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Biden Visits National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial Site; U.S. Marks First 9/11 Anniversary Without Troops In Afghanistan; Ann Compton, Former White House Correspondent, ABC News, Discusses 9/11; Widow Discusses Husband Who Died In World Trade Towers On 9/11 & Quest For Documents On Attack. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired September 11, 2021 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Jim Acosta in Washington.
Just minutes from now President Biden will lay a wreath at the Pentagon, marking 20 years since terrorists attacked the United States and forged the resilience and unity of a nation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sareve Dukat.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Patrick Dunn.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Felicia Gail Dunn-Jones.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: At New York's Ground Zero, amid the sounds of bagpipes and the names of the fallen children honored relatives they never met, growing up in a world forever changed that day. Adults hugged and cried, giving in to the grief. Bruce Springsteen putting words to their loss in a song.
(BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN'S MUSICAL PERFORMANCE)
ACOSTA: Presidents Biden, Obama and Clinton, and the current and former first ladies attending the memorial ceremony there. At the Pentagon where President Biden will soon arrive, a huge American flag was unfurled to remember those killed there. And in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the president and the first lady laid a wreath in memory of the people who overpowered, the heroes who overpowered their hijackers and spared the terrorists' intended target in the nation's capital.
President Biden, at the local firehouse of those first responders, defended ending the war in Afghanistan and that was born from the attacks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you told anybody that we were going to spend 300 million bucks a day for 20 years to try to unite the country after we got bin Laden, after al Qaeda was wiped out there, can al Qaeda come back? Yes. But guess what, it's already back other places. What's the strategy? Every place where al Qaeda is, we're going to invade and have troops stay there? Come on.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Former President Bush eight months since the U.S. Capitol insurrection today calling on Americans to condemn violent extremists both abroad and at home.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within. There's little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home, but then there's disdainful pluralism, and their disregard for human life, and their determination to defile national symbols. They are children of the same foul spirit and it is our continuing duty to confront them.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: CNN's Arlette Saenz is at the White House.
Arlette, the president and first lady visited all three sites of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 today. Clearly that was very important to them to do that.
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it really was. The White House said that it was important for President Biden for him to be on hands at all three sites on this 20th anniversary of those attacks on September 11th, 2001. And in just a short while any minute now really we should be seeing President Biden at the final of the three sites this afternoon.
He and the first lady will be laying a wreath at the Pentagon where one of those planes crashed just 20 years ago. They will be accompanied by Vice President Harris as well as second gentleman Doug Emhoff, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And the President Biden started the day earlier in New York City at Ground Zero where he listened as the names of those who had fallen on September 11th were read aloud. He was also joined by former President Obama and former President Bill Clinton. He then made his way to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to lay a wreath at the memorial site there, and also walked to that very site where the boulder, where the impact of that Flight 93 crashed down.
The president speaking to reporters said that those actions taken by the passengers and crew on that flight were acts of genuine heroism. And the president also stopped by a fire station, which the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department, which was the first fire station firefighters on-site in that crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And the president spoke to reporters as he was there and once again defended his decision to withdraw American military presence from Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war that began after those 9/11 attacks. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: 77 percent of the American people think it was time to get out of Afghanistan, spending all that money. But the flip of it is, they didn't like the way we got out. But it's hard to explain to anybody how else could you get out. For example, if we were in Tajikistan, we pulled up a C-130, and said we're not going to let, you know, anybody who was involved with being sympathetic to us to get in the plane, you'd have people hanging on the wheel well. No.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
SAENZ: And any moment now we should be seeing President Biden there at the Pentagon. And I went back and took a look at a portion of his memoir where he talked about that September 11th 20 years ago. He had been on the Amtrak train traveling from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., received a phone call from his wife, Jill Biden, where she relayed the news of those attacks.
And he said that when he walked outside of Union Station after his Amtrak train had arrived, he could see the haze of smoke coming in the distance beyond the Capitol. That was just after the moment where that plane crashed into the Pentagon.
