The White House is facing questions about why the Secret Service did not evacuate President Bush from the presidential mansion Wednesday night when a small plane flew into restricted airspace over the city and failed to respond to radio calls.
Even though the incident turned out to be an innocent case of pilot error, scores of White House staffers and journalists were evacuated before the private plane landed without incident in Virginia. The brief scare only underscored the heightened state of alert over terrorism as Americans prepare to celebrate the July 4 Independence Day holiday.
It was the first time the White House had been evacuated since September 11, when authorities feared one of the four airliners hijacked by terrorists was headed directly for the presidential mansion.
But for some reason, the Secret Service did not judge President Bush to be at risk, leaving White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer to explain why the agency trusted to protect the president thought he was in no danger when others in the building were ordered out.
"The reason why the president was neither told nor moved was because the judgment was made, accurately so, that the plane did not pose a threat," he said. "I think it is fair to say that if the plane had continued on a different course or taken any different action from what the Secret Service knew it was taking, the Secret Service would have done differently."
The FBI attributes the plane's intrusion into restricted airspace as an attempt by the pilot to avoid bad weather, and he is not expected to be charged. Fighter jets did, however, escort the Cessna to a landing in Richmond, Virginia.
But nine months after the terrorist attacks, the incident demonstrates that Washington continues to remain on edge about the possibility of more strikes by al-Qaida. With the nation heading into a July 4 holiday, the FBI is asking police across the country to maintain a heightened state of alert, while developing what spokesman Bill Carter calls contingency plans in case terrorists use Independence Day to strike again.
"Terrorist groups in many instances use significant dates as platforms to commit acts of terrorism," said Mr. Carter. "Obviously July 4 is a significant date. There is a potential for that. But let me also emphasize the fact that the U.S. government is unaware of any specific or credible threats pertaining to July 4."
U.S. officials say information gleaned through interrogating war detainees picked up in Afghanistan who are being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suggests a general interest by al-Qaida in striking the U.S. again on the day Americans celebrate their independence.