The wife of the U.S. president is considered one of the nation’s “most visible targets,” and is therefore provided with a detail of Secret Service agents whose job is to protect her and keep her out of harm’s way. And yet on September 11, 2001, Laura Bush, the wife of then-President George W. Bush, was left vulnerable all through the terrorist attacks.

She was allowed to head to her scheduled destination¸ the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, even after a second plane hit the World Trade Center and it was obvious the U.S. was under attack. She was allowed to spend time there, even though her Secret Service agents should have taken her away to a “secure site.” She even appeared live on CNN, thereby revealing her location to any terrorist who might be watching television. And when people were ordered to evacuate, due to reports that a suspicious plane was heading toward Capitol Hill, Bush remained in the Russell Office Building, even though this could have proved fatal had a plane crashed into it. She was only driven away to a “secure location” at 10:10 a.m., after the attacks had ended. And all this time, she was accompanied by her Secret Service detail.

The failure of those agents to properly protect Bush was extraordinary. Examination of their actions raises serious questions. We need to discover what caused these skilled professionals to repeatedly leave the first lady in serious danger.

September 11, 2001, had events gone as originally planned, would have been an historic day for Laura Bush. That morning, she was scheduled to become only the fourth first lady to testify before Congress. [1] At 10:00 a.m., Bush was going to appear before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and talk about early childhood education. [2] She was set to arrive at the Russell Senate Office Building, located just north of the Capitol building in Washington, DC, at 9:15 a.m. for the hearing. [3]

According to Noelia Rodriguez, the first lady’s press secretary, with Laura Bush set to appear at the hearing that morning, “We expected it to be a big news day for us.” [4] The forthcoming event had been well publicized. It had been reported in advance by the Associated Press and in major newspapers such as USA Today and the New York Daily News. [5] This meant that had terrorists wanted to attack an important person representing the U.S. government as part of the 9/11 attacks, they could have targeted the wife of the president. They could easily have found out her plans for September 11, simply by reading a newspaper or checking on the Internet.

On September 11, Laura Bush learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center at around 9:00 a.m., as she was about to be driven from the White House to Capitol Hill. She did not see the initial coverage of the crash on television. Instead, the head of her Secret Service detail, Ron Sprinkle, told her what had happened as she was getting into her limousine. Bush has said she didn’t initially think the crash was an act of terrorism. She speculated about what could have happened with Andi Ball, her chief of staff, and Margaret Spellings, the White House domestic policy adviser, who were with her. But “at that time,” Bush has recalled, “we thought it was just some weird freak accident.” [6]

Nevertheless, Bush thought the Senate hearing should perhaps be canceled, because New York Senator Hillary Clinton was supposed to attend it. Bush has said that after learning of the first crash, “I thought we probably should cancel, because Mrs. Clinton was on the [Senate education] committee and she’s from New York, and she’d probably want to rush home at that time.” [7] But, despite her reservations, Bush continued to Capitol Hill. Most of her staffers traveled there with her, while the others stayed behind at the White House. [8]

At 9:03 a.m., a second plane crashed into the WTC. It was then clear that the U.S. was suffering a serious and unprecedented terrorist attack. [9] According to a National Geographic Channel documentary about the Secret Service, “In a state of emergency, the Secret Service’s plan is to get every protectee to a secure site.” [10] But, in this obvious emergency, the first lady’s Secret Service agents made no attempt to rush their “protectee” to a secure site, and they appear to have raised no objections to her continuing to her planned destination.

Bush’s limousine and the vehicles accompanying it drove off from the White House for the two-mile journey to Capitol Hill at 9:07 a.m., four minutes after the second crash took place, according to Noelia Rodriguez, who was traveling in the staff van. At that time, Bush and the members of staff accompanying her were apparently unaware of the second crash. [11] Bush was traveling with four Secret Service agents that day, according to journalist and author Ronald Kessler. [12] It is unclear if these agents learned of the second crash right after it happened. If they did, why did they fail to pass on the news to the first lady immediately? If not, this would be extraordinary: Surely their colleagues would have seen the crash live on television and should have contacted them at once to pass on the critical news.

Instead, it was several minutes before the first lady was told about the second crash. Bush has recalled, “As we approached Capitol Hill, the Secret Service said that another plane had hit the second tower.” She “knew then that it was terrorism” and not an accident. [13] Bush’s limousine arrived at the Russell Senate Office Building at 9:16 a.m., according to Rodriguez. [14] And Bush has written that she was told about the second crash two minutes before then, meaning around 9:14 a.m. [15] If correct, this means the wife of the U.S. president only learned of the crash 11 minutes after it happened.

