Bush commemorates Sept. 11 crash sites

WASHINGTON – President Bush embarked yesterday on nearly 24 hours of somber observances at the three sites where terrorists wrought death and destruction and transformed his presidency.

He intended to offer few words during appearances at ground zero in New York where the World Trade Centers fell, in the Pennsylvania field where one of the hijacked planes hurtled to the ground and at the Pentagon crash site. But Americans will hear more from him during a prime-time address tonight from the Oval Office.

Even before Bush left the capital, surrogates from Vice President Dick Cheney on down spent the Sept. 11 anniversary’s eve vigorously defending the administration’s record on improving the national defense over the past five years.

“There has not been another attack on the United States,” Cheney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And that’s not an accident.”

On television and newspaper opinion columns, Cabinet secretaries and agency heads sought to make the case that the government under Bush has made important changes that have lessened the risk

of attack.

Cheney focused on anti-terrorism efforts that he has been instrumental in supporting: a warrantless wiretapping program to monitor the international communications of people in America with suspected ties to al-Qaida; a system to track international financial transactions; and tough policies on the detention and interrogations of suspected terrorists.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited additional security at ports and airports and increased cooperation among intelligence agencies, a point echoed by the nation’s intelligence chief, John Negroponte.

Democrats, however, contend the administration has fallen short because so little cargo is inspected at U.S. ports and chemical plants, and other high-value sites are vulnerable.

“I think we’re in trouble,” said Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. “We have not pursued the war on terror with the vigor that we should have because we’ve gotten bogged down in this civil war in Iraq.”

The fifth-year anniversary falls less than two months before elections in which Republican control of Congress is seen as in danger.

In a series of speeches that began over a week ago and continue for at least one more, Bush and his political advisers are seeking to frame the vote as a choice between Republicans who are effective stewards of Americans’ safety and Democrats who would erode protections.

Bush is doing this in part by aiming to restore the decisive, tough-on-terrorism image he built after the 2001 attacks. Democrats are laboring to make the elections a referendum on the president’s prosecution of an unpopular war in Iraq.

A poll released yesterday shows the landscape in which the parties are competing. Just over half of those surveyed believe the country is safer from attack than on Sept. 11, 2001, and that the fight against terrorism is going well, according to ABC News. In December 2003, nearly two-thirds of those questioned felt the anti-terrorism battle was going well.

The president attended church in Washington yesterday and went biking before heading to New York with his wife, Laura. Their first stop: laying a wreath at ground zero, where 2,749 died when the twin towers collapsed after being pierced by hijacked airliners.

Later, Bush planned to attend a service of prayer and remembrance at St. Paul’s Chapel. The 240-year-old Episcopal church, across the street from the site, escaped damage and became a center of refuge for weary rescue workers.

The schedule for today included a visit to a firehouse nicknamed “Fort Pitt” in the Lower East Side in honor of the first responders who rushed into the towers.

At the base for Ladder 18, Engine 15 and Battalion 4, the president was to have breakfast with firefighters, police officers and Port Authority police and observe moments of silence to mark the times when planes struck each tower.

From New York, the next stop was to be Shanksville, Pa., where 40 people died when a plane slammed into the ground, and then the Pentagon, to mark the deaths of 184 there, before returning to the White House for the televised.

At all three crash sites, each with memorials far from completion, Bush did not plan to participate in the official anniversary observances, intending to avoid the distraction that accompanies a presidential appearance.

He was visiting separately to lay wreaths and visit with relatives of the some of the nearly 3,000 who died five years ago.

In 2002, Bush also toured each crash site, embracing family members of the victims and speaking at the Pentagon and New York’s Ellis Island. Since then, he has kept a lower profile on the anniversary.

He usually makes a trip across the street from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church and then presides over a moment of silence on the White House lawn. This year, Cheney was to perform those duties.