Red Alert! Where's the Captain?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 12, 2005 12:09 PM

Yesterday, even as a goodly swath of official Washington was running panic-stricken into the streets, President Bush was riding his bike in the country, completely unaware of what was going on.

Aides reportedly decided that since he wasn't personally in danger, he didn't need to know.

But wouldn't the president want to know about a potential terrorist threat serious enough to evacuate major government buildings? And when he is clearly safe, doesn't he deserve the option to decide if he wants to lead the response?

The official White House line yesterday was that "protocols" established post-9/11 were being followed.

But what are those protocols? Are they wise? Do they really call for the president not to be bothered if he's personally not in danger? Is that what Bush wants?

After September 11, 2001, it was reasonable to assume that lessons had been learned, and that the next time there were signs of a possibly unfolding terrorist attack the president would be promptly and fully informed -- and would be ready to leap into action.

Bad assumption.

Follow-Up Questions

MSNBC took the lead in raising the issue last night.

Here's NBC's Norah O'Donnell talking to Keith Olbermann: "The president was on a bike ride today. We'd just gotten back from this European trip. The White House has now disclosed that even though the White House was evacuated, that Vice President Cheney was evacuated, that the president's wife and Nancy Reagan were brought to a secure bunker, that the president was not informed during his bike ride this was going on.

"The White House says the reason is because they were able to determine that the president was not in any danger, and they said that all of the different protocols were in place, it did not require the president's approval. And that's why the president was not informed until 12:50, after he had finished his bike ride.

"This is clearly going to be the subject of more discussion as the days go on, just as it was on September 11, when the president had not been -- did not know until after he had finished reading his book down in that Florida school. So clearly this is a subject of discussion."

Here's conservative commentator Joe Scarborough: "I don't get it. All of America is glued to their TV sets . . . you've got people rushing out of government buildings all across Washington, D.C., and you don't notify the president of the United States? For an hour? Until after it's all over? Because, what, you don't want to disturb his bike ride in Maryland? I'm sorry, I just don't get it. . . .

"After I watched '[Fahrenheit] 9/11,' one of the parts that made me the angriest was the part about 'My Pet Goat.' I thought it was a cheap shot. I said, seven, eight, nine minutes, big deal. But here you have an attack going on -- or something most Americans thought was an attack -- for 15, 20, 30 minutes and the president of the United States not notified. Why?"

What Happened

Michael E. Ruane and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "Two lost aviators flying with outdated maps from a rural Pennsylvania airstrip triggered a red alert at the White House yesterday, along with the frantic evacuation of the Capitol and the Supreme Court, before they were intercepted by Air Force jets lobbing warning flares. . . .

"As the aircraft bore down on Washington from the north and officials could not contact the pilot, the White House's internal threat level went from yellow to orange and then to red within four minutes, fighters were scrambled and occupants and visitors to the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House were sent scurrying for safety."

Reuters reports: "President Bush was not told for nearly an hour while he finished a bike ride about a breach in White House airspace on Wednesday that prompted the highest alert since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the White House said.

"The White House said the Secret Service held off informing the president because he was not in danger and White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was satisfied with how the situation was handled. . . .

"McClellan said the president's Secret Service detail was informed about the plane at about 11:59 a.m., when the decision was made to raise the threat level at the White House to 'yellow.'

"Fighter planes were immediately scrambled to intercept the plane, and the threat level at the White House was raised all the way to 'red' before the 'all clear' was given at 12:14 p.m.

"McClellan said Bush was informed about the incident around 12:50 p.m. at the end of his ride. . . .

" 'The president was never in danger and the protocols in place after September 11 were followed,' McClellan said. 'The president has a tremendous amount of trust in his security detail and they were being kept apprised of the situation as it developed.' "

Here are competing timelines, from The Washington Post,  the New York Times, the Associated Press and ABC News. Still unclear, for instance, is precisely where the plane was when the White House went to red alert at 12:03 p.m.; and when the Cessna was at its closest point to the White House, reportedly about three miles away.

Here's the transcript of McClellan's mid-day press briefing.

McClellan sent out an update later in the day, but it's worth noting that he initially suggested that the president had been informed right away -- a reasonable assumption.

"He was informed by his detail; the detail that was with the President was notified and informed the President at that point. Mrs. Bush, as well as Mrs. Reagan, who is in town, were here at the White House and they were taken to a secure location. The Vice President was evacuated and has since returned to the White House," McClellan said.

And again: "[T]he President was at an off-site location, and he was informed, and he was informed of the situation that occurred. And obviously, there are protocols in place for that, as well. But the President was being kept well-informed of the situation that was going on."

