Friday, September 11, 2009
Potomac panic: Coast Guard training exercise causes fear on 9-11 anniversary
By Lee-Anne Goodman (CP) – 1 hour ago
WASHINGTON — It was a routine U.S. Coast Guard training exercise but it came on a day - and in a location - that touched off a brief panic in the U.S. capital on Friday, the eighth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The incident involved a flurry of speeding Coast Guard motorboats, seemingly in pursuit of another vessel on the Potomac River just a stone's throw from the Pentagon, where President Barack Obama had just observed the anniversary in the building where 125 people died.
The training exercise was run of the mill, the Coast Guard said in a hastily called news conference - but it was conducted with no advance word to the White House, the Secret Service, the media or other law enforcement agencies.
The panic resulted from a civilian with a scanner intercepting communications on a Coast Guard channel during the exercise, Vice-Admiral John Currier told the news conference.
The chatter, which included the words "bang, bang," was misunderstood, Currier said, and there were soon reports on police scanners that the Coast Guard had fired 10 rounds of ammunition at a suspicious boat.
That news caused authorities to ground flights at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport and prompted the FBI to scramble to the scene due to fears about Obama's security.
The Coast Guard promised a "thorough review" after the incident, but did not apologize for triggering the scare on the anniversary of a dreadfully traumatic day that is still seared in the memories of many Americans.
"No shots were fired, there was no suspect vessel, there was no criminal activity, this was a pre-planned training exercise," said Currier. "Our people have to train; they do it on a routine and normal basis."
But some were harshly critical of the Coast Guard's decision to conduct the exercise so close to where the president was meeting with the families of 9-11 victims.
Military Families United, an advocacy group for military families, called the incident "the height of irresponsibility," adding whoever commissioned the exercise "should be held accountable."
These families have travelled from all over the country to convene at the Pentagon on this tragic anniversary, and this training exercise not only caused unwarranted stress for these families but it was a distraction from the purpose of today," the group said in a statement.
"This kind of incompetence and insensitivity cannot be permissible and should be addressed at the highest levels of government."
A Republican senator agreed, and called upon Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to investigate.
"The anxiety caused by this situation on such a solemn day is extremely disturbing," George Voinovich said in a statement.
"I look forward to hearing from Secretary Napolitano about the decision-making process leading up to today's events. It sounds very much like the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing."
But Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, pointed the finger at one his favourite culprits in recent weeks - the media.
"My only caution would be that before we report things like this, checking would be good," Gibbs told reporters.
"I tend not to question law enforcement."
U.S. Coast Guard boats are seen on the Potomac River in Washington, Friday, Sept. 11, 2009. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Haraz N. Ghanbari)