First Lady Laura Bush says her husband should have been interrupted during his biking trip last week to be told that the White House and Capitol were under an emergency evacuation.
The White House has defended the decision to let Bush continue his afternoon ride unaware that tens of thousands of people were being evacuated as a small plane flew into restricted airspace over Washington. The president’s aides insist that proper protocol was followed, but Mrs. Bush said she wishes her husband had known.
“I think he should have been interrupted, but I’m not going to second-guess the Secret Service that were with him,” she told reporters shortly after taking off Thursday night on a trip to the Middle East.
Mrs. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others working in the Capitol and White House were moved out when the plane came within three miles of the presidential mansion. President Bush was biking in suburban Maryland with a friend from high school at the time and all was clear by the time he returned.
Mrs. Bush said she was with former first lady Nancy Reagan and her husband’s aunt Nancy Ellis when the White House went on red alert and they were taken to an underground bunker together. Mrs. Reagan was in town to promote a heart health campaign with Mrs. Bush.
“We were not fearful, Nancy Reagan or I,” Mrs. Bush said. She said they were only in the bunker for about two minutes when the pilot, who was off course and mistakenly entered the restricted zone, turned back.
Mrs. Bush said the president was not frustrated that the Secret Service agents following along during his ride didn’t tell him about the scare until after he was done. “He did feel like they followed the protocols,” she said.
“There was a very short time limit there between when we went to the bunker and when they realized the plane had turned to the right,” Mrs. Bush said. “And so that was a very short part of his ride, really, before they knew that everything was all right.”
The plane was the second security scare Mrs. Bush experienced last week. She and her husband also came within 100 feet of a live hand grenade in Tbilisi, Georgia, according to FBI investigators. The grenade did not detonate and she said they didn’t even know about it until after leaving the country.
“Thank God no one was hurt from that,” she said. “I don’t know any of the details about it. I don’t know if it was close enough for the president to have been hurt, but certainly innocent people could have been.”
Mrs. Bush said despite the recent incidents, she isn’t worried about security on her five-day trip to Jordan, Israel and Egypt. She said she hopes she can help repair the U.S. image that she said has been damaged by a recently retracted Newsweek report that American interrogators desecrated the Quran as well as documented abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
“We’ve had terrible happenings that have really, really hurt our image of the United States,” she said on the flight between Andrews Air Force Base and a refueling stop in Ireland. “And people in the United States are sick about it.”
The three nations that Mrs. Bush is visiting have some of the strongest diplomatic ties to the United States in the region. Yet sentiments against Americans run high, particularly since the Newsweek report.
Newsweek at first apologized for its story and then retracted it under heavy pressure from the administration. The White House blamed the magazine’s account for triggering deadly anti-American protests in Afghanistan last week in which police fired on demonstrators and killed about 15 people.
Mrs. Bush said although the report was damaging, Newsweek should not be held solely responsible.
“In the United States if there’s a terrible report, people don’t riot and kill other people,” she said. “And you can’t excuse what they did because of the mistake _ you know, you can’t blame it all on Newsweek. But at the same time, it was irresponsible, and that’s too bad.”