Bolten: Loyalist, Lone Voice of Dissent—or Both?


WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the morning of 9-11, it was White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card who whispered into the president’s ear the news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. As President Bush sat reading My Pet Goat to a Florida elementary classroom, Card told him, “America is under attack.”

That same morning in Washington, at around 10 o’clock, Joshua Bolten, then deputy chief of staff, sat with Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney’s wife, Lynne, and a group of political aides in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) located below the East Wing of the White House. When Dick Cheney gave the orders to shoot down commercial aircraft headed for Washington, only one person challenged his authority.

That person was Joshua Bolten, the person Bush has just announced will become his new of staff, replacing the veteran Card.

And in the unlikely event there is ever to be any serious investigation of what happened that morning, Bolten’s testimony would be crucial. With the rest of the government in a state of confusion as the 9-11 attacks unfolded, the real authority of government rested in the hands of the people in the PEOC. President Bush was jumping about the country on Air Force One, and in intermittent phone contact with Cheney.

The key question was whether to order the U.S. military to shoot down commercial planes full of passengers so the aircraft could not become suicide missiles aimed at the nation’s capital. The chain of command goes from the president to the secretary of defense and then on down to the various commanders. Under the 25th Amendment, the vice president does not have authority to issue such an order.

Nevertheless, Cheney did issue the orders. Cheney told the 9-11 Commission that just before 10 a.m. he called President Bush to say the Air Force was trying to set up combat air patrol over Washington and needed to have rules of engagement—i.e. the authority to shoot down planes that did not obey orders to change course. Cheney said the president signed off on that issue, and press accounts said the president remembered answering the notion with “You bet.”

The 9-11 Commission reported, “There is no documentary evidence for this call,” but tactfully went on to note that the “relevant sources are incomplete.” According to press accounts, some of the commission staff think the call never took place.

The only reported challenge to Cheney’s actions that day came from Joshua Bolten. According to the 9-11 report, Bolten “told the Commission that he watched the exchanges and, after what he called ‘a quiet moment,’ suggested that the Vice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order. Bolten told us he wanted to make sure the President was told that the Vice President had executed the order. He said he had not heard any prior discussion on the subject with the President.” Cheney then made this well documented call to the president, who concurred with Cheney’s decision.

Roundly described as a Bush loyalist, Bolten nonetheless struck several political observers as likely to bring a fresh viewpoint to the administration. Consider this from the Houston Chronicle:

“He will reach out to a broader range of people to hear their point of view,” said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International and a Democrat who has worked with Bolten. “The worst way to serve the president is to narrow the range of advice he is exposed to.”