May 23 issue - Homeland Security officials believe they're getting a bad rap for keeping President Bush in the dark last week about a major security alert. One source said if Bush were told about every suspect plane flying into D.C. airspace, he wouldn't have much time for anything else.
Officials said the alert, triggered by a Cessna that flew into restricted D.C. airspace without permission, was one of dozens of similar incidents that occur every month. Between 9/11 and last week, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded 2,211 intrusions into D.C.-area restricted zones, including incursions into airspace around the White House, Capitol building and Camp David; officials say incidents occur on average twice daily. (When last week's incident began, Homeland Security crisis managers were dealing with an earlier alert caused when an unidentified plane—whose flight plan was later found to be legit—was seen heading toward Andrews Air Force base.) Last week's Cessna's pilots flew south into restricted D.C. airspace, turned right in the general direction of the Capitol and White House and failed to respond to urgent radio calls from air-traffic controllers, causing Homeland Security to order patrol aircraft into the sky and the Pentagon to scramble fighter jets. The Cessna turned west before reaching the White House, but did fly over Vice President Cheney's residence. The veep, Laura Bush and a visiting Nancy Reagan were all moved to emergency shelters and the Capitol building was evacuated. After F-16 fighters fired flares, the Cessna finally responded and was escorted to a remote airfield in Maryland. Officials said Bush was not told until after the incident because it was never clear the plane posed a threat to the White House, and military commanders had authority to order the plane shot down if it displayed "hostile intent."
Such aerial events clearly make security officials jumpy: late last month, both Bush and Cheney were moved to emergency bunkers after air-traffic control noticed an "anomalous" radar blip moving in the direction of the White House. Patrol aircraft couldn't find any intruder, and officials now think the radar speck was caused by either a cloud or a flock of birds.