By Frances Fragos Townsend
Editor's note: Frances Fragos Townsend, a CNN contributor on national security issues, served as President George W. Bush's chief anti-terrorism and homeland security adviser. Townsend has spent more than two decades in the fields of intelligence and criminal justice and has served during the past three administrations. Townsend is currently a consultant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program.
Yesterday, a Boeing 747 that functions as Air Force One and two F16 fighter jets buzzed the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan on what was described as a combination photo shoot and training mission. The over flight created panic and confusion among New Yorkers for whom the memory of September 11, 2001 remains seared in their minds. Like many New Yorkers, I lost a friend in the attack on the World Trade Center and was outraged by the insensitivity on display yesterday. Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office acknowledged responsibility for the gross lack of judgment in his decision and he apologized. That is not good enough.
President Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel were described to me as rightly shocked and furious when they learned about the over flight. It is my understanding that they are looking into how this outrageous error could have been made. While the White House has said that it shares blame with two midlevel New York officials who were notified in advance, this is a weak and specious defense. After all, if Mr. Caldera had not approved the over flight there would have been no need for a notification. Furthermore, if the White House Military Office needed a training mission and a photo of Air Force One over a national icon there were more appropriate choices...say the Grand Canyon or Mt. Rushmore!
As the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor to President George W. Bush, I had a great deal of experience and interaction with the White House Military Office and have tremendous respect for the men and women who take seriously the important mission of that office. Most Americans do not realize that it is the White House Military Office working with the U.S. Secret Service that is responsible for the communications and movement of the president and his staff. They play an especially important role in the plans for the continuity of our constitutional form of government in a time of crisis. The Military Office staff practices the crisis plans and communications to ensure that the president is able to maintain his ability to communicate during a crisis with the U.S. military in his role as the commander in chief. Given the importance of these responsibilities, the director of the Military Office must have exemplary judgment, as well as the confidence of the president.
Mr. Caldera apparently has neither. Mr. Caldera’s misjudgment betrays the trust of those he is charged with leading at the White House Military Office, dishonors the president and perhaps most importantly dishonors the memory of those we lost on September 11 and those who still grieve. As a former Federal prosecutor in Manhattan, my colleagues and I used to say some conduct that is not a federal crime is what we called “felony stupidity.” Mr. Caldera is at a minimum guilty of “felony stupidity” and should not remain as the director of the White House Military Office where the president and the nation deserve and require professionalism.