Monday, September 14, 2009

'Routine' Coast Guard exercise sparks alarm. USA, LLC

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What was to have been an "ordinary, low-profile training event" for Coast Guard personnel on the Potomac River near the Pentagon on Friday sparked anger and confusion on the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Shortly after President Obama spoke at a Pentagon memorial service honoring the victims of Sept. 11, CNN and other news outlets reported that Coast Guard personnel had fired shots on a suspicious boat in the river near the Pentagon and other federal buildings. The reporting was based on intercepted radio traffic, but it turned out the intercepted messages were not depicting a real incident; instead they were relayed as part of a training exercise the Coast Guard was conducting at the time.

Other federal, state and local agencies were unaware of the training event. The situation was so confusing the Federal Aviation Administration put a ground hold on some air traffic at Reagan National Airport until the facts could be resolved.

In a hastily convened news conference on Friday at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, Vice Adm. John P. Currier, chief of staff, said, "No shots were fired. No weapons were trained. No ammunition was loaded. This was on the radio... Somebody said, 'bang, bang' on the radio at the appropriate point when the interdiction would have taken place in the exercise."

He described the activity as "a low-profile, normal training exercise that goes on every day" in the service's efforts to ensure personnel are proficient with the equipment and security protocols they are expected to use. "There's really no reason for specific notification on an exercise this low-profile, this routine," he said.

"We will look at our procedures and the timing of this exercise, but I'll tell you this: We are charged -- seven by 24, 365 days, all day, every day, all weather -- with security and safety in the National Capital Region. We train every day, and we have crews that are highly proficient," Currier said.

The personnel conducting the exercise were from the Baltimore sector, officials said. They were communicating over a radio frequency used by the Coast Guard regularly for such training missions, which are staged on the Potomac about four times per week, according to Currier.

"This is a discrete Coast Guard frequency, but it is not encrypted. Anyone with a scanner could intercept it and this was intercepted," he said. "If we're involved in an actual federal operation with the Secret Service or other federal agencies we go encrypted so it cannot be intercepted. But for normal training exercises, oftentimes we use clear channels."

Normally, exercise participants announce that they are conducting an exercise at the beginning and the ending of their radio transmissions. It wasn't clear on Friday if that had happened in this case. Currier said he had not seen a transcript of the radio messages at the time of the briefing, and suggested the broadcast could have been intercepted after it had begun, so listeners might not have understood that what they were hearing was not a real event.

The initial news reports sparked widespread concern at the Pentagon, where many people still remember watching CNN coverage of the New York attacks on office televisions when the Pentagon itself was hit.

Frances Townsend, the former White House homeland security adviser under President Bush and now a CNN contributor, said on the broadcast network on Friday that Coast Guard officials owed the public an apology.

Currier clearly disagreed. "I am not issuing an apology," he told reporters.

"This is very instructive for us. We're going to go back through this and review our own protocols, our own procedures. We're also going to look at how we engage the press," he said.

The incident was reminiscent of one earlier this year when the White House arranged to update publicity photos of Air Force One by taking pictures of the aircraft flying low over lower Manhattan. That event sparked widespread fear and outrage among New Yorkers unaware of what was taking place.

Source Citation:Peters, Katherine McIntire. "'Routine' Coast Guard exercise sparks alarm." (Sept 11, 2009): NA. General OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 14 Sept. 2009

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