Thursday, April 28, 2005

Radar alert sends Bush into White House bunker


Radar alert sends Bush into White House bunker

By Thomas Frank and Alan Levin, USA TODAY

A blip on a radar screen that was probably caused by a cloud or a flock of birds prompted security agencies Wednesday to evacuate President Bush and Vice President Cheney from the White House.

The alert was triggered at 10:35 a.m. when government radar screens showed a dot — mistaken for an airplane — about 30 miles south of Washington and moving slowly toward the city, said Federal Aviation spokeswoman Laura Brown.

Brown said the dot disappeared after about 10 minutes. She said it was not an aircraft but probably a cloud or several birds, which frequently show up on radar.

Security helicopters on patrol around the capital quickly determined that an airplane hadn't flown into restricted airspace, Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

Armed Secret Service officers surrounded the White House compound as Bush was taken from the Oval Office to a bunker underneath the building. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center for only "a very short time."

Cheney was taken Wednesday to a secure location that was not disclosed.

The last time that either Bush or Cheney is known to have been in the bunker was on Sept. 11, 2001. Both spent part of the day there following the terrorist attacks. Bush has also been in the bunker on at least one other occasion before Wednesday, according to McClellan. It's "not the first time," he said, declining to elaborate.

Several federal agencies, including the Secret Service and FBI, have been monitoring radar around Washington since 9/11.

Wednesday's incident occurred as a congressional committee was approving a measure to allow private planes to fly within a mile of the White House and land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Private planes have been barred from using the airport since 9/11 because their passengers, luggage and crew are not screened.

The Transportation Security Administration is developing a plan to gradually allow private planes to use the airport, TSA chief David Stone told lawmakers last month.

But the House transportation committee took its own step yesterday, approving a bill that would require the airport to be open to private planes within 60 days of the bill's approval.

"This sends a very clear message that we want something done," said House aviation subcommittee chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

The flight restriction has sent private planes to Dulles International Airport — 45 minutes from downtown Washington — or smaller airports in the area. But National Airport, a 10-minute drive from downtown Washington, "is hugely more convenient," said James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, which represents business charters.

Since 9/11, the TSA and FAA have allowed about 250 small planes, most of them carrying elected officials, to land at National if passengers are cleared by security and a law officer is on board.

Contributing: Judy Keen