WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero and meeting with 9/11 families and first responders on Thursday.
From the heart of the shocking terror strike on America, Obama will try to bury the memory of Osama bin Laden by honoring those who died in the fiery Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In private talks with families and a somber ceremony at ground zero, Obama is out to let New York have its own moment of justice.
Following the death of bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Obama plans to mark the occasion by visiting the most famous site of bin Laden's destruction.
The president invited former President George W. Bush to accompany him, but Bush declined. The al-Qaida attack, which killed about 3,000 people, occurred in the early months of Bush's presidency in 2001.
Bush spokesman David Sherzer said earlier this week the former president appreciated the offer to attend but has chosen to remain out of the spotlight during his post-presidency. He added that Bush celebrates bin Laden's death as an "important victory in the war on terror."
The White House says Obama's trip will include a private meeting with family members of 9/11 victims, a meeting with first responders that will be open to some news coverage, and a wreath-laying at the 9/11 memorial.
On Thursday, the Obama administration announced that it would not release photos of a slain bin Laden so the world could see some proof of death. The president said he would not risk giving propaganda to extremists or gloat by publicizing grotesque photos of a terrorist leader shot in the head.
"It is important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool," says the president in an interview with "60 Minutes" scheduled to air this Sunday. "We don't need to spike the football and I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk. ... We don't trot out this stuff as trophies."
Obama's New York visit is intended to have a measured tone. White House spokesman Jay Carney called it a "cathartic moment for the American people." Obama does not even have scheduled remarks during his trip. Yet it is likely Obama will make comments during his time at the 9/11 memorial, where he will lay a wreath.
Obama will visit a bustling construction site that bears little resemblance to the pit that became ground zero in the months after Sept. 11, 2001. The emerging skyscraper informally known as Freedom Tower is more than 60 stories high now. Mammoth fountains and reflecting pools mark the footprints of the fallen twin towers.
Heightened security put in place in response to the killing of bin Laden will remain for Obama's visit. Police officials said there are no specific threats against the city but also say they assume bin Laden's "disciples" might try to avenge his death with a terror attack.
"The ceremony will provide some closure to a horrific event," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, who was invited by the White House to attend Obama's ground zero event.
Here's what Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said shortly after meeting with Obama during the wreath-laying ceremony, from her office:
I was inspired by the strength of the families who stood here today, thinking of their loved ones, knowing that the first chapter has closed and moving to the next chapter. The death of Osama bin Laden is a bittersweet moment for them, because the person who planned and perpetrated these attacks which resulted in the loss of their loved ones has been brought to justice. To have that measure of justice is extraordinarily meaningful. For all the men and women who serve our country, President Obama was really saying thank you, and I thought that was a very beautiful and poignant way to memorialize our heroes and the victims of 9/11.
He has taken a helicopter to JFK airport.
New Yorkers woke up to this tabloid cover Thursday morning. It's a word that's been popping up a lot this week, from spokesman Jay Carney this morning to many local pols.
Here's what the president's people had to say about the meeting:
The President will participate in a private meeting with approximately sixty 9/11 family members at the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site. The families were selected in consultation with the National 9/11 Memorial staff and represent a cross section of family members from various 9/11 organizations who have been active advocating on behalf of 9/11 families.
That selection process by the 9/11 Memorial staff was what Donna Marsh O'Connor called "mysterious."
There's certainly no live feed from the president's meeting with 9/11 families right now, but watch here for updates afterward on their reactions.
President Obama should be meeting with families of victims of 9/11 now or very shortly. It's worth noting that there has been some contention over this meeting -- only a small number of about 50 people will meet with him, which necessarily means many more relatives of the thousands who died have been left out.
Donna Marsh O'Connor, who lost a daughter on 9/11, told HuffPost this morning that "The visit is fine but the mysterious planning for it is divisive and problematic."
The list of invitees for the president's visit spans the political spectrum, from the more liberal to fierce critics like Debra Burlingame. She was invited but also told Politico, "I believe this is nothing but a choreographed photo op from the president... it’s really ugly.”
Fourteen-year-old Payton Wall, who met with the president during the wreath-laying ceremony, just spoke to a number of media, telling them the president told her that he was honored to meet her. She was joined by her younger sister, a friend who also lost a parent on 9/11, and her mother.
Before meeting with anyone else, the president walked from the wreath to a group of young woman, one of whom is named Payton Wall, according to the White House. Her father, Glen James Wall, died on September 11. His daughter is now 14.
If this was a "victory lap," as a few critics have charged, it was a pretty subtle one. Obama is now leaving the site without making any public remarks, although he did speak to the elected officials in private. According to his schedule he should now be proceeding to his meeting with victims' families.
Obama is now chatting and shaking hands with a number of New York and tristate elected officials -- Governors Cuomo, Christie and Malloy, Mayor Bloomberg, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, and many Congressional representatives. Also in attendance are NYC Council President Christine Quinn and City Comptroller John C. Liu.
After a brief moment laying the wreath, Obama has proceeded to shake first responders' hands. No speaking yet, just a quiet moment.
After laying the wreath, Obama has bowed his head.
He is now carrying the wreath to the tripod in front of the Survivor Tree.
"Well, listen, the main reason I came here is because I heard the food is pretty good. (Laughter.)
"But to the Commissioner, to Mayor Giuliani -- who obviously performed heroic acts almost 10 years ago -- but most of all, to all of you, I wanted to just come up here to thank you.
"This is a symbolic site of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made on that terrible day almost 10 years ago. Obviously we can't bring back your friends that were lost, and I know that each and every one of you not only grieve for them, but have also over the last 10 years dealt with their family, their children, trying to give them comfort, trying to give them support.