So much of President Biden's political career has been shaped by these attacks on September 11th 20 years ago, and today he is about to pay the final tribute on this long day of remembrance as he wanted to honor the lives and sacrifices made by so many this day 20 years ago.
ACOSTA: Yes, he is certainly the consoler-in-chief on this day, Arlette Saenz, visiting lower Manhattan, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and now Pentagon there just outside of Washington, D.C. in northern Virginia.
We should see the president and first lady in just a moments ago and as Alette was mentioning, just a short time ago, the vice president and the second gentleman will be there, the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley. We're going to keep an eye on that camera and the other cameras that are there at the Pentagon and we'll bring you coverage of the president's visit for the wreath-laying ceremony in just a few minutes.
And as the nation observes the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it will be the first time we've done so without any troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
CNN's Nic Robertson joins us now from Kabul. Nic, you were in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened. I want to talk to you
about that in just a moment. But first, Arlette was just playing some of that sound from President Biden. He was talking to reporters at fire station in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Let me get your take. What are your thoughts on what the president had to say today defending his withdrawal, his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, Jim, I think that, you know, the reality on the ground here was once people knew the United States was going to leave and was leaving in a hurry, there was going to be a huge rush of people because they knew that the Taliban was coming to town. And many people still fear the Taliban from 20 years ago. They knew that their opportunity to get out was going to be a limited one, and that's why we saw the huge crush of people.
There are still plenty of people here that want to get out. They had those experiences under the Taliban, many of them 20 years ago. They had something different, they had improved lives here, and the reality is the Taliban is not going to be able to deliver the same level of human rights, very likely the same level of economy, the same level of opportunities. It's going to be a much different picture for women at the moment. So I think --
ACOSTA: There's the president and the first lady arriving at the Pentagon for this wreath-laying ceremony. You see the vice president, the second gentleman, as well as the Defense secretary.
I want to bring in a presidential historian Doug Brinkley as we work on the audio with Nic Robertson's remote live shot.
Doug Brinkley, as we're watching this moment, I just wanted to get your thoughts, your reflections on this day. We've seen President Biden playing this role of the consoler-in-chief. Before we get your thoughts, Doug, let's just take a few moment, listen to how things are playing out there at the Pentagon.
(PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN AT THE WREATH-LAYING CEREMONY AT THE PENTAGON)
ACOSTA: There's the president and the first lady, Kamala Harris, the vice president, second gentleman, just paying their respects at the Pentagon for the 184 people who were killed when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building there on 9/11.
Joining me to talk about what we just saw and the events of this day is historian Doug Brinkley and our Arlette Saenz over at the White House.
Doug, let me go to you first, and what are your thoughts? We've seen the commander-in-chief act as the consoler-in-chief today at all three sites that were impacted on September 11th. Your thoughts?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I thought President Biden did a marvelous job today of commemorating the 20th anniversary. First, as you mentioned, Jim, that going to all three sites to really grieving and mourning in remembrance, but also talking about the resilience of America, talking about that we're going to be united. He's had the unusual -- it's kind of like a bookend in history today where George W. Bush who was present for 9/11 connected January 6th, the insurrection, to 9/11.
And Joe Biden is talking arduously about not tolerating al Qaeda anymore. So the president hit the right tones today, and I think anybody who has been watching our coverage on CNN has to be moved by the way our entire nation is really responding 20 years later from that cataclysmic day that lives in infamy like Pearl Harbor, with the Kennedy assassination, or January 6th.
ACOSTA: And Doug, just as the attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on civilians and resulted in the deaths of so many police officers and firefighters and first responders, the attack on the Pentagon, it was an attack on a military building, the headquarters of our military, and I think it's cemented in so many minds in America that this was an attack not just on civilians in 9/11 but on our armed forces. And I think it necessitated, I think, in the minds of so many Americans a military response.
