Security Scare Briefly Empties White House

The White House and Capitol Building were briefly evacuated Wednesday after a small airplane entered restricted airspace over the capital. Staff members have since been allowed to return to their offices. Hear Andrea Seabrook and David Greene.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a literary detective suspects writer Marcel Proust of a false remembrance of things past.

First, military jets scrambled into the air over the nation's capital today when a wayward Cessna pilot entered forbidden airspace and appeared headed toward the National Mall. The White House, the Capitol Building and Supreme Court were all evacuated briefly. Afterwards, White House press secretary Scott McClellan gave this account to reporters.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): Around noon, fighter jets were scrambled. At approximately 12:01, the threat level was raised to orange. The plane was within 10 miles, and evacuation and moving of people to more secure locations began at that point. Let me just point out that the Cessna was traveling in restricted airspace toward the White House and Capitol. The pilot was not responding to efforts to communicate with the plane. And then at 12:03, the alert level was raised to red.

CHADWICK: But just 15 minutes later, the--well, they called it off. NPR White House correspondent David Greene joins us now.

David, what more do we know about this plane?

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Well, we don't seem to know much yet, Alex, and authorities are looking into this as quickly as they possibly can. But we did just learn that the chief of Capitol Police a short distance from here at the White House just had a news conference and said two people were taken from the plane into custody for questioning at an airport in Maryland where the plane was escorted, and he said that they had left an airport in Pennsylvania and had not been authorized to take the plane. He called them errant pilots. So that's the extent of what we know as of now, but it seemed like at least there's reason for authorities to be suspicious.

CHADWICK: You're saying this--they stole the plane, or at least they didn't have permission to take it?

GREENE: That's not clear. What we know from the chief of Capitol Police is that the--and he said the information was very preliminary, but they did not have authority to take the plane from this Pennsylvania airport, and they said little more beyond that.

CHADWICK: OK, even if they didn't have authority to take the plane, it still may have been an innocent mistake to fly into this restricted space. People were very excited about this and disturbed by it nonetheless, this evacuation at the White House. Mr. Bush was not there.

GREENE: He wasn't. He was actually biking in suburban Maryland near the town of Beltsville, Maryland, about 20 minutes, 30 minutes from Washington. You doesn't usually do that in the middle of a weekday, but he had just gotten back from a pretty long foreign trip, going to Europe, and decided to take a little time off before meeting with members of Congress and doing an event here at the White House this afternoon.

CHADWICK: But Mrs. Bush was there, and Nancy Reagan was visiting. Were they evacuated?

GREENE: They were taken to a secure location, we are told by White House officials. They didn't make it clear whether that was on or off the White House grounds. They just said they were briskly taken to a secure location. They did say that Vice President Cheney, who was here, was evacuated from the grounds and taken somewhere else.

CHADWICK: And you were there at the time. Did you get evacuated? What happened?

GREENE: It was a tense scene, Alex. We--NPR actually has its booth in the basement of the White House. We're lower down than a lot of the other news organizations upstairs. And from what I was told by colleagues upstairs, they were noticed at the scene and Secret Service officers were saying that everyone should get out and head to Pennsylvania Avenue and get off the grounds. By the time some of us learned here in the basement, I guess it was too late. They said just lock down, stay in the basement and don't come out. So it was a tense moment.

CHADWICK: Not just at the White House; also the Capitol Building, Supreme Court, evacuations there as well. What happened?

GREENE: Well, I wasn't in those buildings, obviously. I've heard from my colleague Andrea Seabrook, who covers Capitol Hill--she said that the officers over there were taking this very seriously, yelling to run south away from the building. She said that some congressional leaders were piling into armored vehicles and a motorcade of them left. So just as tense over there.

CHADWICK: NPR White House correspondent David Greene at the White House.

Thank you, David.

GREENE: My pleasure, Alex.

CHADWICK: More coming from DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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