- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Communication breakdowns between federal and D.C. emergency officials have to stop, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday.

The mayor complained to Mr. Chertoff, a Bush Cabinet appointee, during the face-to-face meeting about the lack of notification to city officials when the Capitol and the White House were evacuated last week after a small airplane flew into restricted airspace.

“We both agreed that more needs to be done on the part of federal officials and on the part of regional officials to improve communication and notification in future crisis alerts,” said Mr. Williams, who expressed confidence that changes were in the works.

The meeting came just hours after Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, said federal authorities were reasonably sure as the incident was unfolding last Wednesday that the privately owned Cessna did not pose a terrorist threat.

“We thought, in light of everything known to us at the time, that it was unlikely this was a concerted, preplanned terrorist attack,” Mr. McHale said.

Key points in the flawed communication between the federal and city governments are whether alerting D.C. officials is part of existing homeland security protocols and even what exactly those procedures are.

Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Mr. Williams, yesterday said there was no “sheet of paper that states: When there is an alert, A, B, C is supposed to happen.”

Mr. Williams said later in the day that security procedures were “not followed that well,” but that officials were working on them.

“We have a number of different systems for people to notify us and we’re trying to link these systems better together,” the mayor said.

D.C. police could have learned earlier about the unauthorized plane through a phone line that connects the Federal Aviation Administration to a department speakerphone. However, the phone was disconnected sometime between the night of May 10 and the May 11 incident.

Several city agencies are working on a report detailing what should have happened during the incident under existing procedures and what actually did happen, Mr. Morris said. The report should be completed by the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

“We’re going to know more very soon,” the mayor’s spokesman said. “At that point, we can kind of sit down and see what happened.”

City, regional and federal officials met after the September 11 attacks to improve communication during major emergencies and threats to public safety. Among eventual changes were the birth of the federal Homeland Security Department and its operations center.

A D.C. police officer was stationed in that command center when the plane entered the restricted space at 11:28 a.m. May 11. It is also not clear, however, whether homeland security officials alerted the officer to the potential threat so that he in turn could notify superiors.

Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the officer was not informed during the unfolding incident because he was stationed on the law-enforcement side of the command center, where personnel have lower security clearances than on the intelligence side of the operation.

Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Valerie Smith said she did not know why the officer was not part of a conference call that included the U.S. Capitol Police.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, the former top deputy to Chief Ramsey, said his officers were notified through the department’s communications and radar systems that a plane had entered the restricted zone.

More than one observer of D.C. officials’ ire with being left out of the loop noted that the mayor and police chief could be said to be upset that federal officials didn’t give them their own chance to spark a brief public panic.

Capitol Police followed a procedure that evacuates the Capitol in stages, based on the distance of an incoming plane. Officers in essence barked to members of Congress, staff, reporters and visitors to run for their lives away from the building.

A similar scene played out at the White House. President Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, said procedures already in place were followed there during the evacuation ordered by the Secret Service. He would not divulge those procedures.

The Secret Service also took some criticism for not informing the president, who was away from the White House exercising on a bicycle, until the incident was over.

Military pilots and federal law enforcement officials forced the Cessna, piloted by two Pennsylvania men, to divert course and land at the airport in Frederick, Md.

• Jim McElhatton and Audrey Hudson contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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