Can you talk about that, and why the attack on the Pentagon is so critical in how we think about 9/11 and talk about 9/11?
BRINKLEY: Well, the Pentagon in American history up to that point was sort of an impenetrable fortress. We used the Pentagon to mean American military fight. And the fact that that Flight 77 could hit into the Pentagon put in that gaping wound, kill so many of America's best and the brightest people working in public service for our national security and our global foreign policy.
It was jarring. I mean, the World Trade Center had been the looming towers. People had worried about an al Qaeda strike there because of the airspace, but the Pentagon, nobody imagined, Jim, that that could be a vulnerable target.
BRINKLEY: And so I think it reminds us that our homeland wasn't safe. And it led George W. Bush to create Homeland Security, to start TSA making our airports and port facilities safer, and created in our country a new kind of security state the way Harry Truman maybe created a national security state right after World War II with CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Security Council.
George W. Bush now had to think about the homeland in a new way. And none of us felt safe whether you went to a mall or a baseball game from terrorism from abroad. But in recent years, we have to be worried about terrorism at home, and that was the point George W. Bush drilled home today.
ACOSTA: And we're continuing to watch President Biden at this wreath- laying ceremony at the Pentagon, the third of his three trips today visiting all three sites that were attacked on September 11th.
Arlette, let me go over to you over at the White House. On 9/11 when officials and politicians were urged to evacuate Washington, D.C., then-senator Biden was at the Capitol. As vice president, he said he owed the Flight 93 victims a personal debt of gratitude. It was thought on that day and in the years since that Flight 93 was heading towards the capitol. And Joe Biden has spoken about all of this passionately over the years. Can you talk about that?
SAENZ: Yes, I mean, President Biden is no stranger to these remembrances of September 11th. He was then a senator from Delaware, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on that day 20 years ago, was outside of the Capitol shortly after the attack on the Pentagon. And over the course of the past 20 years, Biden has visited many of these sites as then vice president.
I had the chance to travel with him in 2012 to Shanksville, and I remember the power and the somberness of that moment, and you could tell that you were really on sacred ground, something that the president has taken very seriously as he has gone to visit each of these sites today, wrapping up right now at Pentagon.
But this 9/11, this 20th anniversary, while Biden has been and participated in these types of remembrances in the past, it is his first as commander-in-chief. And you have to imagine that the moment weighs a bit heavier for him now as president of the United States, especially as he has made the decision to withdraw, end the 20-year war in Afghanistan, something that in these final weeks as that drawdown took place, it was rather chaotic. There was the loss of 13 servicemembers in those final days.
And it was just a few weeks ago that the president was on hand at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as the remains of those 13 U.S. servicemembers came back to the United States. If you couple that with this 20th anniversary, you have to imagine that it is a particularly poignant and somber day for this president as, really, he was on hand as a senator in those moments after this terror that the September 11th attacks brought 20 years ago.
And now, he is entering this new phase as president as he's trying to turn the corner from that 9/11 era and bring the country together in unity after we've seen this pandemic raging and claiming so many lives in the country, the president deciding to end that war in Afghanistan, trying to take the country into that post-9/11 era as we've seen play out with some of the decisions that he's been making.
But this is certainly a somber day. He was on that train, Amtrak train, from Delaware to Washington when he learned the news. And when he leaves here at the Pentagon, he will be heading back home to Wilmington, Delaware, to reflect on the remembrances of this day that have weighed so heavily on people across the country.
ACOSTA: Yes, Arlette, President Biden uniquely suited to act as the consoler-in-chief on this day.
Doug, it's pretty surreal to think about the fact that there is an entire generation that has no memory of 9/11, or they have a memory of 9/11 as young children. Yet they live in a world that was so greatly defined by it. Can you talk about that?
