Radio Traffic Led to False News Reports of Gunfire on PotomacBy William Branigin, Debbi Wilgoren and Spencer S. Hsu
September 12, 2009
Radio traffic about a Coast Guard training exercise Friday led to erroneous television news reports that guardsmen had fired on a recreational boat in the Potomac River, near where President Obama was remembering the 9/11 attacks, a senior Coast Guard official said.
The news reports generated "uncertainty," said Vice Adm. John Currier, the Coast Guard chief of staff, that prompted federal and D.C. officials to respond anxiously. D.C. police raced to the riverside, and the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded planes at Reagan National Airport, .
Currier told reporters outside Coast Guard headquarters in Washington that no local, state or federal agencies were notified of the training exercise because it was "routine" and "low-profile." He did not apologize for the incident, but said the Coast Guard would review its procedures to ensure that future training exercises would not spark similar alarm.
"No shots were fired," Currier said. "There was no suspect vessel. There was no criminal activity. This was a pre-planned, normal training exercise."
He said that unspecified "members of the public" had "intercepted" clear-channel, unencrypted Coast Guard radio transmissions regarding the exercise and apparently concluded erroneously that a real interdiction of a suspect vessel was taking place on the Potomac, near Memorial Bridge. Not far from the river, President Obama attended a ceremony Friday morning at the Pentagon to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Currier said that although no shots were fired during the exercise, there was "verbalization of gunfire" in the radio transmissions.
"Somebody said, 'Bang! Bang!' on the radio at an appropriate time in the training exercise when the actual interdiction of the boat would have taken place," he said.
CNN, Fox and other media outlets cited police radio transmissions in which officers allegedly ordered shots fired. Television anchors and analysts speculated on-air as to whether the allegedly "suspicious vessel" confronted by the Coast Guard could be linked to the 9/11 anniversary.
D.C. police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said that her agency received a flurry of media calls about the incident after it was broadcast on television and that police were able to confirm that the action was a training exercise, not a threatening situation. Hughes said she did not know whether local authorities had been told about the exercise before it happened.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that it was "best not to second-guess" the Coast Guard's decision that it needed to conduct the exercise on such a sensitive date.
"I tend not to question law enforcement trying to keep the nation safe," he told reporters. Gibbs said he did not believe the White House was notified about the exercise.
He sharply criticized the news media for "reporting [that] was based on listening to a police scanner" and was not "verified" before being broadcast.
"If anyone was unnecessarily alarmed based on erroneous reporting that denoted shots had been fired, I think everybody is apologetic of that," Gibbs said.
CNN anchor Kyra Phillips said on-air that a CNN employee in Washington called the Coast Guard about the scanner report, "and they said, 'We don't know what you're talking about.' So we went forward with what we learned." Phillips, reporting in Atlanta, cited CNN employees in Washington for her information.
In one transmission that CNN recorded and broadcast, a Coast Guard member can be heard saying, "Vessel, if you don't slow down, stop your vessel . . . you will be fired upon."
Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Cangemi said in an interview, "We use a frequency reserved for the Coast Guard and reserved for training."
Currier said it was possible that Coast Guard personnel had reported shots fired on the radio as part of the exercise, but he stressed that protocol is to preface any such transmissions by announcing that they are part of a drill.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the agency's decision to suspend departing flights at nearby Reagan National Airport was "based on reports of activity on the Potomac." She said the pause began at 10:08 a.m. Eastern time and lasted 22 minutes.
"The tower stopped departures based on media reports . . . as a precaution," she said. "They just wanted to straighten that out first" before resuming takeoff operations to the north.
The FAA said 17 flights were delayed. Spitaliere said the agency faulted neither the media nor the Coast Guard for the rapid response, saying, "I think it worked well."
Currier, the Coast Guard chief of staff, said the agency would review its media operation following complaints from reporters that they were unable to get information from the Coast Guard public affairs office about what was taking place on the Potomac.
The incident was "very instructive for us," he said. "We're also going to look at how we engage the press." He added: "I think what you see here is a loop between what actually happened, press reports and the uncertainty that was generated by that because of the high profile of the press reports and the fact that other agencies due to that uncertainty reacted as they normally would."
Although Currier defended the Coast Guard's decision not to notify other agencies of the training exercise, saying such notifications had not been issued for numerous such exercises in the past, not everyone in the federal bureaucracy was happy with the practice.
"If it's in the footprint of the of the National Capital Region, you'd think they would let someone know," a senior military official in Washington said.
Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, questioned the Coast Guard's decision to hold the exercise near the Pentagon during Sept. 11 commemoration events.
"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," he said in a statement. "Additionally, I will explore, with the Coast Guard, what future corrective actions need to be taken."
Currier told reporters, "I don't think that our operational commander saw any reason not to train today." But he said later in his news conference: "In retrospect, of course, we will look at the sensitivity of 9/11. . . . We're going to do a top-to-bottom review on it. We'll be transparent with our results. We are a learning agency."
Staff writers Christian Davenport and Scott Butterworth contributed to this report.