Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Holding a training exercise near the Pentagon on Sept. 11 this year was ill-advised, but it did not violate Coast Guard policies, an internal review found.

The Coast Guard review, obtained by the Associated Press, looked into the events and actions that led to false news reports of gunshots on the Potomac River on the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The chain of errors on television and online raised fears in the capital that Washington might be under attack eight years to the day after a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon and two others slammed into New York’s World Trade Center towers.

CNN reported 10 shots had been fired on a suspicious vessel, based on information it heard over the network’s police scanner, used to monitor law-enforcement radio traffic. Fox News also reported the shots, which were said to be on the section of river nearest to the Pentagon where President Obama was attending a 9/11 anniversary commemoration.

As a result, FBI agents rushed to the scene; the Coast Guard ordered one of its helicopters based at Reagan National Airport to fly over the river to investigate the reports of shots, and the FAA grounded 17 flights departing from the airport, which is located on the Potomac.

The training exercise was considered routine, consisted of seven separate drills and involved speeding boats and at least one helicopter. Instead of actually firing any shots, one of the exercise participants said “bang, bang, bang” over the radio when shots would have been fired if it were a real event. TV networks noticed the activity and confused the simulated chatter for actual events.

The Coast Guard unit that conducted the training exercise was not aware that the president would be traveling to and from a memorial service nearby, Vice Adm. Robert J. Papp, commander of the Coast Guard Atlantic area, determined in his review of the incident. If the unit had known about the president’s specific travel plans, it would have rescheduled the time and date of the exercise, the report said.

Adm. Papp found that the commander of the Coast Guard unit, known as Station Washington, “considered the significance of 9/11 before approving response readiness training on that date and determined it was an opportunity to pay respect to those tragically lost.”

While Adm. Papp determined that the unit “followed standard police and practices” during its exercise on Sept. 11, he found “the decision to conduct training on that morning in the selected training area was ill-advised.”

Adm. Papp added that it was also ill-advised to continue the training after the Coast Guard had received inquiries about possible gun shots. The unit instead made an on-site decision to complete the final two of its seven training scenarios.

The exercise was originally scheduled for Sept. 4, but it was postponed several times for reasons such as crew shortages and a short-notice request for security support during one of the president’s trips within the Washington region. On Sept. 11, the Coast Guard unit was not asked to provide security support for any of the memorial events that day.

Station Washington was created after the 9/11 attacks to provide additional security in the region. In his review, Adm. Papp noted that next year the Coast Guard would be using scrambled communications during its training exercises, which would have prevented the radio interception. He said in the future, the Coast Guard units will be instructed to provide other law enforcement agencies with copies of its monthly training schedules.

Adm. Papp also said the commanders of Station Washington and Sector Baltimore, to which the station reports, would receive “appropriate administrative counseling.”

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