BRINKLEY: Yes, you know, just the other day, because of the anniversary, I asked my students about -- at Rice University where I teach what year they were born, and I was startled to be reminded that they weren't alive for 9/11.
That this is all ancient history the way that perhaps some events of World War II were ancient history in my time, but yet they live in a post-9/11 world. The United States became a kingdom of fear in many ways. Yes, there was that short period where the American flags prevailed and we had unity and George W. Bush had 70 percent approval rating, but 9/11 made the Bush administration focus on foreign policy and building what is called neo-Wilsonianism, the idea that United States can build democracies in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in other places.
And that didn't come to fruition. In climate change, which for so many young people is a big issue, got neglected during the Bush years because of our pursuit of global terrorism. And then the irony that they're in college now 20 years later looking at this history, and you can't say we won the war in Afghanistan. I mean, we went in to take the Taliban out, and the Taliban is here today, but we can reflect on the service of our men and women and the incredible job they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, responding to America under siege.
And you try to remind young people of that heroism and that's something that goes eternal. And both Biden and Bush today, I thought, Jim, did a nice job of reminding people, our whole country is, of what everyday heroism is all about. What can you say to the firemen and the policemen and law enforcement that stepped up and made America look brave and great 20 years ago. And that the stories will continue.
We go to the Pentagon. You said, Jim, a little while ago you went to Shanksville, and that's becoming, as Kamala Harris said today and you've said, sacred ground. You need to go visit Shanksville as if you would go to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania or Gettysburg where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.
ACOSTA: That's right.
BRINKLEY: I think the history of 9/11 is still with us very much even for young people that weren't born back then.
ACOSTA: Yes, Doug, I just think about, you know, with regard to Shanksville, if that plane had been successful in hitting the Capitol just how devastating that would have been to the United States. There's just no question about it, how heroic those actions were on that day.
And I think you're absolutely right in terms of how we reflected on 9/11 in thinking about not just the people in Shanksville, but obviously our heroes at Ground Zero, and our heroes who responded to what was a catastrophic event at the Pentagon where we're seeing President Biden and the first lady right now.
Just a remarkable moment to see President Biden. And he looks like he's leaving the scene now there at Pentagon. Just a remarkable moment in our history to see President Biden, who is no stranger to Washington, five decades in Washington. And here he is taking America through this just important remembrance on this day.
Doug Brinkley, Arlette Saenz, thanks so much. We'll have more to talk about, of course, all of this. But let's take a quick break. We'll be right back. Back in a moment.
ACOSTA: As we mark 20 years since 9/11, it will be the first time we've done so without any U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan. CNN's Nic Robertson joins us now from Kabul.
Nic, you were in Afghanistan when 9/11 happened. We were just talking to you a few moments ago when the president arrived at the Pentagon so we had to cut your live shot short there. Apologies for that. But talk to us about that day 20 years ago.
ROBERTSON: Yes, it was very hard to get a real sense of what was going on because Afghanistan at that time was really isolated from the rest of the world. The Taliban didn't allow televisions. I was trying to call our headquarters. When eventually someone picked up at CNN, they just said, it's crazy here and hung up the phone. I called my wife who's a reporter for CNN in London, and as we were on the phone, the second plane hit the second tower.
And at that moment I remember realizing this is clearly terrorism, and the only group that was likely to do that was in al Qaeda. And I've been in Afghanistan on several occasions by then already because of al Qaeda's terrorism against the United States, the USS Cole, the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Both times I'd ended up in Kabul so I knew then that this was very likely to come back to Afghanistan.
That evening we had the Taliban on television broadcasting it live around the world denying that Osama bin Laden had done this, denying sort of connections to al Qaeda. Ten years later, that same Taliban official who was the foreign minister then, was still in denial about it.
ACOSTA: Of course. And, Nic, let's listen to something that the Taliban police chief told CNN in an exclusive interview today when asked about how they're different now from 20 years ago. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QARI HAQMAL, TALIBAN POLICE CHIEF (through translator): There is no difference between the laws 20 years ago and now. Only back then the U.S. was too powerful. They were doing a lot of propaganda.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Nic, what do you make of that?
