Pilots were told to shoot down planes over capital

White House
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The Independent US

As Americans braced themselves for a long war against terrorism, Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, gave extraordinary details yesterday of the pandemonium at the centre of the government last Tuesday and revealed that the order had gone out to shoot down any rogue planes over Washington.

Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, said that there would be a review of the 1976 executive order that has banned American forces from engaging in, or conspiring to engage in, assassinations.

And President George Bush's top advisers all gave the same message on yesterday morning's talk shows: that this would be a war unlike any other. It would take many forms and last a long time.

A full picture of the 90 minutes of panic and terrifying uncertainty which gripped the White House emerged yesterday. Mr Cheney recounted on NBC's Meet The Press how, moments after the second tower at the World Trade Centre had been hit, Secret Service agents burst into his office. "They came in and said, 'Sir, we have to leave immediately'. They grabbed me, literally ­ one of those times when your feet periodically touched the floor as you are swept along. They took me down some stairs, through doors, and then down more stairs into a corridor that was locked at both ends."

The Vice-President described the situation as he, Norman Mineta, the Transport Secretary, and other top officials in the nuclear-bomb proof President's Emergency Operations Centre deep in the bowels of the White House, tried to establish what was happening. They worked from a list of six hostile aircraft, not four as it later turned out. Even after the Pentagon was hit, they thought three more rogue planes were still in the air.

The pilots of US military planes that had been scrambled were given orders to intercept and shoot down incoming commercial airliners over Washington, Mr Cheney said. He added that he had been in discussions with Mr Bush every few minutes.

He also said there was now a "flying combat air patrol" over the capital ­ an innovation that could become permanent.

Like the President and the Secretary of State, Mr Cheney said he had no doubt that Osama bin Laden and his network played "a significant part" in the outrages.

He acknowledged that the American authorities had been caught out completely by Tuesday's events. Though there had been alerts and security warnings to US forces around the world, "there was no specific threat. Clearly we were surprised by what happened."

Mr Cheney said America was at war ­ but a war that would last a very long time. "This kind of work will take years, it looks as if it's a very broad and loose coalition," he said. It might take years, "but we have to take down those terrorist networks, there won't be an end date on this".

Nor might the threat be over. "We don't know if there are more people still at large in the US, there could be additional terrorists out there. We have to assume the possibility exists ­ that there could be other operations planned."

Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, delivered a similarly grim warning, suggesting that ground troops might be used. "We have to be realistic, and acknowledge that the US can't be defended from every terrorist attack. Therefore we have to wage a war, and take it to them where they are.

"People think of antiseptic types of war, and of cruise missiles on the television. But this war won't be like that, that sort of war won't work with this enemy. We need to do a whole host of things. These terrorists may be sophisticated, but they cannot function without the tolerance, even the assistance of states."

Mr Rumsfeld even refused to deliver a straight "No" when asked whether the administration was contemplating as a last resort the use of tactical nuclear weapons.