- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama Tuesday spoke publicly for the first time about the 747 airplane flyover that scared New York City residents, promising the photo-opportunity gone badly wrong would not happen again.

“It was a mistake, as was stated … and it will not happen again,” Mr. Obama told reporters during a brief encounter at the FBI before a speech.

On Monday, Mr. Obama’s White House was forced to issue an apology Monday after an Air Force One backup did a low flyover over Lower Manhattan, prompting terrified citizens to flee their offices and high-profile accusations of government insensitivity in the post-Sept. 11 era.

White House Military Office Director Louis Caldera issued a brief statement saying he was to blame, and an administration official said the president was “furious” about the photo op, which had been in the works for one month.

“Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision,” Mr. Caldera said.

“While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it’s clear that the mission created confusion and disruption,” he said. “I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.”

The panic started Monday morning when a 747, a backup that serves as Air Force One when the president is aboard, flew over Lower Manhattan with two U.S. fighter jets closely following, rattling windows and causing some limited evacuations from some of the same offices where workers witnessed the planes crashing into the World Trade Center nearly eight years ago.

Several people were injured during the commotion, according to reports from New York.

Over the course of a half-hour starting at 10 a.m., the plane flew low over the city and near the Statue of Liberty.

A timeline provided by an administration official revealed that the planning - and coordination with state and local officials - had been in the works for one month.

The 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base on March 27 asked for help from the Federal Aviation Administration’s System Operations Security team in planning and implementing a “photo opportunity” around the Statue of Liberty as the team had done for previous military flyovers.

On April 3, the Department of Defense, the FAA and the airlift group held a conference call with Mr. Caldera’s White House Military Office.

The military office said during the call “that they do not want public dissemination of the information for security reasons,” according to the timeline.

As coordination continued, the groups involved were asked not to release the information outside of the FAA and the request was approved.

On Wednesday, the FAA team asked the military office about the public outreach plan for the flyover, but Mr. Caldera’s office said it wanted the FAA’s public affairs team to handle the first press queries.

That same day, the FAA’s System Operations Security notified New York and New Jersey authorities and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office, which promised to notify the 911 and 311 call centers, according to the timeline.

The advisory to the authorities contained sensitive material on the flyover route and timing, and was marked “For Official Use Only.” The FAA team made follow-up phone calls to the mayor’s office and New Jersey officials.

“As with any military exercise or activity, the requesting agency (89th Airlift Wing and White House Military Office) is responsible for public affairs and outreach initiatives,” the timeline reads.

It was quickly apparent that not everyone got the memo.

Videos uploaded to YouTube of the flyover had a common theme: scared New Yorkers gasping and saying, “Oh my God,” “run” and “It’s a hijacking, I know it because it’s been going around.”

Others were angry when they learned it was a photo op involving the Statue of Liberty, asking on blogs and via Twitter why the military did not just use photo editing software instead.

Mr. Bloomberg - an Obama ally - said he would have stopped the exercise had he personally known, adding that he would address the communication breakdown within his administration.

He told reporters that he learned about the scare from angry citizen e-mails during the flyover and was “incredulous” that the Defense Department had shown such “poor judgment.”

“They should know how sensitive people would be if they had low-flying planes down by the World Trade Center site,” the mayor said.

A few hours earlier, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dodged questions about the incident, saying he hadn’t followed the situation closely. “I was working on other things,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I don’t know every movement of Air Force One.”

But the public certainly noticed.

John Leitner, a trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange Building, told the Associated Press that about 1,000 people “went into a total panic” and ran outside after seeing the planes nearby about 10 a.m.

“We were informed after we cleared out of there,” he said. “I kind of think heads should roll a little bit on that.”

Kathleen Seagriff, a staff assistant at the Wall Street Journal, said workers were startled by the roar of the engines.

The planes “went down the Hudson, turned around and came back by the building. It was a scary scene, especially for those of us who were there on 9/11.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, blasted the FAA in a Monday news conference, calling the chain of events “absolutely outrageous and appalling” given the vivid memories New Yorkers still have of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Schumer said the FAA seems to be “directly responsible for the public panic.”

“In New York of all places, not to warn the public that one of the largest jets in the country tailed by a fighter jet is going to fly low over their community defies logic and really borders on being either cruel or very, very stupid,” he said. “We cannot allow this to happen again.”

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