ROBERTSON: Yes, this is what we've been hearing from the Taliban, that they are going back to their strict interpretation of Islamic law. They've been laying that down for, you know, border crossings, for education, telling women to stay at home and not show up for work in government offices.
You know, what's really interesting here is that same police chief, when he was asked, what instructions are you getting from the sort of Taliban high command, he said, well -- because he's Mazar-I-Sharif, in the northern country.
He said, well, actually, we're not getting any instructions. We're just sort of following the Islamic law and the Islamic rule.
So back in the day, the Taliban were cutting the hands off of thieves. They were doing it in public, in the streets of Kabul. They were hanging people in football stadiums. They were stoning adulterers.
That question is alive today, and it's alive in peoples' minds in Kabul, will they do the same thing today? Now they are hinting that they will be different, that perhaps they won't be cutting off the hands of people.
But when the police chief was asked that question in that interview, his was, well, that's up to the court, it's up to the judges.
It's just not clear if the Taliban will be doing that same sort of thing again, cutting off people's hands for thieving.
It takes you back to the Middle Ages and it takes the people of this city and the rest of the country back 20 years, and much more, into a lot of fear.
ACOSTA: Of course.
And what is the likelihood that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorist groups again? That is obviously the major concern here in the U.S.
The president says his administration is obviously keeping an eye on things, but he doesn't want to go and invade countries in order to keep groups like al Qaeda in check. He says that's not the right approach.
What are your thoughts?
ROBERTSON: Look, al Qaeda is still here. That's very known and very clear. The Taliban have promised that al Qaeda would not use Afghan soil to attack the United States in the future.
But as we found on our drive here to Kabul just a couple of days ago, the Taliban do not control this country. There are rogue elements out and about today.
It is well known here that the Taliban's agenda and fighters have mixed and crossed over, over the years, with both al Qaeda and with other similar groups who are still here, still operating. There have been brothers in arms shared fighters.
The real understanding here is that the Taliban cannot turn their grassroots fighters on these other groups who share the same ideology.
They might have a slightly different intent on who they're going to attack, but they share the same ideology. They've fought together. These other groups have helped fight for the Taliban.
The idea the Taliban could turn on them and not have their own fighters turn against the Taliban government, that doesn't hold water.
So what does that tell you? It means that those groups like al Qaeda can remain in the country, can exist here. The Taliban doesn't have rights across the whole country.
So they can plot and plan their own agendas, and we don't know what those agendas will be -- Jim?
ACOSTA: All right, Nic Robertson, thank you so much for that analysis.
My next guest was thousands of miles away from Ground Zero when the attacks happened but played a critical role in helping find those responsible.
Former FBI agent, Ali Soufan, made his name investigating al Qaeda plots before 9/11 and, later, interrogating al Qaeda suspects after the attacks and getting invaluable information from them.
He's also the author of "The Black Banners Declassified: The War on Terror After 9/11."
Ali, take us back to that day. What went through your mind when you heard what had happened in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania? You were in Yemen at the time. Walk us through what happened.
ALI SOUFAN, FORMER FBI AGENT & AUTHOR: I was in the embassy in Yemen. We were working on an investigation.
And a colleague of mine walked into the office and he said that a plane hit the World Trade Center. We thought maybe a Cessna plane or an accident.
Then another plane hit the World Trade Center. We knew immediately that we were under attack.
The moment the second plane hit, I had no doubt in my mind that al Qaeda was behind the attack.
At the time, we rushed to the phones. We're trying to reach our office. Our offices were on 26 Federal Plaza, very close to the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, the lines were down. We could not reach anyone.
We tried to reach headquarters to find out what's going on. And eventually everyone was packed and heading back home to help with the war that we are under, the attacks we were under.
