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Sources: Plane intercept near White House not timely

From Jamie McIntyre and
Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two U.S. Air National Guard F-16s were not able to intercept a small plane that violated restricted air space around Washington until more than 10 minutes after the Cessna 182 passed near the White House, administration sources told CNN Thursday.

The Secret Service briefly evacuated the White House after being informed there was a single-engine Cessna in restricted airspace. CNN's John King reports (June 20)

Play video
7:59 p.m.  Cessna enters "restricted" air space
8:03 p.m.  FAA notifies NORAD
8:04 p.m.  Cessna enters "prohibited" air space
8:06 p.m.  Two F-16s get orders to scramble
8:06 p.m.  Cessna passes White House "within a few miles"
8:17 p.m.  F-16s take off from Andrews AFB
Intercept occurs "a few minutes later."

Source: Senior administration official

According to a timeline provided to CNN by a senior administration official, the fighter jets were on a 15-minute strip alert at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and did not get the order to scramble until 8:06 p.m. EDT, about the same time the plane passed its closest point to the White House -- described as within "a few miles."

The warplanes were in the air by 8:17 p.m., 11 minutes after being notified of the potential threat by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, conceded that the procedures in place were not adequate to protect the White House had a suicide bomber used a small plane or private jet to attack the building.

"What's needed is a bigger buffer zone, or a constant CAP [Combat Air Patrol] over the White House," the official said.

Air patrols were scaled back over Washington and New York in April because of the cost and strain on air crews.

The Secret Service briefly evacuated the White House on Wednesday evening after being informed there was a single-engine Cessna in restricted airspace above Washington, officials said.

About 15 minutes after the evacuation, an "all clear" was issued, allowing authorized personnel back in. (Full story)

The pilot and a passenger who were on that plane were released by the FBI Wednesday night after the agency determined the incursion appeared to be accidental and there was nothing "untoward," the official said. No criminal charges were filed, but the pilot could still face action by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Basically, we have closed the matter," said Lawrence Barry, chief division counsel for the FBI's Richmond, Virginia, office. The plane was forced to land in Richmond, where the two men were questioned by FBI and Secret Service agents.

"There was never a threat to the president," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

There have been about a dozen violations of restricted air space around the White House since September 11, according to a Secret Service source. The only reason an evacuation was ordered Wednesday night was that that authorities could not reach the pilot on his emergency frequency. Apparently, the pilot was not monitoring that frequency, the source said.




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