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Australia's Howard a surprise 9-11 witness

Sep 4, 2011, 11:43 p.m.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard shake hands before their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in this September 10, 2001 file photo. The former prime minister, a surprise witness to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, believes Bush deserves more praise for his response and for stopping further attacks. Howard was in Washington when hijacked airliners crashed into the towers of New York's World Trade Center, the U.S. Defense headquarters the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania. Among the thousands killed were 22 Australians. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

Howard believed the ANZUS alliance needed attention because it had lost some of its significance with the end of the Cold War, and with one of the partners, New Zealand, an inactive partner since 1985.

On September 11, Howard was in his Washington hotel, only a few blocks from the White House, when the first attack happened. When he spoke to reporters a short time later, sirens could be heard outside.

"While we were doing the news conference, the third plane, Flight 77, drove into the Pentagon. We pulled back the curtains and we saw the smoke rising," he said.

"We knew then, beyond any argument, that this was a concerted terrorist attack on the United States."

The remainder of Howard's U.S. program was immediately canceled. The following day, Howard and his party were the only visitors in the U.S. House of Representatives as it held an emergency debate on the tragedy. He received a standing ovation from lawmakers for his gesture of support.

Howard then attended a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, and spoke by telephone to then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about the market implications of the attacks.

AUSTRALIA COMMITS TO MILITARY RESPONSE

By this time, Howard was already forming the view that Australia would be involved in any military response against those responsible.

"I just knew instinctively that if an international effort were needed, Australia should and would be part of it and would be a very early and willing part of it," he said.

Late on September 12, the U.S. military flew Howard and his official entourage to Hawaii on Air Force Two. At the time, all commercial flights into and out of U.S. airspace were canceled.

From Hawaii, Howard flew back to Australia on a Qantas jet, which had been given special permission to fly out of the United States, making it the first commercial flight back in the air in the United States after the attacks.

As he flew across the Pacific Ocean, Howard resolved to invoke the ANZUS alliance for the first time, committing Australia to support the U.S.

Howard said potential concerns from other nations, such as China, were secondary considerations.

"It was so fundamental, and so obviously an occasion where we had to be and should be a 100 percent ally of our close friend, it didn't really enter my mind for a moment, that identifying with the United States fully at that time would hurt relations with other countries," he said.

"And in any event, my thinking was that we had an obligation to give them full support."

Howard went on to win national elections in November 2001, and again in 2004, before he lost his seat in an election loss in 2007, ending his 11 and a half years in power.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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