And Yemen, at the runway, I had to put a secure satellite -- we got a phone call from headquarters that we needed to talk on secure lines. We put the secure satellite.
And I was tasked to stay in Yemen to follow up on some of the leads resulting from the attacks.
After that, we went back and we started to show pictures to al Qaeda subjects that we know in Yemen.
One of them was Bin Laden's personal bodyguard and he spotted seven of the hijackers as being al Qaeda members. And at that point, we were 100 percent sure that it was al Qaeda who attacked us.
ACOSTA: And when you were in those room interrogating people that helped kill thousands of Americans, what were those moments like for you?
SOUFAN: It's so difficult. I lost friends, mentors in the World Trade Center attack.
So to go and look at someone who you know was involved, and you know helped kill thousands of people, and you tried to keep it all together in order to get the information you need in order to destroy the next plot.
It was very difficult. It was very difficult emotionally, psychologically. But it was a job that we had to do. And we did what we had to do.
ACOSTA: Ali, did the suspects tell you why, why they did it?
SOUFAN: Oh, yes, I mean, basically the same thing that Bin Laden talks about, you know, his declaration of war in 1996. And his fatwa in 1998, when he issued to kill Americans.
America is, you know, the source of all the evil of the Muslim world. America is stealing the wealth of Muslims. America is inviting -- invading Muslims lands and killing Iraqi children.
But the --
ACOSTA: Was there any remorse? Was there any remorse?
SOUFAN: Absolutely not. Actually, they were very proud of what they did. We saw some guy once in a while who was remorseful and genuinely
apologetic of what had happened. But for the most part, now, they felt they were at war and they felt they would win that war.
They had no doubt in their mind that eventually they would be on the winning side.
ACOSTA: President Obama vowed to close Guantanamo. Obviously, that didn't happen.
What's your thought of what should happen with that facility and the prisoners who are still there?
We are seeing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is still going through the legal process at Guantanamo. That's very disappointing to a lot of Americans who wish this had been dealt with years ago.
SOUFAN: Yes, look, at the very beginning, with Guantanamo Bay, maybe you could make an argument that it was a necessary evil. But after 20 years ago, it's just evil. There's no necessity about it.
And these individuals at Guantanamo, Americans -- people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and Al-Raham Al-Nashiri, the mastermind of the "USS Cole" that murdered 17 American sailors, injured 40, and so many others.
These guys need to be brought to justice, real American justice. And I believe Article III courts, regular federal courts, can deal with their cases.
Unfortunately, in enhanced-interrogations techniques program, the torture program, made it very difficult to accomplish any kind of justice for the families, and, you know, with these people - give them the sentences that they deserve.
This is one of the biggest problems that we have at Guantanamo is torture. A lot of these people at Guantanamo went through the torture problem.
It's going to be difficult to get any evidence against them in a court of law without disclosing what they endured when they were at the black sites or in different places, or in Guantanamo, frankly.
ACOSTA: Absolutely. And it's a good reminder of what we went through in addition to what occurred on September 11th.
Ali Soufan, thank you so much for all the work you've done over the years. We appreciate it. And offering your insights on this very important day.
SOUFAN: Thank you.
ACOSTA: And as we go to break, we want to show you a live picture, if we have it, of the Freedom Tower. There it stands in New York City. It's just a beautiful sight. If you've never been to lower Manhattan to look at the new building
there, the relatively new building there, the Freedom Tower, you really should take the opportunity.
And we'll be right back. A lot more to come.
ACOSTA: It's been 20 years since 9/11, and two decades later, ask anyone who was alive during the attacks on that day, and they'll tell you where they were when that happened.
Joining us now is Ann Compton. She's a former White House correspondent for ABC News, a familiar face in that briefing room.
Ann, you were in that Florida classroom when George W. Bush first learned about the attacks and later on Air Force One. We're showing some video of that moment now.
