- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

A routine training exercise on the Potomac River turned into a terrorism scare on the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The incident unfolded about 10 a.m. Friday when cable television networks began airing live footage of what appeared to be Coast Guard boats intercepting an unknown vessel on the Potomac at the same time that President Obama was commemorating the 2001 attack at the Pentagon a short distance away.

It wasn’t until after the airing of erroneous reports that shots had been fired that Coast Guard officials told news organizations the incident was part of a planned drill on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York.

Vice Adm. John P. Currier, the Coast Guard chief of staff, said an apology for the incident was unnecessary but vowed to conduct a review of the event.

“We will conduct a top-to-bottom review,” Adm. Currier said at a news conference outside Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. “We will back through our procedures and see what happened here today.”

The White House said the president had not been notified about the exercise but it did not see any reason to object to it. The presidential motorcade returned to the District from Virginia via Memorial Bridge, but the exercise - held between the 14th Street and Memorial bridges - went unnoticed.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the only reason the exercise caused any alarm was because of “erroneous reporting” by CNN, which he said broadcast word of shots fired on the river based only on radio scanner traffic. He said the reporting, which was followed by accounts from Reuters news agency and Fox News Channel, was not verified by public safety officials.

“My only caution would be, before we report things, checking would be good,” Mr. Gibbs said.

CNN defended its actions in a statement released Friday, saying that it would have been “irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing.”

The organization said it was monitoring law enforcement channels because of the Sept. 11 anniversary.

“After hearing a U.S. Coast Guard radio transmission that a boat had breached a security zone on the Potomac River a short distance from the Pentagon where the president had just attended a 9/11 anniversary ceremony, CNN contacted the Coast Guard public affairs office at the agency’s headquarters. The Coast Guard spokeswoman said she was unaware of any activity taking place on the Potomac River.”

The CNN statement went on to say that “after hearing a further radio transmission about 10 rounds being expended, and after reviewing video of rapid movement by Coast Guard vessels as the president’s motorcade crossed the Memorial Bridge, CNN reported the story. Simultaneously, during a second phone call, the Coast Guard spokeswoman informed us that its National Command Center and other command posts knew nothing about any activity in the area.”

CNN also released a partial transcript of the radio chatter it monitored and aired, which commenced with “you’re approaching a Coast Guard security zone” and included “if you don’t stop your vessel, you will be fired upon. Stop your vessel immediately.”

Adm. Currier said that no federal agencies had been notified before the training exercise, which he described as normal, occurring about four times per week.

However, in Washington it is routine to notify the public about military training exercises, and law enforcement agencies are instructed to be vigilant on Sept. 11.

After the television reports, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily stopped departures at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport until the incident was confirmed to be an exercise.

The FBI’s Washington Field Office dispatched its National Capital Response Team after learning of the incident, but agents were waived off when they found out it was a drill, a spokeswoman said.

U.S. Park Police officers also responded; their cars could be seen lining the banks of the river in television footage.

Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said she didn’t know whether D.C. police officers were alerted beforehand about the drill.

A spokeswoman for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she had spoken to the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Thad Allen, and requested that he look into the event and give a full accounting. The Coast Guard operates under the jurisdiction of the Homeland Security Department.

A review of the incident by the Coast Guard could change how it interacts with other law enforcement agencies and with the news media during such exercises, Adm. Currier said.

Plans to hold the training exercise were approved by Coast Guard officials in Baltimore, which protects the Chesapeake Bay region.

While details of the exercise are still being investigated, Adm. Currier said it involved four vessels with mounted automatic weapons and 30 armed guardsman.

Adm. Currier said he would have to listen to the parts of the incident that were taped or see a transcript to learn exactly how the events unfolded.

The exercise, which the Coast Guard said commenced around 9:30 a.m., was broadcast over a dedicated Coast Guard radio frequency that can be overheard on scanners available in retail stores.

Guardsman typically indicate at the beginning and end of a drill that it is a training exercise, officials said.

The confusion started about 10 a.m. when news organizations reported that a Coast Guard vessel had fired 10 shots at an unidentified boat.

Adm. Currier said guardsmen typically use a communications radio to say “shot fired,” instead of actually firing shots, and somebody likely overheard the chatter, then called news organizations or other authorities.

Coast Guard spokesman Cmdr. Ron LaBrec said the Coast Guard did not record the radio transmissions but that officials “were able to confirm that the crew members did radio that they were conducting a drill several times during their communications.”

Mr. Gibbs supported the Coast Guard’s right to hold exercises.

The exercise was “a Coast Guard decision. I don’t think the commander in chief or his spokesman are going to micromanage it,” he said.

Pressed on whether the decision to conduct the exercise was ill timed, given that it was occurring on the anniversary of the deadliest terror attacks on American soil, Mr. Gibbs stood his ground: “I tend not to question law enforcement in trying to keep the nation’s capital safe.”

A spokesman for the Secret Service said the agency declined to comment on the incident.

However, Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican and a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, issued a statement questioning the Coast Guard’s wisdom in holding the drill on Sept. 11. Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and ranking member of the Homeland Security committee, also questioned the decision.

“I will be asking the Coast Guard leadership for a report on its decision-making process, focusing specifically on the questionable timing of this exercise,” Mr. King said.

In April, hundreds of New Yorkers were alarmed when an airliner that serves as Air Force One and two fighter jets flew over lower Manhattan taking pictures. The White House later apologized for the event and the aide who signed off on the plan was fired.

Mr. Gibbs rejected any comparison to the photo opportunity.

Friday’s event, he said, would have gone unnoticed entirely but for the errant television report.

Joseph Weber contributed to this report.

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