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THE PROTOCOL
The President sits out another crisis

By Dara Purvis | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

Last week, a plane was very nearly shot down over the White House. A small Cessna aircraft flew into successively more restricted air zones over Washington, remaining out of contact with air traffic controllers trying to speak with the pilots.

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To fly into any of several Air Defense Identification Zones surrounding the three Washington-area airports, the pilots must request a code number from the FAA for purposes of identification and tracking; the plane made no such request. Fifteen minutes after the craft was first spotted by air traffic controllers flying along the perimeter of one such zones, the plane turned towards an even more restricted area above central Washington, at which point three jets and a Black Hawk helicopter scrambled to intercept the plane. At no point was the aircraft in contact with air traffic controllers, and at first it even ignored the jets and helicopter that surrounded it.

The White House will only admit that the plane was within three miles of the White House, but many reports from evacuating staffers place it much closer. Over 30,000 government personnel were evacuated, including the Supreme Court Justices, Vice President Cheney, Laura Bush, and Nancy Reagan, who happened to be visiting the White House at the time. While the White House will also not disclose how close the plane came to being shot down, it seems extremely likely that the two men, (who turned out to be simply two pilots who had gotten lost while trying to fly from Pennsylvania to North Carolina,) were mere seconds away from being fired on, before they finally changed course and landed on a nearby airstrip. Had the plane been aiming to crash into the White House—which, as they were in no radio contact with any other aircraft or aircraft towers, had to be a working possibility in the minds of those trying to stop it—it was a matter of seconds away from impact before it turned.

And what, in the tense minutes of crisis (during which Laura Bush was rushed out of the White House,) was the President doing? Calmly finishing his workout routine. As he rode his bicycle in Maryland, his Secret Service detail was informed of the events in Washington, and chose not to disturb his exercise. Bush didn’t know that his wife was evacuated until 47 minutes afterwards.

More shockingly, that is apparently the accepted protocol for such a crisis. I’m not generally one to be an alarmist about terrorist threat, but I accept that a plane, even such a small one, ignoring all attempts to contact it and seeming to fly straight at the White House, should be treated as a worst case scenario. It is not outside the realm of possibility that such a plane could be loaded with explosives—even a dirty bomb or other nuclear device—and intending to act as a suicide bomber. Evacuating all people in that area was obviously the correct choice, and if the situation had escalated further, appropriate measures would have to be taken to try to eliminate the threat.

I would hope that those appropriate measures would have an established protocol, and I will accept that spelling out exactly what the government’s actions would be in such a situation is something that shouldn’t be done in the evening news.

It is incredible, however, or at least once would have been, that the President isn’t even appraised of what is going on. Again, I don’t expect—or want—that Bush would be sitting with his finger on the button to shoot a plane down. But the blithe acceptance and acknowledgement that Bush doesn’t even need to know about such crises until almost an hour afterwards is absolutely bizarre.

Although Bush’s non-involvement has been mostly ignored by the mainstream news, reporters did grill Press Secretary Scott McClellan at his regular daily briefing. Over and over, McClellan insisted that protocols were followed and absolutely nothing was amiss about keeping the President of the United States completely out of the loop. One sample:

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.

So that seems to be the official position of Bush and the administration: as McClellan later said, “The protocols that were put in place were followed, and I think they were followed well.” That is in contrast to Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s chief of staff, who was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “I don't think there is a legitimate excuse for not telling the president of the United States about that kind of potential emergency. It was serious that it happened and it could have been even more serious…. That is something that just simply cannot happen again.”

Michael Moore’s movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” got a lot of mileage out of President Bush sitting in a Florida classroom talking with elementary school students for seven minutes after being told that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th. I’ve read and heard a number of Republican apologists insisting that Bush’s conduct should be excused, that even the President shouldn’t be expected to react perfectly and decisively to such a shocking and unprecedented event.

But nearly four years later, the same decision is made—actually, even worse, since this time the White House administration decided not to even tell Bush what was going on. And Bush apparently thinks that is wonderful protocol. I suppose that’s one way of not letting Michael Moore make another movie with a similar clip. But for all the leadership ability and supposed trust of the American people that Bush’s campaign talked up throughout the presidential election last year, it seems that Bush is content to be a vacuous poster child, devoid of any actual responsibility.

Dara Purvis can be read each Monday, here at Raw Story. You can also visit her online at www.darapurvis.com.

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