In Wednesday’s White House Evacuation, No Official Notice to Press

By: Joe Strupp

A public address system installed after the Sept. 11 attacks to warn White House reporters about an emergency was not used earlier today when the building was evacuated after a small plane flew into unrestricted air space over Washington, D.C., reporters told E&P.

“They didn’t activate the emergency P.A. system as they were supposed to,” said Alex Keto, a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires. “A handful of television crew people were eating lunch in the lunch area and were never told about it and did not leave.”

Reporters said most journalists in the press area were ordered across the street to Lafayette Park, but some who did not immediately leave were directed into the White House basement.

Keto, who was in the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, said he only heard about today’s evacuation after another reporter in the press briefing area noticed security people rushing about. “I heard one reporter say they had guns out and there is an incident,” Keto told E&P by phone from his White House desk. “But that is fairly regular. Then the Secret Service came through and shouted to evacuate, but the P.A. system was not activated. It was supposed to go off.”

Jean Doublet, a White House reporter for Agence France-Presse, confirmed the account. “There was no formal announcement at all, and we just went outside because we saw a commotion,” he told E&P. “There was no announcement in the beginning, and none when I came back in about 20 minutes later.”

Just before noon, after the plane was spotted flying into the restricted area, evacuations were launched at the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Capitol. Several reporters who spoke with E&P said the White House evacuation was initially chaotic because no official directives were put forth. “There was a little bit of confusion for about five minutes,” Doublet said. “It was orderly, but when we started hearing the jet fighters coming overhead, people started running faster.”

Keto said the activity was calmer than on Sept. 11, but not as organized as it could have been. “People were fairly calm, but moving quickly,” he said. “We were being told to run.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters during a briefing today that the security level at the White House was raised to yellow at 11:59 a.m., when the plane was within 10 miles of the White House, according to USA Today. It went to the highest level, red, within four minutes, when the plane was only three miles away, McClellan said. The threat level was reduced at 12:11 p.m. after the plane headed west, he said.

Reporters joked with McClellan about where they ranked as a priority at the White House, with one suggesting they were probably “below Barney” the dog.

“I think everybody is a priority for the Secret Service,” McClellan said.

President Bush was on his bicycle at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Beltsville, Md., when the evacuation order was issued. Reporters pressed McClellan on whether Bush was in any position to give a shootdown order on the plane, of if he even knew about the incident as it happened.

At the Capitol, where a similar evacuation occurred last summer just before President Reagan’s body was to lie in state, reporters described the mood as calm today. “I was standing outside the Senate floor waiting for them to wrap up a vote, and the police said to exit the building,” said Anne Gearan of The Associated Press. “Then they stated yelling louder and louder so everyone left.” She said some people were running, but most veteran journalists calmly walked. “They pulled us down to the park across from [nearby] Union Station, and I didn’t hear anyone panic.”

Carl Hulse, a New York Times reporter, said that evacuations have occurred more often in recent years, making them almost common. “They ran through and said, ‘get out, get out. You’ve got one minute,'” he said. “But I think it was less panicky than last time.”

For Brody Mullins, a Wall Street Journal reporter, the reaction might be getting too calm. “People are getting used to it,” he said. “Now, when people tell you to get out, you make sure you have your keys before you go. The first couple of times this happened, people ran for their lives. Now it’s, make sure you take your blackberry with you.”

But at the White House, reporters pressed McClellan on the lack of notification. The exchange went like this:

Q Scott, why didn’t the internal emergency notification system go off here in the White House?

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 —

McCLELLAN: That’s right.

… if there is a certain level of emergency.

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.

McCLELLAN: The Uniformed Division was evacuating people, as well as moving people —

Q We did not know anything about that. We did not know anything about that — seriously.

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