The president at the time was reading to some school children and then Andy Card, the White House chief of staff at that time, leaned into Bush's ear and told him what was going on.
Can you talk to us about that?
ANN COMPTON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS: What is astonishing about that moment, so iconic, was how little we knew in that classroom. The whole world was watching two towers now aflame.
And Andy Card walked in and whispered very briefly to the president and stepped back. What stunned me was the look on the president's face. I wrote it down in my reporter's notebook, 9:07, President Bush.
What we did not know, but the president knew, is that he had already asked the Intelligence Community, what could al Qaeda do to Americans on American soil?
So Andy Card very carefully said, a second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.
At that moment, George Bush got his answer from the Intelligence Community. This is what they could do. And I think he knew instantly. And you could tell it from the look on his face.
ACOSTA: Everything changed at that moment. Not just for the country but for President Bush.
COMPTON: And look how much changed that day. He got on Air Force One, determined to go back to Washington.
He had only been president for less than eight months. That first year is so vulnerable for the president. He didn't have a full staff in place. He was still pushing the domestic agenda.
But he got back on the plane and they said, you're not going anywhere because, just before - as we were leaving the school, he said, the planes just hit.
So he flew and had very limited communications to the ground. That limited communication made worse when Air Force One felt it needed to go to a much higher altitude. And that further destroyed his ability to talk to people on the ground.
And he wanted to go back, and he was asked at one point by Vice President Cheney, who technically is not in the chain of command, should U.S. military jets shoot down any other plane, civilian jetliner being suspected of being hijacked?
The whole idea of, you lose lives in the air, you don't lose them on the ground.
ACOSTA: Those were the choices that were being contemplated.
COMPTON: But what president enters office saying, I may have to do this.
It's unclear whether the president gave his thumbs up before Cheney passed it on or whether it was after. The president agreed either way.
That flight was already nose down into Shanksville, and they did not know it. We did not know it.
But that's the kind of end. The two jets that were up there looking for the plane didn't have time to get any weapons on board. So what the colonel said, I'll aim my jet at the cockpit, you aim at the tail.
So many memories come flooding back and it's just wonderful to talk to you about them.
But I want to ask you about something the former president said today, because he really, I think, jump-started a conversation that I think maybe needed to be had in this country.
He talked about the threat the country faced 20 years ago, and he talked about the threat that the country faces from domestic extremists now, essentially saying domestic extremists are no different than foreign extremists.
COMPTON: Same foul spirit --
ACOSTA: What did you think about that? COMPTON: Trying those two together, he did it somewhat delicately.
But, man, that's pulling a pin on a grenade.
And his administration, over eight years as a wartime president, of course, left the legacy of not only Afghanistan but Iraq and his -- and then the financial collapse at the end.
So his record is already mixed. Americans are all over the lot on his presidency.
COMPTON: This is going to further complicate that.
There are people who are going to say, he's right, domestic terrorism does have a parallel.
There will be others who say, why didn't you speak up earlier? Why did you wait until you had been out of office for how many years is this now, and why not speak up?
But he clearly chose an audience that was huge to do it today.
ACOSTA: He certainly did.
And I wanted to ask you, because you also know President Biden from his days as vice president very well.
COMPTON: And as Senator.
ACOSTA: And as Senator, of course.
And he was very much acting like the consoler-in-chief today. Did not deliver formal prepared remarks. He made some comments to reporters in Shanksville earlier in the day.
But what are your thoughts on how President Biden handled this day? The way I look at it, he is uniquely suited for these moments.
COMPTON: He is, but he is the president that comes after all this. He's the fourth American president who has dealt with 9/11, the fallout, Afghanistan, Iraq.
So he clearly felt that this was not his voice. He is the one who ended Afghanistan, as difficult as those last weeks have been.
To let the voices be George Bush, who does not always speak on the anniversary, to let the presence of former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, be standing there, and let other voices speak today.
