9/11 Potomac exercise ‘ill-advised’ but not in violation, Coast Guard says

By Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / October 28, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Holding a training exercise near the Pentagon on Sept. 11 this year “was ill-advised,’’ but it did not violate Coast Guard policies, an internal review found.

The Coast Guard review, obtained by The Associated Press, looked into the events and actions that led to false news reports of gunshots on the Potomac River on the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.

The chain of errors on TV and online raised fears in the capital that Washington might be under attack eight years to the day after a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, and two others slammed into New York’s World Trade Center towers.

CNN reported 10 shots had been fired on a suspicious vessel, based on information it heard over the network’s police scanner, used to monitor law enforcement radio traffic. Fox News also reported shots, said to be on a river section nearest to the Pentagon where President Obama was attending a 9/11 anniversary.

As a result, FBI agents rushed to the scene; the Coast Guard ordered one of its helicopters based at Reagan National Airport to fly over the river to investigate the reports of shots, and the FAA grounded 17 flights departing from the airport, which is located on the Potomac.

The training exercise was considered routine, consisted of seven separate drills and involved speeding boats and at least one helicopter. Instead of actually firing any shots, one of the exercise participants said “bang, bang, bang’’ over the radio when shots would have been fired if a real event. TV networks noticed the activity and confused the simulated chatter for actual events.

The Coast Guard unit that conducted the training exercise was not aware that the president would be traveling to and from a memorial service nearby, Vice Admiral Robert J. Papp, commander of the Coast Guard Atlantic area, determined in his review of the incident. If the unit had known about the president’s specific travel plans, it would have rescheduled the exercise.