George H.W. Bush to George W. After 9/11: 'Get Back to the White House Right Now'

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U.S. President George W. Bush listens as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informs him of a second plane hitting the World Trade Center, while Bush was conducting a reading seminar at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, September 11, 2001. Bush made a brief statement before leaving the school and immediately left Florida. Win McNamee/Reuters

The day after the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States, President George H.W.Bush, a former head of the CIA, wrote to his friend the journalist Hugh Sidey telling the advice he had given to his son, George W. Bush, and his concern that American muslims might be demonized as the Japanese had been after a similar surprise attack on America at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

September 12, 2001

Dear Hugh,

It is the day after the day of infamy.

Yesterday Bar [Barbara Bush] and I were flying from Washington, where we had spent the night at the White House, to St. Paul, Minn. when we got diverted to Milwaukee airport. We were whisked off to a motel well outside of Milwaukee's city limits.

We got updated by the USSS [US Secret Service] on what they knew about what was transpiring, and then at our hotel we did what the whole world did—we watched the television in horror.

I had so many thoughts rush through my head.

First and foremost related to the safety of the president [his son George W. Bush]. I had full confidence in his security, but given the coordination of the attacks I did not feel comfortable. I remember feeling very pleased that proper security procedures were being followed. Who knew what might be planned by these monsters as a follow on attack.

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President George W. Bush on September 14, 2001, in New York City. Win McNamee/Reuters

I talked to George. I did tell him the sooner he got back to Washington the better. He totally agreed with that and had so advised the USSS. I notice in today's press that the vultures are already circling saying he should have come back sooner. Thank heavens that [historian] David McCullough and some others defended him.

It is easy to second guess and we are in for a huge wave of second guessing. The TV will be filled with just that. But it is proper that the president followed the prudent security script. His key national security team was in place in the White House. [Secretary of State] Colin [Powell] was flying back and the president was in very close touch both from Louisiana and from Offutt AFB [Offutt Air Force Base, which has the most sophisticated command-and-control center outside Washington DC] in Nebraska.

A second immediate thought was that muslims in this country were going to be abused. Many of them are terrified. I see from today's papers that there has been some of this abuse.

Most touching were the words of a grade school kid, studying in an islamic school, saying "Are they now going to destroy our school?" (I paraphrased here.) I remember the Japanese internment right after Pearl Harbor. I am not sure I was deeply offended by that way back then. Now I am and I do worry that all muslims will come under mindless attacks of retaliation right here in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Abroad the Arab leaders now have largely condemned the attack. The Taliban claimed, "We didn't do it. Nor did osama Bin Laden." Their words rang hollow. They must be a little apprehensive, our president having declared properly and forcefully that those who knowingly harbor terrorists will also pay a price.

Then there was a third thing that cluttered up my worried mind. What can we do about all this? Having headed a Terrorism Task Force for President Reagan back in the '80's I am somewhat familiar with what can and can't be done.

One thing we must carefully look at is how we can use more human intelligence and protect those people willing to cooperate with our CIA. This means dealing with "bad guys". Evil people. Unsavory folks who will betray their own country. It is not easy to find such people. It is impossible if our sources of human intelligence are not indelibly protected. It is impossible if the CIA continues to be demonized for using "bad guys."

Congress with its insistence on knowing every detail under the guise of "right to know" must be more disciplined, more leak proof. We have to look carefully at the executive orders and laws governing humint (human intelligence). Spying is a tough and ugly game. you deal with unsavory people a la Noriega [the former president of Panama, whom George H.W. Bush had removed from power. Many years earlier he was a CIA source.] Yet these people are often the ones that can penetrate organizations.

We must carefully find a way to guard against terrorists that are American and thus exempt from some intelligence gathering.

It is proper to suspect Bin Laden—no question about that. But it is also quite possible that he had support from people right here in the USA. They must be ferreted out and punished.

Bar and I talked to the White House Bushes yesterday. Then we went to bed and we said our prayers asking that God give George the strength to do what is right—the strength to stand in the face of the criticism that will come his way as each day goes past. It is going to be mean and ugly but, Hugh, he is strong enough to take it and to lead. I am sure of that.

More later—much more.

Oh yes, I have debated whether to make a [press] statement. Clinton did. Ford did. I don't know about Carter. I think I should say something. I have asked White House staff to advise. It is not easy, dear friend, to sit on the sidelines now, not easy to not make decisions or take actions. But I must continue to stay out of the limelight, out of the news, giving quiet support to #43.

Sincerely,

George

Taken from All The Best: My Life In Letters and Other Writings by President George H.W. Bush published by Scribner. © George H.W. Bush. All rights reserved. May not be republished without permission.

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