The consoler-in-chief does everything from natural disasters to those last casualties coming back from Afghanistan.
ACOSTA: Ann Compton, we are so fortunate to have had you working in the White House press corps for so many years and to have been there on that very important day. [16:49:59]
Ann Compton, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.
COMPTON: Thanks, Jim.
ACOSTA: And we will be right back.
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ACOSTA: That is Broadway star, Chris Jackson, performing at today's service at Ground Zero. Jackson played George Washington in the musical "Hamilton."
Joining ne now is Terry Strada. She is the national chair of 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice against Terrorism. Terry lost her 41-year-old husband, Tom, in the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Terry, we can't imagine the gravity of this day for you and how every day since 9/11 must weigh on you and your three children.
Your youngest was just four days old, is that right, when the attacks happened?
What are your thoughts on this day?
TERRY STRADA, NATIONAL CHAIR, 9/11 FAMILIES AND SURVIVORS UNITED FOR JUSTICE AGAINST TERRORISM & WIDOW OF TOM STRADA WHO DIED ON 9/11: Yes, that is correct. Justin was four days old.
I would say this anniversary is more painful because the realization that 20 years have gone by since, you know, Tom was here with us.
The children were young back then and now they're young adults. He's just missed out on so much and we've missed having him at all of our life events, whether they've been celebrations or difficult times.
It's just been hard without him.
ACOSTA: What do you remember the most about that last call you had with your husband?
STRADA: Oh, the fear and the panic in his voice and in the voices behind him. It sounded very frantic in the background.
Tom worked on a desk on Wall Street. I heard screaming and now for 20 years. But this was very different. And he had said a plane had hit and he was going into the stairwells
to try to get out and had hoped for -- as soon as we hung up the phone is when the pictures came on the television set.
And when I saw that gaping hole and that fire and that smoke, I realized just how serious and horrible it really was.
ACOSTA: We were just looking at a picture of you and Tom a few moments ago. And what a lovely couple. Just beautiful smiling faces.
Terry, you and other families have waged a long fight for documents related to the 9/11 investigation to be declassified and released. President Biden, as you know, has ordered that process to begin.
What does that mean to you? What answers would you like to have?
STRADA: It means everything to us. I mean, it's been a long fight. And we got this executive order by starting to work on the process almost a year ago, last October.
And when it finally came through Senator Menendez' office, the 9/11 Transparency Act, we were then able to get it to the president who turned that piece of legislation into the executive order that exists today.
And what we're hoping to find in that is exactly what we have believed for many years is that the Saudis were heavily involved in the attacks of September 11th.
We're hoping that more names, higher officials will be named in these reports. More details about how the attacks were planned and plotted and how the money was transferred.
There's so much information in this 10-year investigation into the Saudis by the FBI. And this is just the beginning. This is the 2016 summary, 16 pages of that.
It was due out today as the deadline and they haven't met that deadline yet.
Any good faith we had with the White House is diminishing as the hours go by.
ACOSTA: It certainly sounds like you're going to stay on top of it, and my hats off to you for that.
Let me ask you about this community of 9/11 families, survivors, families like yours.
What has that been like in terms of being a part of this community? I know you talked to the other families. You share this -- this hole in your hearts.
What do you want this country to know about these unique community of human beings? STRADA: That we have suffered immeasurable pain and loss at the hands
of terrorism. And that nobody should have to go through this type of agony and fear.
For my family and many others, who never had any type of recovery, any identification of the remains -- I never even got back his wedding ring.
But as a community, we are very connected. I would say every time I meet -- which I met yesterday for the time yesterday -- we are an instant family.
We share this bond with this horrific terrorist attack that happened to our nation and it personally changed our lives forever.
But there's so many people doing good things. And we would like the world to go back to the way it was on September 12th. Actually, we would love for it to go before September 11th.
But since we can't do that, we would really love to see the unity back in this world that existed before September 12th.