On Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush and his staff on Air Force One had a great deal of trouble sending and receiving information about the day's frightful events. In fact, they had a lot more trouble than we knew.
Now, it turns out, four of the president's planes are undergoing a $50 million communications upgrade. Events on that day "highlighted limitations in the president's airborne capability to communicate directly with the American people and to monitor real-time news coverage," the Air Force told Defense Week, a Washington newsletter that covers national security stories.
"Specifically, the president's aircraft lacked high-speed data-transfer capability for video teleconferencing and continuous direct-broadcast-television receive capability."
The fact is that the president's planes, normally considered the highest of high tech, were out of contact with key officials on the ground at the worst possible time.
Until now, the glitches have gone unreported. The White House apparently would like to keep it that way. One of its spokesmen, Taylor Griffin, would not even answer questions about the subject, though there's nothing secret at issue.
Despite the shroud of silence, it is now apparent that on that horrible day a year ago, as Bush flew from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska and finally back to the capital, he found his connection to the outside world wanting.
The White House could not reach Air Force One by phone on at least one occasion. And the president was not able to conduct his first teleconference with the White House, CIA, FBI and the Pentagon until after 3 p.m., when he had made his way to Offut Air Force Base, Neb. That was five hours after the president had taken to the air in Florida -- five hours of frayed nerves and broken connections.
Now four planes in the presidential Special Air Missions fleet at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., will need to be in the shop for extended periods. To fill in the gaps, the White House pushed Congress hard in the months after Sept. 11 for authority to lease Boeing 737s.
In the Special Air Missions fleet, there are 18 VIP planes, including two Air Force Ones, which are Boeing 747s designated VC-25A's.
Two of the other VIP planes, Boeing 757s, have already received the full communications upgrade. One of the Air Force Ones got direct-broadcast TV last December and it's back in the air.
The second Bush plane is getting both the TV and data-transfer upgrades now. When that second Air Force One arrives back on the flight line after the fixes are complete, the first one will go back in the shop to receive the data-transfer modification.
The process will take until 2003. These aren't small changes. The extent to which Air Force One was the setting for chaos on Sept. 11 was revealed on CBS News "60 Minutes II" on the anniversary of the attacks.
After the twin towers had collapsed and the Pentagon was burning and rumors were flying about what might come next -- including perhaps an attack on Air Force One -- the president's TV signal on the plane and his connection to Vice President Dick Cheney kept breaking up.
According to CBS, Bush shouted: "This is inexcusable; get me the vice president." Bush later told the program: "I was trying to clear the fog of war."
It was pure panic in the sky. The pilot thought a nearby jetliner might be coming at them, and he took evasive action. An armed guard was outside the cockpit. The pilot didn't want to use his radio for fear terrorists could be listening in. He didn't tell air traffic controllers via radio where the plane was.
Back in Washington, they had heard about the threat to Air Force One, but a military operator told communications adviser Karen Hughes that they could not contact the president's plane.
The threat to Air Force One, it later came out, was a false alarm. But that's not the point. Until now, we have not known how out of touch the president was with news events and with his Cabinet on the ground. It turns out Air Force One wasn't everything it was cracked up to be.
Let's hope that next time, as the commercial says, the call goes through.
John M. Donnelly is the editor of Defense Week, a newsletter that covers national security issues. Readers can write to him at King Publishing, 1325 G Street NW, Suite 1003, Washington, D.C. 20005.