Laura Bush’s limousine pulled up outside the Russell Senate Office Building just one minute behind schedule, at 9:16 a.m. Senator Edward Kennedy, the chairman of the education committee, came to greet the first lady after she entered the building, as planned. [16] In light of the events in New York, Bush and Kennedy immediately agreed to postpone the hearing and then headed to Kennedy’s office, accompanied by the first lady’s staff. [17] After a time, they were joined by Senator Judd Gregg, a longtime Bush family friend. It appears the group stayed in Kennedy’s office for around 20 minutes. Bush’s Secret Service agents allowed this, even though they should surely have taken the first lady away to a “secure site.”

Although a television in a corner of the room was showing the catastrophe taking place in New York, Kennedy, rather than focusing on the attacks, took the first lady on a tour of his office and, Bush has recalled, the two talked about “mundane things.” [18] They were “talking about some other items” besides the terrorist attacks, according to Gregg. [19]

Meanwhile, Bush’s Secret Service agents and senior staff reportedly “frantically worked their earpieces and cell phones to get a handle on the unfolding attacks.” Although the first lady and those with her weren’t catching all of the television coverage of the events in New York, Bush has recalled that they “knew what was happening because people kept coming in.” [20]

Bush and Kennedy decided they should offer some words of reassurance to the American public. [21] Therefore, at around 9:41 a.m., Bush, Kennedy, and Gregg went to the Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building, where they appeared before reporters and television cameras. Kennedy and Bush announced that the planned Senate education committee hearing had been postponed and commented on the attacks in New York. [22] (Although the Pentagon had been hit a few minutes earlier, Bush and the two senators were at that time unaware of this. [23])

The beginning of the appearance was actually broadcast live on CNN. [24] This means the location of the wife of the U.S. president was revealed to any terrorist who might have been watching television. So why did the Secret Service, whose job was to protect the first lady, let Laura Bush make this appearance, thereby putting herself in greater danger?

Furthermore, Bush, Kennedy, and Gregg’s appearance was unnecessary. People would have guessed that the Senate hearing was canceled, so there was no need for these prominent individuals to announce the fact in front of television cameras. At most, all that would have been needed was for someone to contact the TV networks and inform them of the cancelation. Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson, who was reporting from Capitol Hill at the time, has noted this oddity, saying, “They were (incredibly) trying to set up a brief photo opportunity” for Bush and the senators. [25]

However, the appearance did end up serving a significant purpose for Laura Bush. After she and Kennedy had given their statements and were turning to leave the room, USA Today reporter Laurence McQuillan said: “Children are kind of struck by all this. Is there a message you could tell to the nation’s …” Before he could finish the sentence, Bush replied, “Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they’re safe.” [26]

The first lady’s answer to McQuillan is, according to Noelia Rodriguez, “what people remember her for that day.” [27] With her words of advice for American parents, according to Ronald Kessler, Laura Bush “became the comforter in chief, calmly reassuring the nation and dispensing advice on how parents should deal with the tragedy.” [28] September 11 was therefore a turning point for her. A few weeks later, Us Weekly magazine described, “The former librarian from Midland, Texas, has transformed her image from the behind-the-scenes presidential wife most comparable to Mamie Eisenhower to the nation’s comforter in chief.” [29]

As Laura Bush was leaving the Caucus Room, John Meyers, her advance man, received a call on his cell phone from a friend of his, who said CNN was reporting an attack on the Pentagon. [30] It was now clear that Washington, and not just New York, was being targeted. And yet Bush’s Secret Service agents still did not take the first lady away from Capitol Hill to somewhere secure and less prominent.

At 9:48 a.m., an evacuation of the Russell Senate Office Building and the nearby Capitol building began, apparently because of concerns that a suspicious plane was heading toward Capitol Hill. Capitol Police officers were hearing in their radios that there was “another plane in the air, likely headed for the Capitol,” according to CNN. [31] Andi Ball has recalled: “Our agents thought another plane was coming toward Washington. The Capitol was being evacuated.” [32]

Ann Gerhart, a Washington Post reporter, was actually warned to stay away from a window of the Russell Senate Office Building in case a plane crashed into there. Gerhart had just left the Caucus Room, where she had watched Bush and the senators make their brief appearance. She has recalled, “As I moved closer to one of the building’s tall, beautiful leaded glass windows to get better cell phone reception, a Capitol Police officer practically tackled me.” The officer yelled, “Get away from the window!” When Gerhart asked why, the officer replied: “Because we’re under attack! There’s still one plane up there and it’s headed right for us!” [33]

And yet, despite these concerns, Bush’s Secret Service agents allowed the first lady to stay in the Russell Office Building.

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