Capitol Plane Scare Blamed On Lack of Communication
TSA Findings Echo Those of 9/11 Commission
By Spencer S. Hsu and John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 19, 2004; Page A01
Authorities evacuated the U.S. Capitol on June 9 because of a communication failure between Federal Aviation Administration flight controllers and Washington air defense officials tracking a plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) to Ronald Reagan's funeral, a government review has concluded.
Officials from the Defense and Homeland Security departments ordered two F-15 fighter jets and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to intercept Fletcher's aircraft at 4:25 p.m. without knowing that FAA controllers had been in radio contact with the plane for at least 40 minutes and had determined it was not hostile, according to interviews and a preliminary report by the Transportation Security Administration that was obtained by The Washington Post.
The Kentucky State Police aircraft, whose identification transmitter was broken, had properly notified civilian flight controllers of its status throughout its flight. But the FAA's regional control center never relayed the information to a Washington air defense center in Herndon -- formally known as the National Capital Region Coordination Center (NCRCC) -- until after U.S. Capitol Police made the emergency decision at 4:31 p.m. to evacuate the Capitol, according to the "after-action" report.
The order sent hundreds of assembled dignitaries and lawmakers and thousands of staff members running from the Capitol in a frantic exodus.
The review was disclosed one day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks recounted similar communication breakdowns between FAA and military officials on the day of the terrorist attacks. The head of U.S. air defenses testified Thursday that fighter jets could have intercepted all four hijacked airliners before they struck their targets if the FAA had notified them quickly.
FAA officials held a news conference yesterday to highlight the improvements made to the nation's air security in the past 33 months, but last week's incident provided some evidence that problems remain.
The Kentucky aircraft "should not have been permitted to enter [Washington airspace] without advance coordination with the NCRCC," the TSA report said. The report added that a regional FAA air controller "did not notify the NCRCC that the [target] was identified."
Two government officials said the controller has been dismissed. FAA spokesman Greg Martin said the agency would not comment on personnel matters.
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.), the ranking minority member, called for an investigation into what they said appeared to be "miscommunication and technological shortcomings" during the Kentucky flight.
The episode "raises serious concerns about the government's ability to guard not only the U.S. Capitol but the entire region in the event of another airborne attack," Turner said in a statement yesterday. Cox said that "we want to protect the capital region and to make sure the procedures in place work to do that."
Washington and New York remain the U.S. cities most likely to be attacked by terrorists, government officials say. Intelligence officials say al Qaeda continues to plot strikes on this country involving hijacked jets used as missiles.
TSA spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr. said a thorough review is underway. The FAA and the U.S. Capitol Police Board have also launched internal investigations as participants in TSA's Herndon joint air control center, which includes the Pentagon, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Martin acknowledged "communication and coordination" problems, saying, "The FAA tracked and was in close communication with the Kentucky State Police aircraft during its entire flight to Washington, D.C., and was fully aware of the aircraft's transponder failure."
According to the TSA report, the Kentucky plane was authorized to enter restricted Washington airspace and its pilot properly telephoned air defense controllers the morning of its estimated 3 p.m. takeoff and planned 4 p.m. arrival.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company