Coast Guard drill sets off 9/11 scare

CNN, Fox News mistake mars ceremony

By Calvin Woodward and Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / September 12, 2009

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WASHINGTON - A routine Coast Guard training exercise caught the attention of television crews on the Sept. 11 anniversary yesterday, 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 Admiral 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.’’

Currier called the incident “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, Obama left the Pentagon, where he had presided at a ceremony honoring those who had died there eight years earlier, and crossed the Potomac on his way back to the White House.

But before officials understood what was happening, reports on CNN and Fox News sent FBI agents and police officers to the riverbank and prompted a 20-minute halt to flights at Ronald Reagan National Airport.

The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, later suggested that the fault for the uproar lay with the news media. “My only caution would be that before we report things like this, checking would be good,’’ 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, 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.

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.