Situations and Circumstances

The White House press corps tries to get straight answers and gets anything but.


Editor's note: Last week, more than 30,000 people -- including Vice President Cheney, first lady Laura Bush, and members of Congress -- were evacuated from their offices or homes in Washington, D.C., due to a perceived threat from a nearby small plane. President Bush, who was biking in Maryland, was not notified until the threat passed. Members of the White House press corps found this puzzling.

What follows are excerpts from press secretary Scott McClellan's briefing the next day. Make of it what you will. -- Bruce VanWyngarden

Question: Scott, yesterday the White House was on red alert, was evacuated. The first lady and Nancy Reagan were taken to a secure location. The vice president was evacuated from the grounds. The Capitol building was evacuated. The continuity-of-government plan was initiated. And yet the president wasn't told of yesterday's events until after he finished his bike ride, about 36 minutes after the all-clear had been sent. Is he satisfied with the fact that he wasn't notified about this?

McClellan: Yes. I think you just brought up a very good point -- the protocols that were in place after September 11th were followed. The president was never considered to be in danger because he was at an off-site location. The president has a tremendous amount of trust in his Secret Service detail.

The fact that the president wasn't in danger is one aspect of this, but he's also the commander in chief. There was a military operation under way. Shouldn't the commander in chief have been notified of what was going on?

The protocols that we put in place after September 11th were being followed. They did not require presidential authority for this situation. I think you have to look at each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation. And that's what officials here at the White House were doing.

Even on a personal level, did nobody think [about] calling the president to say, "By the way, your wife has been evacuated from the White House; we just want to let you know everything is okay"?

Actually, all the protocols were followed and people were ... officials that you point out were taken to secure locations or evacuated, in some cases. I think, again, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding the situation, and it depends on the situation and the circumstance.

Nobody thought to say, "By the way, this is going on, but it's all under control"?

I think it depends on each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation when you're making those decisions.

Isn't there a bit of an appearance problem, notwithstanding the president's safety was not in question, protocols were followed? Has the president indicated that even if everything was followed that he would prefer to be notified, that if the choice is, tell the commander in chief or let him continue to exercise -- that he would prefer to be informed?

Again, it depends on the situation and the circumstances. And you have to take all that into account, and I think that's what people were doing here at the White House, as well as those people who were with the president.

I think there's a disconnect here because, I mean, yesterday you had more than 30,000 people who were evacuated, you had millions of people who were watching this on television, and there was a sense at some point ... a sense of fear. Was this not a moment for the president to exercise some leadership, some guidance during that period of time?

The president did lead, and the president did that after September 11th, when we put the protocols in place to make sure that situations like this were addressed before it was too late. And that was the case in this situation.

Might there be something wrong with protocols that render the president unnecessary when the alarm is going off at his house?

That's not at all what occurred. And I would disagree strongly with the way you characterize it for the reasons I stated earlier. This was a situation where the president was in an off-site location. He was not in danger, a situation where protocols have been put in place to address the situation. The protocols were followed.

And those protocols are okay with the president, despite the fact that his wife was in a situation where she might have been endangered?

She was taken to a secure location, as were some other officials.

And wouldn't he want to know about that as it was happening?

He was briefed about the situation.

After it happened.

He was briefed about the situation. And I think that he wants to make sure that the protocols that are in place are followed. The protocols that were in place were followed.

Scott, if there is a possibility that a plane may have to be shot down over Washington, doesn't the president want to be involved in that type of decision?

Well, I think, again, it depends on the circumstances in the situation. You have to look at each individual situation and the circumstances surrounding that situation. There are protocols.

Doesn't the president want to be involved in what could be a decision to shoot down a plane over Washington?

I was just getting ready to address exactly what you're bringing up. The protocols that were put in place after September 11th include protocols for that as well. And there are protocols there. They're classified. But they do not require presidential authority.

Wouldn't he want to be involved?

It depends on the circumstances and it depends on the situation.

Wasn't there a possibility that a plane headed for the White House, that this was the leading edge of some broader attack? Isn't the president concerned that maybe he should have been alerted to the fact that this could have been the beginning of a general attack?

That was not the case, and I think the Department of Defense yesterday indicated that they didn't sense any hostile intent on the part of the plane, so again ...

How did they know this plane wasn't laden with WMD or some other type of weapons like that? Did they get reassurances from the pilot? Or how did they know that?

Well, again ... the protocols were followed. This situation turned out to be an accident. The Department of Defense pointed out yesterday that they didn't sense any hostile intent on the part of the plane. There were fighter jets scrambled. There was a Blackhawk helicopter scrambled as well, to get in contact with the plane.

So if it was assessed that there was no hostile intent on the part of this aircraft, can you tell us why 35,000 people were told to run for their lives?

Because of the protocols that are in place. We want to make sure that the people in the area of the threat are protected. We live in a very different world than we did before September 11th, and the president is going to do everything in his power to make sure we are protecting the American people and to make sure that the people in areas that could be high-risk areas are protected as well.

Right, but there seem to be so many disconnects here. You've got a plane that was assessed as not being a threat; you've got 35,000 people evacuated; you've got a person who you claim is a hands-on commander in chief who is left to go ride his bicycle through the rural wildlands of Maryland while his wife is in some secure location somewhere. It's just not adding up.

I disagree, and let me tell you why: You have highly skilled professionals who are involved in situations like this, in a variety of different fronts, from our Homeland Security officials to our National Security Council officials to our Secret Service officials and to others and to local officials, and they work very closely together. The protocols that were put in place were followed, and I think they were followed well.


Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment