM and Offutt Air Force Base played on 9/11, NET News producer Bill Kelly spoke with Donald Rumsfeld about his experiences that day. A transcript of their conversation follows.

BILL KELLY, NET News: For many Nebraskans, certainly for those stationed out at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, one of the most notable, probably even startling, events on September 11 was the sight of Air Force One flying over delivering then-President George W. Bush to the Strategic Command underground. Talk about the decision to bring the President to Nebraska.

Click the image to visit the program page for NET News' latest documentary, "STRATCOM 9/11," which premieres Friday, Sept. 2nd at 7 and 10 p.m. on NET 1.

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, the Secret Service, obviously, was involved, and the President was down South speaking to a school group and took off and the question was, where should he go? And in consultation with the folks in the White House, (then-)Vice President Cheney, and the Secret Service, they made a decision that because there was still aircraft in the air, a couple of which were squawking hijack coming from overseas, that it would be best to not bring the President back to Washington, D.C., despite the fact that that's where he was headed and where he wanted to go.

So they delayed his arrival back in Washington by moving him to Offutt (Air Force Base). But it was a combination of decisions of people who were involved thinking that through, what would be the wisest thing to do. If you think about it, Al-Qaida had attacked the seat of economic power in New York and the seat of military power in the Pentagon and they still had a plane in the air. It was not a reach to think that it might very well be heading for the seat of political power, either the Capital or the White House. More likely the White House.

KELLY: There were other options - Barksdale (Air Force Base in Louisiana), NORAD (North American Air Defense) out in Colorado. Are there capabilities that were uniquely suited for that day at STRATCOM?

RUMSEFLD: Well, STRATCOM, of course, is an enormously important command, and it has a very wide ranging set of responsibilities, important responsibilities, and I was not in Air Force One or talking to the Secret Service about it. I was in the Pentagon. We had been hit by an American Airlines aircraft shortly after the World Trade Center Towers had been hit and we were worried about the people in the Pentagon who had been killed and were wounded, and getting them out safely. And the building itself was filling with smoke. And part of my responsibility was to worry about the planes in the air, as opposed to trying to figure out which of the various alternative options for a safe haven for the President for a brief period might be the best one.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

Rumsfeld told NET News that on September 11, 2001 "the United States very simply had not organized, trained and equipped itself to think through" how to respond to a domestic terror attack.

KELLY: Many Americans are surprised to learn that the Airborne Command Posts, (which) are used as battle stations in the event of a nuclear war, are still very much a part of the military's defense. Those crews, who were trained to scramble in the event of an attack overseas, really for the first time were put into air (on September 11) in response to an attack on U.S. soil, and apparently not long after the Twin Towers were hit. Why was it important to get (the Airborne Command Post) up in the air?

RUMSFELD: WEll, if you don't know what's going to happen on the ground and what might be vulnerable - and certainly if there was any word that would be appropriate to characterize what took place on September 11, it would be surprise - what one wants to do is to create as many options for continuity of government, and as many different options for the kinds of capabilities that conceivably could be called into play, and that means you simply scramble those kinds of assets that you have available. And even though you may not have a direct purpose for it, it's just prudent.

KELLY: The Strategic Command's historic role has always been to protect against nuclear attack. Did STRATCOM have a role that day in providing support to defense and gathering intelligence?

RUMSFELD: Every one of the commands was active because, of course, the sky was still filled with aircraft, and the orientation of the United States military was to defend from attacks from outside of our country, not from inside of our country. That's the responsibility of local law enforcement and the FBI. So, all of our radars were pointed out, all of our orientation and exercises and practice and the funding and the training had all been for the Department of Defense ... to look outside the United States and defend the American people from threats from the outside, not from acts that originated inside the United States.

KELLY: Did it take some adjustment to rethink that you needed to begin immediately looking back inside the borders on a defensive posture like that?

RUMSFELD: Oh, enormously, there's just no question. 9/11, of course, was the most significant attack inside America. And more people were killed than even at Pearl Harbor. So it was a stunning event, and the United States very simply had not organized, trained and equipped itself to think through how to deal with that. A number of steps have been taken since: the Department of Defense now, for the first time, has a Northern Command that interests itself in North America. We have an assistant secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense for the first time in history, which we created shortly after 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security was organized to bring in to play a number of the different departments and agencies that had previously existed but had not been under one roof. And the cooperation between the CIA and the FBI has improved significantly. So there are a number of things that have taken place since.

KELLY: As it happened, STRATCOM was coordinating an exercise (known as Global Guardian) as it often does to test its crew's response to a fictional attack from another nation, and there were places like Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana where there were literally rows of B-52s loaded with live nuclear weapons that morning. With so much unknown about who was attacking in those early hours there had to have been some urgency to deal with that much live weaponry out and about.

RUMSFELD: Well, you're right. I mean, every commander has to take initiative to protect their assets and to see that they're fulfilling any conceivable responsibilities that a President and the Secretary of Defense, the National Command Authorities, might ask them to bring into play. And so they use their own brains and their own initiative and get themselves arranged in an optimal way to be ready. We had fighter aircraft that were up and armed and looking at all aircraft coming in from outside of the United States, particularly (those planes) that were airborne after having grounded all domestic aircraft.

KELLY: Were there concerns about having these live nuclear weapons out in aircraft in places like Barksdale that day?

RUMSFELD: I don't know. Clearly, there's always concern. People responsible for nuclear weapons have an obligation to see that they're managed in ways that they have been trained and organized and equipped to do and anything involving nuclear weapons requires particular care and attentiveness.

KELLY: This was the first time in history the Commander in Chief utilized the Strategic Command's underground command post in person, during a military response. As far as you know, did the use of that facility go as planned?

RUMSFELD: It did. It worked fine. It's not like being in Washington where you can meet personally, although, there is the secure video and teleconferencing capabilities but the President obviously didn't stay there, he ended up leaving and coming to Washington, D.C. and ending up, I think we had a meeting that night about ten o'clock at night of the National Security Council.

KELLY: There was some disagreement between the President and the Secret Service and military officials involved in the decisions whether the President should remain at Offutt Air Force Base or return to Washington. Did you weigh in on that decision?

RUMSFELD: No, I didn't. I'd served as Chief of Staff of the White House for President Gerald Ford and been involved in those kinds of decisions, where the Secret Service makes their recommendation and the President ultimately makes the decision. It's an awkward thing for a President to have to make decisions about his own security, because a President's instinct is to do things that are natural, things that allow him to take risks so that he can function in the most efficient way on behalf of the country. Therefore the Chief of Staff frequently is the one who, if there is a security concern and the President disagrees with the Secret Service on an issue, might very well be the one who persuades the President to take a decision a certain way that would better assure the President's security. In this instance, I wasn't involved between the Chief of Staff and the President and the Secret Service. I was in the Pentagon and busy.

KELLY: When the President returned to Washington, one of the Airborne Command Post planes accompanied Air Force One in part, according to crew members, to serve as a decoy. That's rather extraordinary, isn't it?

RUMSFELD: It is. Clearly, it's unusual. There also were fighter aircraft that were tracking along with Air Force One.

KELLY: Last question. How did the events and the nature of the attacks faced on September 11 reshape the type of defensive response for the Strategic Command after so many years of focusing on nuclear warfare?

RUMSFELD: Well, I mentioned a few of the things that were obvious, and the kinds of things that the Department of Defense does to assure an ability to protect the American people and to assure the continuity of government are not the kinds of things that I think it's useful to talk about publicly, because to the extent that one has a desire to attack the United States, the more they know about defensive measures and the kinds of steps and acts that our military would take to defend, the more advantageous it is for the attacker.

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