Saturday, May 14, 2005

'Protocols' Left Bush Out of the Loop
'Protocols' Left Bush Out of the Loop

By Jim VandeHei
Saturday, May 14, 2005; A07

The nation was put on red alert. The first lady was rushed to a super-secure location. Thousands of people ran for their lives. Yet government protocols apparently didn't call for the commander in chief to be interrupted from a noontime bike ride on Wednesday when an errant plane entered Washington's restricted airspace.

That is the message put out by the White House the past two days. "The protocols that we put in place after September 11 were being followed," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday. "They did not require presidential authority for this situation."

So Bush kept on biking through the trails of rural Maryland, oblivious to the chaos miles away until 36 minutes after the all-clear was sounded.

McClellan said there have been similar (false) scares that did not require Bush's immediate attention.

"This was a situation where the president was in an off-site location," McClellan said. "He was not in danger, a situation where protocols have been put in place to address the situation. The protocols were followed." Just to make sure the point was clear, McClellan used the word "protocols" 34 times in Thursday's briefing alone.

While he did not say "protocols" that many times at yesterday's briefing, the message was the same. In an interview later, McClellan added that Bush was fine with how the situation was handled.

The protocols, which detail how to handle possible terrorist situations, such as when to shoot down an incoming plane, are secret. But this much is clear: The president does not necessarily have to be notified and does not have to give the green light to take out a plane.

The president also tried to deflect concern about being out of the loop, telling an audience yesterday, with a grin, "I strongly urge you to exercise on a regular basis." Eric Dezenhall, a Washington-based crisis-management consultant, said the president's role reinforces the scariest aspect of the episode. "The question becomes 'Do we know what we're doing when this stuff happens? The answer is that it's a crisis. Nobody does know what they're doing."