Experts Review Response to White House Airspace Scare

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Authorities scrambled Wednesday to identify a plane that entered restricted airspace over Washington, D.C. Analysts point to parts of the operation that went well, and parts that need improvement.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Federal officials say they're pleased with the response yesterday when a small plane accidently entered restricted airspace over Washington, DC. Thousands of workers were quickly evacuated from both the White House and the Capitol, and the plane was diverted. Officials say almost everything went according to plan, but as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some people question whether the plan makes sense.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

When the Cessna 150 entered a special zone about 30 miles from the White House, it set off a series of escalating precautions. Within minutes, a Black Hawk helicopter and a Citation jet were sent to intercept the plane and guide it from the area. But the aircraft continued its approach, so F-16 fighter jets were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base. Soon the plane was within 10 miles of the White House, and Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer says a careful calculation had to be made about whether to evacuate.

Chief TERRANCE GAINER (Capitol Police): It is not just the mere distance the plane is at, but there's a confluence of facts we look at. Do we know the speed of the plane, its height, its direction, its point of origin?

FESSLER: As the plane got even closer, the evacuation order was given. Within minutes, thousands of workers and visitors poured from the Capitol and the White House into streets and nearby parks. But Randall Larsen, a Homeland Security consultant and retired Air Force colonel, says that wasn't the smartest thing to do given such a tiny plane.

Colonel RANDALL LARSEN (Retired; Homeland Security Consultant): The only thing a Cessna 150 could really do would be a spray device to release a chemical agent. And then the last thing you would want is for everyone running outside. The safest thing would be to stay indoors.

FESSLER: He says the government needs different response plans depending on the threat. Evacuation would have been appropriate if the approaching plane had been a 747 filled with fuel. Larsen and others also question the wisdom of shoot-down orders if an aircraft gets too close to the White House or Capitol when everyone is standing outside.

Col. LARSEN: You're shooting down an airplane to prevent it from hitting an empty building, and who knows what that airplane's going to fall on down there, schools, hospitals, residential areas.

FESSLER: He also adds if the plane is a jet hijacked from a nearby airport, it could easily reach its target before the shoot-down order is given. Federal officials say they'll review Wednesday's response to see what improvements need to be made. At the White House, for example, an emergency intercom system failed to work. Some people were told by the Secret Service to evacuate while others were told to stay put.

And there were many questions today about why President Bush, who was biking in suburban Maryland, was not informed about the evacuation until he finished his bike ride 50 minutes later. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said procedures put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being followed.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesperson): 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. The Secret Service detail that was traveling with the president was being kept apprised of the situation as it was developing.

FESSLER: And he said the president is satisfied with the way things were handled. But there are others who weren't so satisfied. Washington, DC, Mayor Anthony Williams says he didn't get a page from the Department of Homeland Security about the potential threat until after the all-clear signal was given, even though his office is located near the Capitol. David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that while there were efficient evacuations at the White House and Congress...

Mr. DAVID HEYMAN (Director, The Center for Strategic and International Studies): Other government buildings didn't even know about it. People found out about it after their lunch break. They came back, and they had heard some e-mail from some friend saying, `Are you OK?' from probably somewhere outside of the city.

FESSLER: He says more work needs to be done to improve the way potential threats are communicated. But Heyman says incidents such as yesterday's provide good real-life experiences to help everyone work out the kinks before a real attack occurs. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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