By: Greg Mitchell
On the day after more than 30,000 people — including the vice president, the first lady, and a former first lady — were evacuated from their offices or homes in Washington, D.C., but the president, who was biking in Maryland was not notified until the threat passed, reporters grilled Press Secretary Scott McClellan at his daily briefing.
For those who might have missed it on TV — that is, nearly everyone — here are some choice excerpts, as McClellan continually refers to “protocols” and reporters essentially ask, “Wouldn’t most men like to know when their home is evacuated and their wife is hustled to a secure bunker?” They also wonder about the small matter of the president being commander in chief and the capital, theoretically, coming under attack.
Some reporters also suggested that the off-kilter Cessna had come much closer to the White House than McClellan’s claim yesterday of three miles.
Q: 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 Sept. 11 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. …
Q: 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 underway. Other people were in contact with the White House. Shouldn’t the commander in chief have been notified of what was going on?
McCLELLAN: John, the protocols that we put in place after Sept. 11 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. …
Q: Even on a personal level, did nobody here at the White House think that 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 OK?
McCLELLAN: 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. …
Q: Nobody thought to say, by the way, this is going on, but it’s all under control?
McCLELLAN: And I think it depends on each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation when you’re making those decisions.
Q: Isn’t there a bit of an appearance problem, notwithstanding the president’s safety was not in question, protocols were followed, that today, looking at it, he was enjoying a bike ride, and that recreation time was not considered expendable to inform him of this.
McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, John mentioned 36 minutes after the all-clear. Remember, this was a matter of minutes when all this was happening. …
Q: But has the President even 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?
MR. McCLELLAN: 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 that were with the president.
Q: 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 — it was a short window, a 15-minute window, but there was a sense of confusion among some on the streets. There was a sense of fear. And people are wondering was this not a moment for the president to exercise some leadership, some guidance during that period of time?
MR. McCLELLAN: The president did lead, and the president did that after September the 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 — that was the case in this situation. …
Q: I have one more question. When we walked out of this door yesterday, when those of us who heard that there was a situation, when we walked out of the door, we heard aircraft, jets overhead. There is a concern that that plane came closer to the White House than the White House said, more — it came within the three-mile radius, it was closer than you —
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I said that it came within three miles.
Q: OK, but you said three miles. How close —
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, it came within three miles.
Q: How close was it? Because someone has taken a picture of a plane being escorted on K street. How close was the plane?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I mean, if the Department of Homeland Security or FAA has any additional information, I’m sure —
Q: Scott, how close was it?
McCLELLAN: April, it was within —
Q: You know how close it was. Please tell us.
McCLELLAN: Yes, within three miles. I don’t know beyond that. Go ahead.
Q: Might there be something wrong with protocols that render the president unnecessary when the alarm is going off at his house?
McCLELLAN: That’s not at all what occurred, Ken. And I would disagree strongly with the way you characterize it for the reasons I started earlier, and that I talked about. 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. …
Q: And those protocols are OK with the president despite the fact that his wife was in a situation where she might have been endangered?
McCLELLAN: She was taken to a secure location, as were some other officials.
Q: And wouldn’t he want to know about that as it was happening?
McCLELLAN: He was briefed about the situation.
Q: After it happened.
McCLELLAN: He was briefed about the situation, Ken. 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.
Q: Scott, to follow on the same line of questioning, 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?
McCLELLAN: Well, Keith, 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 —
Q: Doesn’t the President want to be involved in what could be a decision to shoot down a plane over Washington?
McCLELLAN: To answer your question, I was just getting ready to address exactly what you’re bringing up. The protocols that were put in place after Sept. 11 include protocols for that, as well. And there are protocols there. They’re classified. But they do not require presidential authority. …
Q: They don’t require presidential authority, but they don’t obviate the need for presidential authority, do they? They don’t say the president cannot be involved —
McCLELLAN: Like I said, that depends on —
Q: — wouldn’t he want to be involved —
McCLELLAN: It depends on the circumstances and it depends on the situation.
Q: And 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?
McCLELLAN: 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 —
Q: How did they know — 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?
McCLELLAN: Well, again, if you want to give me a chance to respond, I’ll be glad to. The protocols were followed. This situation, as you’re well aware, 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. …
Q So if it was assessed that there was no hostile intent on the part of this aircraft, can you tell us why 30,000 people — 35,000 people were told to run for their lives?
McCLELLAN: Because of the protocols that are in place, John. We want to make sure that the people in the area of the threat are protected. After —
Q: But what was the threat? You just said there was no threat.
McCLELLAN: John, after Sept. 11, we have to take into account the world that we live in. We live in a very different world than we did before Sept. 11. 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.
Q: Right, but there seems 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.
McCLELLAN: Well, John, 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.