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A Case Study In White House Crisis Management

June 22, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Almost as soon as word arrived at the White House on June 14 that an American airliner was hijacked and en route to the Middle East, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter convened the first meeting of his interagency crisis committee and parceled out assignments.

The State Department was to set up a special task force to monitor developments and the Pentagon would review the military situation. Contacts were set up with the airline, intelligence agencies and friendly governments in the region.

Poindexter’s boss, National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, kept President Reagan informed of developments, but the president took no immediate action to step in to manage the crisis.

Before another 48 hours had passed, the events surrounding the administration ’s handling of the hijacking would show how the Reagan White House handles a crisis.

The hijacking also showed how the administration’s response differed from President Jimmy Carter’s struggle with the similar, if even more perplexing, hostage crisis in Iran more than five years before.

For the Reagan administration, the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 was yet another terrorist incident. Most of the people involved had been through it before. The embassy bombing in Beirut, the suicide attack on the Marine headquarters, the coordinated assault on U.S., French and Kuwaiti facilities.

And when the crisis team didn’t have real tragedies to cope with, it practiced the procedures to follow when another terrorist incident occurred, as one almost certainly would.

Reagan, whose detached management style and lack of appetite for detail is often food for his critics, left for a weekend at Camp David, Md., as scheduled to relax at the mountaintop hideaway he once described as the only place where he can walk out the door and not be surrounded by Secret Service agents.

On Sunday, however, things took a turn for the worse and the airliner headed back to the uncertainty of a landing in Beirut with many hostages still aboard. The president returned to the White House a few hours early to convene a meeting of the National Security Council, demonstrating his personal concern for the deteriorating situation.

The atmosphere in the Situation Room, the communications nerve center in the White House basement, was described as calm, professional and collegial by one who was there. The president gave some guidance, but it didn’t differ markedly from what everyone there already knew.

There was to be no negotiation with the terrorists, no concessions made. No action was to be taken that might further endanger the terrorists’ captives.

The philosophy remained intact, and the procedures to follow it had been established long before. The one element of Reagan’s policy that had been set aside - at least for the time being - was his pledge to seek ″swift and effective retribution″ for terrorist acts. The safety of the hostages came first, and retaliation would follow only if intelligence could identify and locate the perpetrators.

During the course of the week, the first of the Beirut hostage crisis, Reagan would hold only one other meeting of his top national security advisers - to consider the attack that killed six Americans in El Salvador - and he would stick to his travel schedule to promote his tax plan.

Although he had canceled plans to face the press at news conferences when the news was bad before, he didn’t this time. Instead, he used the nationally broadcast session with reporters to explain his approach to the problem.

He showed his involvement not by concentrating all his attention on the crisis but by visiting briefly with families of victims during previously scheduled trips to Indianapolis and Dallas to promote his tax overhaul plan.

President Carter, by contrast, canceled trips, stayed awake late into the night, walked the White House grounds alone, chaired meeting after meeting to consider his options and, eventually, found himself held hostage by the crisis in Iran.

Reagan, aides said, was determined to avoid that trap.

″The safety and wellbeing of the American hostages became a constant concern for me, no matter what other duties I was performing as president,″ Carter wrote in his memoirs.

″I would walk in the White House gardens early in the morning and lie awake at night, trying to think of additional steps I could take to gain their freedom without sacrifying the honor and security of our nation. I listened to every proposal, no matter how preposterous, all the way from delivering the shah for trial as the revolutionaries demanded to dropping an atomic bomb on Tehran.″

On the fourth day, Carter postponed a state visit to Canada and a few days later canceled trips that had been scheduled to Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia, where he had hoped for a few days’ vacation on Sapelo Island.

″Staying close to Washington quickly became standard policy,″ Carter wrote. And on Dec. 4, a month after the embassy was seized and the day he announced his candidacy for re-election, Carter formally confined himself to quarters.

On the eve of a week-long fundraising trip he had scheduled to kick off his campaign, Carter announced to the nation: ″My campaign travels must be for a time postponed. I must remain here, near the White House, because of the situation in Iran. While the crisis continues, I must be present to define and to lead our response to an ever-changing situation of the greatest sensitivity and importance.″

While his wife, his vice president and others would campaign for him, Carter said, ″I must devote my concerted efforts to resolving the Iranian crisis. The overriding fact is that 50 of our fellow Americans have been unjustifiably thrust into agony and danger, and I have a personal responsibility to get them out of that danger as fast as possible.″

Although he eventually did take to the campaign trail four months later, while the hostages remained in captivity, the crisis consumed him and, perhaps more than any other event, his presidency.

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