Coast Guard Drill, Misunderstood, Sets Off 9/11 ScareBy SCOTT SHANE and BRIAN STELTER
New York Times
September 12, 2009
WASHINGTON — A routine Coast Guard training exercise caught the attention of television crews on hair-trigger alert for trouble on the Sept. 11 anniversary Friday, producing an hourlong scare about gunfire from boats on the Potomac River not far from President Obama’s motorcade.
Coast Guard officials soon determined that a transmission about mock hostilities on an open marine channel shortly after 9:30 a.m. had touched off the blaze of worldwide news coverage.
“No shots were fired,” Vice Adm. John P. Currier, the Coast Guard’s chief of staff, said at a news conference afterward. “There was no suspect vessel. There was no criminal activity.”
Admiral Currier called the episode “unfortunate” and said the Coast Guard would conduct a “top-to-bottom review” to determine whether procedures should be changed.
With Coast Guard boats still maneuvering on the river, Mr. Obama left the Pentagon, where he had presided at a ceremony honoring those who died there eight years ago, and crossed the Potomac on his way back to the White House. But before officials understood what was happening, breathless reports on CNN and Fox News Channel sent F.B.I. agents and police officers to the riverbank and prompted a 20-minute halt to flights at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport.
The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, later suggested that the fault for the furor lay with the news media. “My only caution would be that before we report things like this, checking would be good,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters at the White House.
But CNN, which was first to report trouble on the river, defended its conduct, saying it had been obligated to report marine radio transmissions that appeared to describe gunfire.
“Given the circumstances, it would have been irresponsible not to report on what we were hearing and seeing,” the network said in a statement.
Coast Guard officials said such training exercises, intended to improve boat-driving skills and to practice for encounters with hostile vessels, took place several times a week, often in the open water near Memorial Bridge, where the presidential motorcade passed. The exercises are conducted by the Coast Guard’s Washington station, which is overseen by guard officials in Baltimore, not Coast Guard headquarters.
Friday’s exercise, involving four 25-foot speedboats armed with mounted machine guns, was considered so ordinary that neither other federal agencies nor local law enforcement officials were notified, Admiral Currier said.
“I don’t think our operations people saw any reason not to train today,” he said.
Rather than fire blanks, he said, crew members simply described mock gunfire in communications on Channel 81, an unencrypted marine radio frequency often monitored by hobbyists, saying “bang, bang” and giving the number of nonexistent rounds fired.
Several members of Congress criticized the Coast Guard for the timing and location of the exercise.
“I will explore, with the Coast Guard, what future corrective actions need to be taken,” said Representative Peter T. King of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee.
CNN staff members monitoring law enforcement activity on the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks first heard a Coast Guard transmission saying a boat had breached a security zone near the Pentagon, the network said in its statement. CNN contacted Coast Guard headquarters, where a spokeswoman said she was unaware of any incidents.
After hearing a subsequent transmission about “10 rounds being expended,” CNN said, it reported the activity to its viewers. An anchor called the apparent gunfire “pretty incredible.”
Soon afterward, Fox News Channel, quoting a Reuters account of the CNN report, said the Coast Guard had “opened fire” on a suspicious vessel. Some coverage on both networks included an aerial view of the Potomac provided by WJLA, an ABC affiliate in Washington.
Police scanner reports can be misleading or incomplete, and reporters often exercise caution in sharing what they hear.
“There’s never a benefit to a news organization in having something first if it’s wrong,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, at the Pew Research Center. “That’s why caution is important.”
In a public affairs manual published last year, the Coast Guard anticipated the potential for trouble when communications are overheard.
“There will be times when the media hears about a case by monitoring Coast Guard frequencies on a scanner,” the manual advised. “If you need time to gather information, tell the journalist; he or she will wait.”
Scott Shane reported from Washington, and Brian Stelter from New York.