The mysterious flying object first blipped across U.S. security radar 20 miles south of Reagan National Airport at 10:40 a.m. yesterday and appeared headed swiftly toward the District.
About 15 minutes later, President Bush was in an underground bunker at the White House and Vice President Cheney was escorted off the White House grounds to a secure location, officials said.
A Secret Service agent responds to a security alert that prompted the evacuation of President Bush.
(Gerald Herbert -- AP)
The "target" -- as Customs and Border Protection officials called it -- showed up on the radar intermittently. It was moving through restricted airspace at about the speed of a helicopter, said agency spokesman Gary Bracken. Customs officials reported the object's approach to the Domestic Events Network, a 24-hour secure communications line connecting all major security-related agencies.
Army officials at Davison Army Airfield in Fort Belvoir, Va., spotted a low-flying helicopter in the area but could not determine whether it was the object that had set off the alert.
After vanishing from radar, the target then reappeared several minutes later -- this time just seven miles from National Airport, stirring serious concern among Customs and Border Protection officials, Bracken said. The agency dispatched a Black Hawk helicopter to the scene. A U.S. Park Police helicopter and another from a local law enforcement agency, which were already airborne, also scanned the area.
But all the search teams saw were clouds.
Turns out, that's all it was.
"It does happen," Bracken said. "We have to deal with weather anomalies showing up on the radar screen."
U.S. officials say it is not uncommon for radars scanning the sky for terrorist threats to mistake a weather system or a flock of birds for a unidentified aircraft -- and it sends them scrambling. Yesterday's scare was the first known incident to send the president to the White House underground bunker since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Officials said the swift reaction illustrated the improved communication system among security agencies charged with keeping the sky around Washington secure.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the appropriate security measures were taken," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "Basically there was an apparent aircraft that showed up on the radar, it turned out to be a blip. Aircraft already in the vicinity were able to verify there was in fact no plane."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that a patch of clouds was moving through the area yesterday where the radar picked up the mysterious target.
The temperature was about 63 degrees with light wind and possibly very light showers north of Quantico at the time Customs officials said the blip hit their radar, said Jim Lee, meteorologist in charge at the NOAA Washington-Baltimore weather forecast office. "There were certainly clouds in the airspace," Lee said.
At the White House yesterday, witnesses said some staff members and visitors were removed, and armed, uniformed Secret Service officers took position around the executive mansion.
The Secret Service said it took action because "there was a potential violation of the restricted airspace," said spokesman Jim Mackin.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president was in the bunker for only a "very short period of time." Mackin said the Secret Service raised its alert at 10:54 a.m. and sounded the all clear at 10:58.
"We appreciate the precautionary steps that the Secret Service took," McClellan said. "They do an outstanding job."