By STEVEN NALLEY
As a major in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2001, Robert J. Darling was in charge of coordinating the teams and equipment used to keep former President George W. Bush safe during his travels. He began Sept. 11.
overseeing Bush’s multi-day visit to Florida, but before it was over, he was in the president’s bunker beneath the White House, serving as liaison between former Vice President Dick Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice, and the Pentagon.
Darling witnessed top American leaders’ response to the Sept. 11 attacks first-hand, and he shared their story in a presentation Thursday evening at Mississippi State University’s McCool Hall.
It was the same story Darling tells in his memoir, “24 Hours Inside the President’s Bunker: 9-11-01: The White House,” over the course of 184 pages. On Thursday night, Darling told this story in less than an hour at a feverish pace that reflected the dire situations he and the White House staff faced on Sept. 11.
Darling said he initially came to the White House’s bunker when the White House was evacuated that day, and he said he will never forget the sight of staff members young and old shedding shoes and any other encumbrances to get away as fast as possible. He thought he would be helping with logistics in the bunker, he said, but the first thing he was asked to do was answer phones, which were ringing without cease.
The first phone call Darling said he answered was a warning that United Airlines Flight 93 was headed for Washington, D.C.
“I passed it to the military aide (who passed it to) Vice President Cheney,” Darling said. “Right behind him was his wife Lynn. Right behind her was Dr. Rice. Anybody who was in the (White House’s) west wing was now underground coming over to my console to hear what the latest phone call was.”
Normally, Darling said, only two people in America’s chain of command can authorize lethal action by the U.S. military: the president and the secretary of defense. Bush was still on Air Force One and out of reach; with the defensive options the U.S. Air Force offers, he said, flight is the safest way for the president to travel. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was in the Pentagon’s parking lot, he said, because the Pentagon had just been attacked.
“Without hesitation, the vice president then inserted himself into the chain of command,” Darling said. “(Cheney said,) ‘I want two F-15s ... ready and on standby to shoot this aircraft down.’ I said, ‘Wow, this is not a politician. This guy right here is a warrior.’”
Soon afterward, radio messages reached the bunker that United Airlines Flight 93 had crashed, and Darling said everyone in the room was under the impression that the U.S. Air Force had shot it down under Cheney’s orders.
“The air was sucked out of the bunker complex. Nobody made a sound,” Darling said. “All eyes were on the vice president. He took a deep breath, spun around, walked right over to me and said, ‘For the congressional inquiries, will you state your full name?’ He was willing to take accountability for what just happened. But then, two minutes later, those same radios blared back, ‘The F-15s never fired.’”
The story of Cheney’s decision was one of several Darling told from his experiences on Sept. 11, including international reaction to Bush raising the nation’s DEFCON level, the few aircraft that did not hear military orders to land, and the communication that narrowly saved those aircraft from being mistaken for enemies and destroyed by the U.S. military.
Ronnie White, assistant director of MSU’s G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans, said Darling’s presentation was part of MSU’s commemoration of Veterans’ Day and a reminder of America’s strength and resolve. For the audience, particularly the ROTC students present, he said Darling’s story was a lesson in leadership, particularly the difficult decision Cheney made.
“You have to be willing to make that tough decision if need be,” White said, “and (you have to) be willing to stand by the consequences of that decision.”