Eric Lipton and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times that Bush was riding around the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., about a half-hour's drive from the White House. His Secret Service detail was "following him on bicycles and in vehicles as he got some midday exercise after returning the previous night from a five-day trip to Russia, Latvia, Georgia and the Netherlands."

McClellan said the members of the security detail didn't consult with Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, or other senior administration officials, either.

"Mr. Bush does not usually leave the White House to exercise during the week, though he often goes to government complexes in the Washington area on weekends with his mountain bike, his preferred form of exercise after a bad knee ended his practice of regular running.

"On Wednesday, though, he had a relatively light schedule after his return Tuesday night from Europe, and he left the White House shortly after 11 a.m. for the wildlife center. He arrived at 11:34, according to the pool report, 25 minutes before the White House began ratcheting up its internal threat level."

The Press Corps Experience

It's also worth asking if the protocols, whatever they are, were actually being followed. Because judging from what little the press corps was able to experience first-hand yesterday, maybe they're not. It's a minor point in the greater scheme of things, but alarms in the press grotto beyond the White House briefing room that were supposed to go off stayed silent yesterday.

From the mid-day briefing:

"Q Scott, why did the -- why didn't the internal emergency notification system go off here in the White House?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think that there were -- there was a notification system that was going off.

"Q No, it wasn't. . . .

"Q After 9/11, there was a system put in place for this voice announcement that comes over the speaker --

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

"Q -- if there is a certain level of emergency.

"MR. McCLELLAN: My understanding from the initial conversations I had following this situation was that protocols were followed that were in place. And let me look into it to see if there's more. You might want to direct those questions to the Secret Service, as well.

"Q It did not go off at all."

Joe Strupp has more in Editor & Publisher.

Bush Mum

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux described how reporters shouted out some questions to Bush at his photo-op with members of Congress yesterday afternoon:

"It was just moments ago that the president was asked about the incident. This is the first time that we've seen the president since the incident. . . . He was asked two very important questions, the first, of course, is whether or not he thought this was any kind of attack against him. The president did not say anything. He is meeting with members of Congress to talk about his trip to Russia and some of the other locations -- didn't say a word.

"He was also asked, in a follow-up question, did he give the shootdown order? Was it necessary to do something like that? That is another very important question. The president, again, just did not decide to answer that question at all."

The Fitness Angle

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It was not the first time a crisis has focused uninvited attention on the Bush fitness routine. On a weekday morning in February 2001, when a gun-wielding man was shot outside the White House, it quickly emerged that Vice President Cheney was working in his office, while Bush was exercising in his residence."

Gallows Humor

From the briefing:

"MR. McCLELLAN: One more? One more, go ahead in the back.

"Q -- that the Secret Service has a pecking order of who they're going to save, the President, the First Lady and then the press would be -- (laughter) --

"Q Way down. (Laughter.)

"Q We might be below Barney and Ms. Beazley. (Laughter.)"

And:

"Q Was this the first time you had seen the interior of a secure location?

" MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I'm not going to go beyond just being moved to a secure location.

"Q Scott, is there a bathroom in the secure location?...

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's not the Greenbrier -- "

Bush Looks Back on Euopre

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Wednesday he was amazed to sit in Red Square this week and celebrate the end of World War II in Europe next to the leader of Russia, a nation that has become a friend of the United States."

Here's the transcript of the remarks he made before discussing the trip with members of Congress.

"Sitting in Red Square honoring the veterans of World War II was an amazing event. I remember as a kid watching the missiles parade through Red Square -- and here I sat as the President of the United States in Red Square, paying homage to people who died to defeat Nazism," he said.

"The lessons of World War II is to honor the sacrifice of those who helped us keep the peace, and to remember that the United States is always the beacon of freedom, and that when we find people living under tyranny we've got to work to free them in order to make the world more peaceful."

The Yalta Speech

Howard Fineman writes for MSNBC: "Bush (and Karl Rove) operate by escalating every policy debate into a matter of first principles and history. Bush thinks in black and white. His critique of Yalta, which critics regard as the product of simplistic ignorance, is no doubt his honestly-held view. But such sweeping pronouncements have a tactical purpose, too. They allow Bush and Rove to fight on their opponents' turf and avoid discussion of petty details of the present day. If you were Bush, which topic would you rather discuss: The Big Idea of global freedom or the messy, immediate facts on the ground in Iraq?"

The Wiggle Worth a Thousand Words

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "He came, he wiggled his hips, he conquered. For many people back home (and around the world), the pictures of George W. Bush trying to dance in Tbilisi, Georgia, looked ridiculous. But to many, many Georgians (and there were throngs of them welcoming Bush), they were an impossible dream come true: an American president, the most powerful man in the world, enjoying their hospitality and their history."

Here's video of the wiggle.

