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Commander-in-Chief, Accidental

The brief, harrowing administration of Richard A. Clarke.

On the morning of September 11, Richard A. “Dick” Clarke served as the de facto leader of the United States. As a national-security and counterterrorism adviser to the last three presidents, Clarke had warned relentlessly against the looming threat posed by Osama bin Laden (he had alerted Condoleezza Rice of a possible Al Qaeda attack in a personal note exactly one week before). That morning, he raced to the White House shortly after the second plane struck the World Trade Center, arriving at Dick Cheney’s office, where Cheney and Rice were meeting alone. The two immediately handed over significant authority to Clarke as “crisis manager” and were escorted to a bunker. (The president, famously reading to a kindergarten classroom in Florida, was kept from returning to Washington.)

Clarke rapidly posited an Al Qaeda attack, the ambition and duration of which would remain unknown to everyone—including those at the highest levels of U.S. government—for as long as it progressed. From a secure teleconferencing room in the West Wing, he conferred with cabinet members across Washington. Of the 4,400 planes above the U.S. ordered grounded, eleven were initially unaccounted for. From Cheney and Bush, Clarke sought—and received—permission to shoot down any aircraft believed to be a threat; because of a training exercise, however, fighter jets were not immediately available over Washington and New York.

A plane hit the Pentagon; smoke began filling the studio in which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sat. There were reports of a car bomb at the State Department and a fire on the Capitol Mall. Clarke was told another suspected hijacked plane was eight minutes away from the White House. Staffers were fleeing; the Speaker of the House lifted off in a helicopter. Clarke and the rest of those in the room wrote their names on a piece of paper, a list e-mailed to the outside so that rescue teams could search for them.

Clarke ordered all landmark buildings across the country evacuated. The borders were closed.The Department of Defense went to DEFCON 3, alerting the Russians of the rationale. A plane was reported hijacked over Alaska. “Continuity of government” protocols, a vestige of the Cold War, were instituted. And before the first Tower had even fallen, Clarke received a secure call from the FBI: Passenger manifests showed several known Al Qaeda names.

For the rest of the day it went on like this, until both Towers had fallen and all the airplanes in the sky had landed and the president arrived back at the White House, just before 7 p.m. Clarke continued on in the administration, as an adviser for Cyberspace Security, before resigning in 2003. In 2004, he published a memoir, Against All Enemies, in which he chastised the Bush administration for its refusal to heed his and others’ pre-9/11 warnings and for the ensuing war in Iraq, which he viewed as wholly counterproductive.


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