“They’re burning more CIA tapes!” was what one wag in the White House briefing room called out, as Press Secretary Dana Perino abruptly halted her morning briefing for reporters. My colleagues and I dashed out into the White House parking lot to watch the black smoke and flame across the street.
Today’s fire in the Old Executive Office Building could not have come at a more poignant time for Perino or those of us who cover her. Sharp questions were flying like shrapnel; following the the breaking news that four Administration attorneys (including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and onetime White House Counsel Harriet Miers were aware of the controversial destruction of the CIA tapes, reporters led by Terry Hunt of the Associated Press pounded Perino with queries about that news.
The President’s top spokeswoman remained firm, pointing out that she has “not commented from day one” on the tapes business and would not do so “in any way, shape or form” because of the preliminary inquires now being done by the Department of Justice and the CIA. She referred to Attorney General Michael Mukasey (“Let him speak to it!”), prompting CBS-TV’s Bill Plante to snap at Perino: “Then get him over here!” She said that it “was not fair” to suggest the President knew more than he has so far said about the tapes destruction — a reference to the New York Times front-page story this morning — and that the President “does not recall being told anything about the destruction of the tapes” until his CIA briefer told him after the fact.
As the rhetoric in the briefing room grew incendiary — with the press secretary beginning to ask several times for queries on topics other than the tapes — two cameramen dashed out in the parking lot. “There’s a fire at old EOB,” one called. Soon Perino left her podium and we all were outside to hear sirens, watch black smoke billow out of an office in the old EOB (next to the vice president’s ceremonial office), and file stories.
Watching a firefighter looking like a commando in fatigues and gas mask on the balcony of the old EOB, it was poignant to hear Dave McConnell of WTOP Radio recall that the site of the fire was once home to the War Department
As it turned out, Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel came out and explained that the 1700 employees in the Old Executive Office Building were evacuated and there were no injuries. As to the cause of the fire, “we’re still working on that,” Stanzel said.
“Is it appropriate for me to light up a cigarette?” a colleague from the foreign press asked, “If I’m going to get all this second-hand smoke, I might as well get the real thing.”
It was said of Bill O’Reilly that he left a network outlet in my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut allegedly because “I don’t do fires.” After today, I do.