Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the vice president said President Bush “made the decision … that if the plane would not divert, if they wouldn’t pay any attention to instructions to move away from the city, as a last resort, our pilots were authorized to take them out.”
“People say that’s a horrendous decision to make, and it is,” Cheney said. But he said the U.S. “absolutely” would have been justified in executing the order if it could have kept the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center from happening.
“As it turned out, we did not have to execute on that authorization.” Cheney said. “But there were a few moments when we thought we might.”
Cheney called the move “the toughest decision” the administration made Tuesday.
The vice president said the military has begun a “flying combat air patrol” over Washington, including F-16 fighter jets, AWACS radar aircraft and tanker planes. He said it would be up to President Bush to decide whether the patrol would be made permanent.
Cheney also said he urged President Bush not to return to Washington from Florida because the situation was so uncertain.
The plane in question, American Airlines Flight 77, was hijacked after leaving Dulles International Airport near Washington. All 64 people aboard are presumed dead after the plane slammed into the Pentagon at around 9:40 a.m. Tuesday.
The Pentagon attack came shortly after commercial airliners crashed into each of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. More than 5,000 people are still missing and feared dead from that attack.
Questions of U.S. military action have surrounded the crash of a hijacked airliner in rural Pennsylvania. But although the government was authorized to shoot down the errant planes, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the NewsHour he believes that crash came instead as a result of a passenger uprising.
“We responded awfully quickly I might say on Tuesday,” Wolfowitz said. “And in fact we were already tracking in on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I think it was the heroism of the passengers on board that brought it down, but the Air Force was in a position to do so if we had had to.”