Wolffe and Bailey write: "Inside the White House, there is a heated debate about whether Bush should attend more cultural events on his foreign trips. . . .

"Opposing those aides -- and winning the debate for now -- are the Secret Service, local security and the president himself."

In a second item, Wolffe and Bailey write: "By narrowing the historical focus on the Baltics, the White House missed an enormous opportunity to revisit the war period."

Nancy Reagan

The former first lady was in town yesterday, staying at the White House and headlining a fundraising dinner for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

Siobhan McDonough writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney called her the 'very ideal of grace, loyalty and compassion,' and put a word in for her decorating tastes at the executive mansion. . . .

"Mrs. Reagan, 83, had a startling start to her day when a small plane strayed within three miles of the White House on Wednesday, leading to frantic evacuation of the executive mansion and the Capitol. She called the incident 'that little extra thing.' "

The Associated Press reports that in an earlier interview: "Mrs. Reagan acknowledged that she and President Bush still differ on stem cell research."

Jeremy Manier writes in the Chicago Tribune that a report on stem cell research to be released today by the President's Council on Bioethics is not likely to clear things up.

Social Security Watch

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's preferred approach for Social Security would mean smaller survivor benefits for middle and upper-income children and widows than they are now promised, a top administration official said Wednesday."

Or, as the New York Daily News headlines it: " Soc Sec plan cuts kids, widows."

Writes Espo: "Bush envisions no changes in the benefit system for the disabled, said Allan Hubbard, chairman of the National Economic Council and the administration's point man on Social Security. . . .

"At the same time, White House officials said during the day that about 15 percent of all retirees under Bush' plan would likely not be able to pass along a Social Security inheritance -- a figure that rises to 30 percent for those with lower lifetime wages. They would have to spend their entire personal account to make sure they remained out of poverty in their older years, according to tentative administration projections."

The Guest List

Judy Keen and Jim Drinkard write in USA Today: "About a third of the 152 adult guests who slept at the White House or Camp David last year were fundraisers or donors to President Bush's campaigns, but at least half of those also are family or old friends."

Here's the full list, from the Associated Press.

Today's Calendar

Bush meets with the presidents of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in the Oval Office today, then makes a statement on the Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement in the Rose Garden.

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush will pursue his top trade initiative today as he welcomes six Latin American leaders to the White House, but the trade agreement Bush seeks faces serious trouble in Congress and could be defeated by his fellow Republicans."

Memo Watch

John Daniszewski writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Reports in the British press this month based on documents indicating that President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had conditionally agreed by July 2002 to invade Iraq appear to have blown over quickly in Britain.

"But in the United States, where the reports at first received scant attention, there has been growing indignation among critics of the Bush White House, who say the documents help prove that the leaders made a secret decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nearly a year before launching their attack, shaped intelligence to that aim and never seriously intended to avert the war through diplomacy."

Correspondents Watch

The New York Daily News reports: "Longtime NBC News reporter Kelly O'Donnell has been named White House correspondent for the network.

"She'll join NBC's chief White House correspondent, David Gregory, on the beat.

"O'Donnell replaces Norah O'Donnell, who will be the chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC and the 'Today' show."

Steve Kettmann interviews retiring New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent.

Kettmann: "The Times took a lot of heat about the 'White House Letter' articles by White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller. In one, she seemed to fawn over White House communications director Nicolle Devenish. In another, she wrote about Bush loving baseball. Why the uproar?"

Okrent: "What was interesting was, the criticism was from both sides. Bumiller could write a paragraph that would make the Bushies flip out. 'How could this person be so disrespectful of our president?' And in the same paragraph -- because it was not in the context of issues but of his personality or his hobbies -- the anti-Bushies would be screaming, 'How can you publish such tripe by someone who is so clearly in the Bush administration's pocket?' It was ridiculous. . . .

"[I]t's about the individual reader. If you really hate George Bush, you don't want to read about his hobbies or that he's nice to his friends or that he's good company at dinner."

Kettmann: "Or what he has on his iPod."

Okrent: "It just drives people who don't like him crazy. It would have been the same if there had been a 'White House Letter' about Clinton 10 years ago."

Darth Bush?

Ed Gonzalez writes in Slant Magazine: "I imagine that Revenge of the Sith is very much the film Lucas's fans want to see, but are some of them ready for an anti-Bush diatribe?"

Apparently: "Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) declares, 'Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes,' after Anakin says, 'If you're not with me, you're my enemy.' "

Darth Bush?

Ed Gonzalez writes in Slant Magazine: "I imagine that Revenge of the Sith is very much the film Lucas's fans want to see, but are some of them ready for an anti-Bush diatribe?"

Apparently: "Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) declares, 'Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes,' after Anakin says, 'If you're not with me, you're my enemy.' "

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