9/11 panel co-chair: Photos show challenge of pivotal moment

Story highlights

  • The National Archives released more than 350 photos Friday related to Sept. 11, 2001
  • Former 9/11 Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton weighed in on what the photos show

Washington (CNN)Peering at the drawn-out look on former Vice President Dick Cheney's face and the expressions of other top Bush Administration officials, former 9/11 Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton remembers the feelings of the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks which shaped the nation.

"They were serious, somber, saddened, and almost immediately beginning to think 'How do we respond to this?'" said Hamilton, a former Democratic Indiana congressman and leader in the national security and intelligence communities, in an interview with CNN on Monday.
The National Archives released more than 350 photos Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Since then they have captivated a nation still ensconced in the fallout from those attacks, including the rise of ISIS in the destabilized Middle East.
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    The photos center on Cheney as he digests the news -- with his hands clasped over his mouth at times, chewing on a pen and rubbing his temples at other times. But they also show Bush, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and other central figures consulting each other inside the administration in the hours immediately after the attacks.
    "Those photographs are a good memory for what took place that day, and I want people to focus on what it means to be able to make sure that that day never happens again," former Bush administration chief of staff Andy Card, who is in some of the photographs, told CNN's Kate Bolduan on "OutFront" Monday evening. "If the photographs do that, that's great. If it's just a trip for Andy Card down memory lane with the people who he respects and worked with and watched do a remarkable job, that's great too."
    The photos also show the first and second lady, Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney in the hours that followed the attacks.
    For Hamilton, who worked intensively on the intelligence review commissioned in the aftermath of the attacks, the photos are a reminder that we are still engaged in the War on Terror.
    Hamilton, who now heads Indiana University's Center on Congress, recalled sitting on a flight at Reagan National Airport, waiting to depart on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the flight attendant walked through and asked everyone to get off the plane. No explanation was immediately given, but he later saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon in the distance.
    "Most of us sensed a turning point in the history of the country, which since then it has been," Hamilton said.
    It was at that point, at the very start of the 21st Century, Hamilton notes, that America was plunged into the War on Terror, which continues to dominate many decisions today.
    The Department of Defense recently released a similar batch of inside information from that time, private interview taken with top defense officials after the attacks.
    Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recalled the moment the plane hit the Pentagon in his transcript.
    "The plane hit the building and the building shook and the tables jumped. I assumed it was a bomb," Rumsfeld said. "I went out to see what was amiss. I saw the field out there sprayed with pieces of metal."
    Rumsfeld helped carry a few people away on stretchers before heading back into the building and briefing Bush, Cheney and others by phone from the Pentagon, he said.
    "Oh, my lord, the whole place was burning," he said. "People were being pulled out and stretchers were being carried to ambulances."
    The immediate question, he said, was developing a response in case other planes hit.
    "The building was burning, and filling up with smoke. It was hard to see, your eyes were smarting and it was hard on your throat," he said.
    "We were busy, concerned about other aircraft hitting other targets, we had aircraft squawking 'hijack' and other aircraft that weren't squawking anything and should have been," Rumsfeld said. "We had to develop rules of engagement on the fly and give guidance to interceptors as to what they should do in the event it looked as though some other target was being put in jeopardy."