Bush Kept In Dark On Errant Plane

The White House
AP
It was a serious enough scare to prompt the evacuation of the rest of the White House, but apparently not serious enough to notify the president.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were not relocated — or even informed — when many others in the White House were evacuated Wednesday because of an approaching wayward airplane, his spokesman has disclosed.

FBI officials concluded the pilot of a small Cessna made an innocent navigational error when he flew into restricted airspace, prompting the scrambling of two F-16s from Langley Air Force Base, Va., near Norfolk.

The fighter jets didn't catch up to the errant pilot until 11 minutes after he had left the restricted space on his own.

"It never did reach the point, however, where it was either necessary to either move or even inform the president. He found out this morning," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters Thursday.

A defense official said the plane never made any threatening maneuvers.

But even if the plane had made an aggressive move against the White House, the Secret Service is confident it had other ways of repelling the attack, including weapon systems on the roof of the White House that the Secret Service refuses to discuss, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller, who was among the journalists working in the West Wing ordered to evacuate.

Fleischer, struggling to explain why one safety standard applied to personnel and another to the president, said Secret Service officers stationed in the West Wing exercised their own discretion when they hustled people out.

"I think it's obvious the president is always kept the most secure person in the White House," Fleischer said. "... And again, there was never a threat to the president."

The plane, a Cessna 182, got as close as four miles from the executive mansion, violating an expanded no-fly zone established after Sept. 11.

The F-16s scrambled to intercept the pilot, who officials said changed course to avoid bad weather Wednesday during a twilight trip from Massachusetts to Raleigh, N.C. By the time they caught up to him he was near Fredericksburg, Va., and the fighter pilots instructed the Cessna to land in Richmond, Va., according to a timeline compiled by government officials.

Dozens of similar White House airspace violations have occurred in recent weeks, officials said, without any noticeable consequence on the ground.

The difference in Wednesday's episode was that the pilot was nonresponsive when air traffic controllers tried to contact him on emergency frequencies he apparently was not monitoring, said Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin. That was when some security officers decided to start moving people toward the White House gates, he said.

As for the president, "Certainly had that flight taken a different path or changed its path, additional procedures would have been activated," Mackin said. "But it didn't come to that."

The pilot and his one passenger were questioned by authorities in Richmond.

"It turned out to be navigational error," said FBI chief division counsel Lawrence Barry of Richmond. "Both the pilot and the passenger were very cooperative. They were not placed in custody."

Their names will not be released because no federal criminal charges will be filed, Barry said. "The FBI is done with this matter."

The plane took off from the Richmond airport Thursday morning.