Where POTUS was and how events unfolded immediately and later during
the course of the day, became the basis of the documentary, 9/11: Inside the
President’s War Room, especially made for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Twenty years ago when the American networks and consequently the Indian channels too, cut to live visuals of the planes crash, into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, it was initially taken as a scene of utter disbelief. The general impression was of an accidental crash, into the greatest symbol of American pride in Manhattan. The time was 08.46 Eastern on a clear Tuesday morning. The unfolding visuals and the over excited commentaries kept the viewer totally rapt and glued to the screen. Barely 16 minutes later at 09.03am second plane coming into the camera shot, brought about a completely bone chilling realisation of something sinister, it was not an accident nor was this a coincidence and when it rammed into second tower, it swept the feeling of awe and sorrow, to a larger and gruesome perspective, that America was under attack.

President George W. Bush at a makeshift war room.

Americans were aghast, gripped with fear and frenzy at the unfortunate happening as people were trapped inside the buildings and many more in danger on the streets below. These were the New Yorkers and others across the United States who had some kith or kin inside the twin towers or around them. Meanwhile the whole American administration, those connected with flying, airports and the defence forces too, were in a frenzy. It was an incomprehensible situation. People had to gather their wits and come to grips with the reality.

President George W. Bush inside Air Force One.

Where was POTUS and how events unfolded immediately and later during the course of the day, became the basis of the Documentary 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, specially made for the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Directed by Adam Wishart and narrated by Jeff Daniels, it is produced by Neil Grant for Wish Art Films and BBC One. Running into ninety minutes, it has been distributed by Apple TV Plus.
Several TV programmes, films and many documentaries have been made related to the subject, over the period of the last two decades, presenting various perspectives to the unfolding drama. This latest production is a fine presentation of tense developments of the first twelve hours after the attack, a chronology of shock, disbelief, fear, lack of information, intelligence thus lack of understanding, lack of administrative coordination, inadequacies of systems and failure of technology, frustration and anger arising out of helplessness, of the President of the United States, the most powerful Nation under attack and siege.
At this crucial moment George W. Bush as the American President and the Commander in Chief should have been in his Oval office with access to information, intelligence and to be seen as a strong leader who was capable to take decisions to protect his country, its people and straightaway issue orders to find the culprits and being them to justice.
All these poignant and equally frustrating moments captured in original with true body language from deployed/available cameras, on his tour to Florida that day and around his movements, have been creatively and effectively edited together from the angle of President George W. Bush himself, and those around him, on that cataclysmic day.
Since the original footage was accessed, it has been imaginatively used to create a sense of being in the War room, in a way that few documentaries earlier have done so. However the situation and circumstances were such that rightly there was no “one room” of authority and one gets to see how helpless the Bush Administration was initially, in the absence of credible inputs and access to communications. Despite being a highly developed and technologically advanced country, there were systemic failures and short comings.
George W Bush as the virtual anchor, speaking as the former President and recalling and connecting the sequence of events, has strikingly brought forward the agony and the misery of the supposedly greatest power on earth.
The former President in his new Avtar in the documentary looks confident even now, after twenty years as he was, when he managed to return in a long drawn out security net which took him through unprotected motorways and airport transportation which made him look a frightened leader ducking for cover. His advisers, afraid for their own safety and constantly searching for information, were on the move all day and had to conduct their business in airbase bunkers, the back room of a school and aboard the president’s jet, Air Force One. One remains spellbound following the President’s movements and the developing disaster on the ground, minute by minute.
This documentary, marking 20 years since 9/11, has aired just as the continued military intervention in Afghanistan concluded, adding a new chapter to the psychological aspects to Americas military interventions worldwide.

President George W. Bush in a classroom.

