Ex-Commander, US Atlantic Fleet: No one could have handled 9/11 better than George W. Bush

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I took a call from Rudy Washington, the deputy mayor of New York City. A jet passenger plane had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center; another plane had just struck the south tower. The Deputy Mayor told me that he thought Mayor Giuliani was likely dead. It was now clear that the nation was under attack.

The Pentagon was burning and communication with top Defense leadership was almost nonexistent. There were an unknown number of planes in the sky that had been hijacked, and each represented a mortal threat to our nation's leaders, infrastructure and very existence.

In that moment, and because of damaged communication systems, the nation’s commanders had to make a series of decisions with very little solid information and even less clear direction.

We could have waited for explicit orders - where to move our ships, where to fly our planes. Instead, we relied on public statements coming from President Bush that the nation had moved to a war footing – and we knew we had to immediately take action to support the defense of our homeland.

It is easy to look back, more than 14 years later, and suggest that things should have been handled better. But that kind of 20/20 hindsight is proof of an unserious mind.

And because of President Bush's leadership, we knew we had the authority to do so.

I say this because President Bush has lately come under attack by some who have stated foolishly that he has not been held responsible for the attacks of 9/11. In fact, it was due to President Bush's direction and leadership that this nation's airspace was quickly secured and that we were now able to take the fight to the enemy.

In those awful moments that September morning, the Atlantic Fleet and other military commands quickly reacted. We moved ships out of port so that they could forcefully engage our new enemy. Our F-18s joined NORAD's planes to protect the skies over Manhattan and the rest of the country. We sent cruisers up the Chesapeake Bay to provide missile defenses over the nation's capital. And forward deployed commanders turned the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which had been headed to South Africa, back toward the coast of Pakistan without direction from Washington.

By the next morning two of our carriers were in position ready to launch strikes, only because their military commanders knew that's where our Commander in Chief needed them to be.

At all times President Bush's direction was clear, and we knew that in this time of surprise attack we could not stand by and wait for formal approvals to run up and down the chain of command.

These steps made a major difference. For example, Deputy Mayor Washington briefly kept citizens from crossing the bridges out of Manhattan -- fearing that they would be easily targeted by another hijacked jet -- until he heard our nation's fighter jets over Manhattan.

What we didn't know -- none of us could have known -- was whether there were more hijackers in the sky, preparing to take over more planes and conduct another  wave of attacks. President Bush didn't know either.

In fact, a few weeks later, when the president came to Norfolk for a speech, he told us that the toughest decision he made on 9/11 was to give advance approval to shoot down any passenger jet that refused to land as directed. That order, which thankfully never had to be executed, represented the kind of difficult choices confronting us.

That's the reality of the kinds of decisions commanders have to make in times of crisis. You are faced with hard calls and you are given limited information and even flawed information. Yet you are expected to do your sworn duty to protect this nation and its citizens, and you will be held accountable for failure -- as you should be.

Any commander who has ever had to make a decision in crisis will recognize that there is no such thing as perfect information. Everything is subject to doubt and second-guessing. There are no perfect decisions.

It is easy to look back, more than 14 years later, and suggest that things should have been handled better. But that kind of 20/20 hindsight is proof of an unserious mind.  It fails to accept the simple truth that the cowardly attacks of 9/11 were completely unexpected, and that our nation's commanders had mere minutes to execute plans to ground all flights then in the air, secure our skies and then turn our attention to the long and difficult war that lay ahead.

No American leader since Pearl Harbor had to deal with this kind of surprise attack, and no one could have done it better than George W. Bush did it.