"What happened on Sunday, because of the courage of our military and the outstanding work of our intelligence, sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say; that our commitment to making sure that justice is done is something that transcended politics, transcended party; it didn’t matter which administration was in, it didn’t matter who was in charge, we were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act -- that they received justice.
"So it’s some comfort, I hope, to all of you to know that when those guys took those extraordinary risks going into Pakistan, that they were doing it in part because of the sacrifices that were made in the States. They were doing it in the name of your brothers that were lost.
"And finally, let me just say that, although 9/11 obviously was a high water mark of courage for the New York Fire Department and a symbol of the sacrifice, you guys are making sacrifices every single day. It doesn’t get as much notoriety, it doesn’t get as much attention, but every time you run into a burning building, every time that you are saving lives, you're making a difference. And that's part of what makes this city great and that's part of what makes this country great.
"So I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the American people for the sacrifices that you make every single day. And I just want to let you know that you're always going to have a President and an administration who’s got your back the way you’ve got the backs of the people of New York over these last many years.
"So God bless you. God bless the United States of America.
"And with that, I'm going to try some of that food. All right? Appreciate you. Thank you."
Live shots of the president show him and the motorcade leaving the First Precinct, which covers the World Trade Center.
The wreath-laying ceremony that will take place at 1:30pm will take place in front of the "Survivor Tree," just next to the footprints of the former WTC towers that are now being replaced with memorial pools.
President Obama is now meeting police and Port Authority officers at an NYPD station.
Before the firehouse visit, Press Secretary Jay Carney told the gaggle aboard Air Force One that "the President believes it’s appropriate and fitting to travel to New York this week, in the wake of the successful mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, in order to recognize the terrible loss that New York suffered on 9/11, and to acknowledge the burden that the families of the victims, the loved ones of the victims, have been carrying with them since 9/11, almost 10 years, and in an effort to perhaps help New Yorkers and Americans everywhere to achieve a sense of closure with the death of Osama bin Laden."
Pressed a little further about that word closure, Carney added, "I think that it’s important for the President of the United States, given the traumatic events that New York suffered on September 11, 2001, to return in the wake of the successful mission against bin Laden. He will be back for the 10-year anniversary. And this is a significant event this week, and he looks forward to meeting privately with family members, meeting with first responders, in what is a bitter-sweet moment in many ways."
It certainly wasn't a speech, but Obama did speak briefly at Engine 54, which he called a "symbolic site" because of the many firefighters it lost on 9/11.
"What happened on Sunday because of the courage of our military and the outsanding work of our intelligence sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home, that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," he said.
Obama told the firefighters that Seal Team 6 did its work "in the name of your brothers that were lost."
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was also in attendance.
The president's motorcade has left the firehouse, less than an hour after it arrived.
When Mayor Bloomberg spoke at Ground Zero on Monday, there was ample security but no metal detectors. Obama's visit is getting the presidential treatment -- this contraption, at the corner of Liberty and Greenwich Streets.
If you were under the impression that Obama will be giving a speech today, think again -- the president's spokesman has said that he may make some comments, but nothing at great length. The moment is intended to be solemn and respectful, not a "victory lap" as some, including an anonymous member of the Bush camp, have worried.
The president has just stepped out of his car to enter the firehouse.
According to the pool report President Obama has landed. The Daily News and others have suggested that he'll be heading to the "Pride of Midtown" Firehouse, which lost 15 members on 9/11.
Mayor Bloomberg was scheduled to present his 2012 budget today, but the president's visit means that event is postponed.
One group of people who won't be happy with Bloomberg tomorrow, even though they may appear with him today: New York City's firefighters, who are facing the closure of up to 20 fire companies in the new budget.
This morning a crew of off-duty firefighters crowded around the FDNY's Ten House, which lost five firefighters on September 11.
Captain Alexander Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said in a statement that it was "civic insanity" to cut the FDNY now, since "The Mayor himself concedes that New York City is the principal target for terrorists."
In front of Ten House, Lt. Dennis Murphy of 16 Engine on 29th Street told HuffPost that he was protesting the cuts because "It's not about us. It's more about the safety of the people of the city of New York."
"Sooner or later," he warned, "someone's going to have to pay the price" for the cuts.
According to the UFOA, the department's headcount is down 1,055 firefighters and fire officers from the number it had on September 11, 2001.
Many of the preparations for the president's visit were last-minute -- perhaps necessarily so, given that it's only been a handful of days since Bin Laden's death.
Congressman Steve Rothman's (D-NJ) office just blasted out an email saying that he had been invited today.
Donna Marsh O'Connor, whose daughter died on 9/11 and who now serves as national spokesperson for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, says one member of her organization was "just" invited.
The president is scheduled to lay a wreath at Ground Zero at 1:30pm and speak with 9/11 family members shortly afterward.
Cops, K-9s and more are out in force. With Obama's visit still several hours away, Lower Manhattan isn't totally saturated with security forces just yet. But, as NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a press conference on Monday, "a lot of what we're doing is not visible to the public."
Answering questions after an event yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg touched briefly on President Obama's visit to Ground Zero today, which he will attend.
"We're thrilled," the mayor said, but also noted that "All of the bad memories have come rushing back" with Bin Laden's death.
As for security, he said he wasn't worried about the possibility of a revenge attack. "I feel as safe today as I did last week."
But that didn't mean the city and the NYPD aren't taking extra precautions. "We've obviously ramped up our security," the mayor said.