They just can't do it. The Bushies can't admit a mistake. Last week, Washington had a scare when a small plane flown by a nitwit entered restricted air space over the capital; the pilot even refused to heed the get-out-of-here command from a military Black Hawk helicopter. But before the authorities figured out there was no danger, the White House and Congress were evacuated. (I, too, fled for my life from my Capitol Hill office.) Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush were rushed to a bunker. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was notified so he could be ready to execute a shoot-down order. But George Bush, who was out for a midday bike ride in suburban Maryland, was not told anything until after the 47-minute episode was over. Was keeping the president out of the loop SOP?
When national security adviser Stephen Hadley appeared on Fox News Sunday yesterday, he was asked about the decision not to clue in Bush. No surprise: he said everything went fine. What happened that day, Hadley maintained, is "how the system's supposed to work." Really? Is it national security protocol to clear out the White House and not inform the guy who lives there? Suppose that the threat had been real--the plane was spraying a biological agent or carrying a dirty (or, worse, a nuclear) bomb--or that this aircraft was part of a larger, coordinated attack involving other aircraft near Washington and elsewhere. (Anyone remember 9/11?) Would we want the president working on his heart rate instead of being briefed, assessing the situation, and preparing to make what could be a difficult decision?
Hadley maintained that if this incident "had gone on longer, or had been more serious, [Bush's detail] would have obviously talked to him about it." But forty-seven minutes can be a damn long time during a terrorist attack. And here's the thing: while the episode was under way there was no telling how serious it might be or how long it might last. If the procedure is to wait until all is known before notifying the president, it might then be too late for him to take effective action. The White House need not have hustled Bush to a military base far from Washington--as it did on 9/11. But it should have interrupted his bike ride.
Still, Hadley insisted all had gone well. Moreover, he noted that Bush had not been the least bit upset that he had not been told about the episode until after the all-clear had been issued. "The president is satisfied that the proper procedures were followed,"" Hadley said, noting that Bush has not "directed any changes in the procedure." That means Bush--who likes to depict himself as Mr. Decisive--didn't tell his aides, Damnit, next time this happens, get me off of the bike. Or could it be that Hadley and other Bush aides--by putting out this spin--are making Bush look bad to cover up their mistake?
This was a significant screw-up. (Imagine what conservatives would say if a President Kerry had wind-surfed through a similar episode.) Even if Bush and his gang can't bring themselves to acknowledge this error in public, let's hope that they do realize mistakes were made and that they are making sure that next time such an incident occurs Bush does indeed take a break from breaking a sweat to do his job.