It took the White House press corps a whole day, but members at least started asking questions about why officials waited 47 minutes, and until President Bush had completed his Maryland bike ride, to inform him Wednesday that all hell had broken loose in Washington, D.C., when an errant aircraft had penetrated the city's strict, post-9/11 no-fly zone and seemed to be zeroing in on the White House. In all, 30,000 people were evacuated, including the vice president, first lady and Supreme Court justices. But Secret Servicemen who were bicycling with Bush, and who were made aware of the unfolding situation, chose not to interrupt his exercise routine.
As War Room noted yesterday, the New York Times was among the few major news outlets that initially, and prominently, highlighted the White House's bizarre don't tell-don't tell policy regarding potential terrorist attacks on the nation's Capitol. Today a few more outlets pick up the theme, although in the Beltway's typical subdued, polite way. (As usual, ABC's The Note, the daily tip sheet for D.C. media elites, comes to Bush's defense today; it fails to link to a single Bush-on-his-bike article, signaling to the media's cozy club that it's not a story worth pursuing or chattering about.)
The Palm Beach Post notes, "The alarm was going off at his house. His wife and a close family friend were home at the time. The neighborhood was evacuated. Fighter planes were scrambled to intercept an aerial threat.
"But President Bush, biking in Maryland, was not told about the incident that caused the evacuation of the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings Wednesday until long after it was over."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, hanging onto the phrase "protocols" like a life raft (as in 'proper protocols were followed') still insists, "The president was never considered to be in any danger, and protocols that were put in place after Sept. 11 were followed," he said.
That explanation drew some bi-partisan head scratches. Former Bush security official Richard Falkenrath, a one-time Homeland Security advisor, told the Post, "My expectation is... [Bush] would have wanted to be told. It's a very big deal. This is very deep penetration of the airspace. If it was possible to tell him, I'd certainly think the system would want to tell him."
And Leon Panetta, chief of staff to president Clinton, said there is no reason to leave a president out of the loop, no matter how short-lived the situation. "I don't think there is a legitimate excuse for not telling the president of the United States about that kind of potential emergency," he said. "It was serious that it happened and it could have been even more serious. That is something that just simply cannot happen again."
As for the inescapable feeling of deja vu this tale brings, the Hearst News Service politely notes, "The episode recalled a controversial delay Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush remained in a Florida elementary-school classroom for seven minutes after being told by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card that a second airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center."