The documentary features special interviews with the then team of President George W. Bush- Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice (National Security Advisor), Colin Powell (Secretary of State), Andy Card (Chief of Staff), Dan Bartlett (Director of Communications), Rear Admiral Deborah Loewer (Head of Situation Room), Josh Bolton (Deputy Chief of Staff), Ari Fleischer (Press Secretary), Karl Rove (Senior Advisor to the President), Mary Matalin (advisor to Cheney), Karen Hughes (Special Advisor to the President), Mike Morrell (CIA briefer), Ted Olson (Solicitor General), Colonel Mark Tillman (Air Force One pilot), David Wilkinson and Tony Zotto (Secret Service). They provided sincere and heartfelt exclusive reactions, perhaps for the first time ever.
Sept. 11, 2001, Tuesday was going to be a day, either way that students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota Florida, would never forget. President Bush was coming to their school at the beginning of the classes. The second graders had no inkling they were about to become part of history. Lazarus Dubrocq was just seven-years-old when he met the President. As a grownup man, he recalls that the Commander in Chief came to his reading class. “Before we started reading to him, we actually had a conversation with him,” said Dubrocq. He says, President Bush was in a good mood talking about his daughters and his two dogs at the White House.
Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and attempted to crash a plane into the White House. Dubrocq says, the teachers did their best to shield the students from the information that began to disrupt the reading class. President Bush also did his best to protect the students from the media who began asking questions. This marked the original footage available as standard coverage of a Presidential tour.
It was the first absorption and reaction of a leader’s initial grasp of the sensational information. Contrast this with the fresh assessment of a twenty years later statement, which gives the reflective picture of the quality of leadership required to deal with difficult and tricky situations. James Jackson writing for The Times gave the documentary 4 out of 5 stars writing that former President Bush’s “presence alone made this latest hour-by hour rundown of 9/11 stand out among so many others, even if it felt like the Bush Legacy Foundation account of his defining day”.
This documentary is an insight into the mind of the star interviewee: George W Bush. It’s striking to note that Bush at first, intuitively decided to ignore, for several long minutes, the news about the second tower being hit, for fear of being impolite to a class of Florida seven-year-olds, in the midst of a Presidential visit. Almost sounding bizarre but conscious of his body language, he called for those around him to stop and pray, knowing at the back of his mind that the magnitude, proportion and the manifestations of the developments were as yet unknown. “Prayer can be very comforting,” he says here.
This is the strength of the documentary, the inside revelation. It shows the mind of the President where fear and sorrow are conflicting emotions. At one side he wants to immediately save his citizens, at the other he wants to “kick their ass” not as yet knowing whose ass it was. As a consequence, by the evening he had given credence to the “Bush Doctrine”, which declared that harbouring terrorists was to be treated as the equivalent of perpetrating terror. In fact, a new American terminology, the “war on terror”, was coined and has remained valid all these twenty years. In hind sight one can ask, was it truly a war on terror or an opportunity for the American war machine to flourish.
It was Eddie Marinzel the senior secret service member in the entourage who broke the news to a stunned George W. Bush. Marinzel told TODAY of NBC, “We figured that if we got on Air Force One and went up, up into the sky, that we would be able to hide in the sky. The President was saying, ‘We’re at war and I need to be running this war from the Oval Office. I’m the Commander in Chief and that’s where I need to be.’
Marinzel’s mission became getting the President out of the classroom and onto Air Force One as quickly as possible. “We do a very steep take off,” he explained. “Our idea was to, you know, hide in the sky until we can figure out what was going on.”
Soon enough fighter jets escorted Air Force One, protecting the President from any possible attack. The Twin Towers and the Pentagon were feared to be the beginning of a larger al-Qaeda battle plan.
Once the President left the school function his team hastily but shakenly, got into action.
The air space had to be controlled, there were some 4000 aircrafts airborne and each was like a missile and all of them had to be immediately grounded. Strategically the American airspace had to be closed and sanitised.
Steven Stasiuk, a Secret Service agent who was off duty in Washington D.C., rushed to the White House when he learned of the attacks. He was in the process of buying a car when he saw the planes hit the towers on the salesman’s television. “Everybody just showed up. No one had to be told to come in,” he said.
Secret Service agent Nick Trotta was with first lady Laura Bush on Capitol Hill before evacuating her to Secret Service headquarters. “We perform a role. And that role is really to evacuate and to provide that safety,” he said.
Trotta said the first lady expressed concern about her daughters Barbara and Jenna, who were at college but had been evacuated by Secret Service agents to nearby hotels. The first lady was eager to leave headquarters and wanted to speak with her husband, Trotta said. “I told her that this was the best place. It was the most secure location,” he added.
Although the film’s archive footage has brought credibility to the recall, such as Bush killing a fly on the Oval Office desk, just before giving the gravest speech of his life, to emphasise that every development of 11 September had something extraordinary about it.
But as the administration official shares their recollections on camera, their statements overtake the footage, by their personal anecdotes. For instance, the situation room captain, who recalls having to brace herself against the President’s desk as Air Force One made a steep emergency take off “I went partially weightless. I was petrified” and the deputy communications director, who got over anxious when Bush’s doctor handed out anti-anthrax pills and he took his whole week’s quota in one gulp. The politician expressing the helpless horror of seeing the twin towers fall on TV is Karl Rove. The bowed head, overcome by the emotion of remembering the dilemma over whether or not to shoot down United Flight 93, is that of Dick Cheney.
A few poignant and touching moments are there when Ted Olson, Bush’s solicitor general, dealt on the note he found from his wife, after she had perished on United flight 93: “See you on Friday. Love, Barbara.”
The documentary doesn’t stop reminding you that how so powerful America was believed to be, at the crucial moments the technology failed to deliver. Air Force One was unable to receive a television picture, unless it flew low over cities and managed to pick up a signal. Imagine the frustration, the phone lines did not work and there was constant disruption. Meanwhile on the ground the Capital city had formed their own war room inside a bunker but shortly had to move out as the oxygen levels were negatively influencing their working atmosphere.
The sincerity with which the inherent failures or rather short comings have been scripted is an honest portrayal, rather admission of the wide gap between the urgent effort to get the act right and the obsolesce of systems. “We had no idea what was happening,” quipped the inner-sanctum talking heads.
Perhaps the recall of the tragic moments of 9/11 subtly convey the actions that were taken, had far reaching consequences,on a lot many people in different parts of the world.
The last military plane of the United states took off from Kabul, meeting the deadline of 31st August, before the documentary was available for release.
An expensive production, the documentary has provided the legacy of Bush a new lease of life, but this will not make the task ahead for Joe Biden any easier.
For us it is a grim reminder that we should have a relook at our own war room and ensure that it is technologically updated for any eventuality. The enemy is within and without.
The likes of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and many other terrorist originations are looking for an opportunity, to attack, in their grand plan to make Kashmir into an Islamic state. Our TV channels have already started discussing the plots and the scenario that may unfold. Thus the need to be extra vigilant.
Can Prasar Bharati, in fact Doordarshan attempt a feat like this documentary. Yes it has done so in the past, but most of the creative producers have superannuated and the organisations have been taken over by the Officers of the Indian Information Service.
There have been worthy people coming from this background. One who would be remembered most is Harish Avasthi who became more of a DD person than the service he belonged to. Only those who understand the importance of content creation, fit the bill.

The writer is the former Chief Producer, News & Current Affairs, Doordarshan.