By Del Quentin Wilber and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 13, 2005
D.C. police officials had no idea that fighter jets and helicopters were being deployed over Washington to intercept an errant plane on Wednesday, even though they had a sergeant in the nation's homeland security command center and the ability to monitor what was taking place at their own headquarters.
At the Homeland Security Operations Center, a command post built after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the D.C. government was relying on a sergeant to keep track of any potential crisis. But it was not until the air scare was nearly over that he got word to police commanders.
At police headquarters, someone had disconnected a phone line that would have provided emergency communications from the Federal Aviation Administration, the officials said.
It was not until he heard fighter jets screaming past his office that D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had an inkling of the events that had been consuming federal officials for a half-hour. And several more minutes elapsed before Ramsey received official notice and then alerted Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
"I'm not going to sit there and make believe that their notification system is flawless, because it's not," Ramsey said. "There are some issues there that need to be addressed. . . . This was all going on in a matter of minutes. We're only talking about seconds and minutes, but they count when you are talking about an aircraft."
Although police took responsibility for failing to monitor the FAA, D.C. and federal officials gave conflicting reports yesterday about what the sergeant knew at the homeland security center -- a place designed to speed communication among the many agencies that respond to terror threats. Ramsey insisted that the sergeant was not told by his federal counterparts what was happening, but federal officials took issue with that account.
The mayor yesterday sought a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to review what D.C. officials called a dangerous delay that prevented the city from mobilizing emergency workers and taking steps to protect the public.
Spokesmen for President Bush and Chertoff yesterday praised the work of the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol Police and other agencies that helped divert the plane out of the restricted area and to an airport in Frederick on Wednesday afternoon.
The pilots of the single-engine Cessna, Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer and Troy Martin, were released after officials determined they had become lost while traveling from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and posed no security threat. The FAA is considering sanctions against the men.
"It appears the system worked as it should have, since the appropriate and effective security measures were performed," said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department. "As we do after every single incident, we will review actions of all parties to determine areas where we can collectively improve."
On a day when federal agencies were keeping track, second by second, of a potential attack on the capital, however, the city was out of the loop.
About noon, with the plane approaching, the Capitol Police and the Secret Service were ordering evacuations of the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, sending more than 35,000 people into the streets. And fighter jets were ready to fire missiles at the Cessna when it came within three miles of the White House. Officials said the incident was the closest the government has ever come to shooting down a civilian plane.
The episode rekindled concerns expressed after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, when D.C. officials were not consulted about evacuations and road closures. Since then, authorities have staged drills in hopes of improving coordination. But similar problems occurred in March when Pentagon officials did not consult local health authorities about distributing antibiotics to 900 defense workers during an anthrax scare.
Ramsey and top D.C. police officials said Sgt. Guy Poirier was stationed Wednesday at the Homeland Security Operations Center, along with members of other local, state and federal agencies. He was in a room with law enforcement officials who do not have high-security clearance. Federal authorities with such clearances, stationed in another room, reported monitoring the actions starting at 11:28 a.m. But Ramsey said that they did not share information with Poirier.
"It is compartmentalized," Ramsey said. "Everyone is not privy to all the information over there. . . . They are literally separated by doors."
Asked about federal coordination, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the District has a liaison posted to the Department of Homeland Security's operations center round-the-clock.
"You have a number of personnel, that includes local officials, as well, or representatives of local organizations, like the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department," McClellan said, "and they're in constant communication" with other command centers.
But Ramsey said Poirier learned about the plane when a Capitol Police intelligence official called him for information about the airspace violation. Capitol Police had learned of the intrusion by monitoring radar and FAA communications at their own high-tech command post, police said.
The Capitol Police official also was having difficulty getting details, Ramsey said, and "thought he could get more information from calling our guy."
After the telephone call, Poirier scrambled to get information. He then called his boss, Cmdr. Cathy Lanier, on her cell phone at 12:05 p.m., police officials said. By then, the plane had flown within three miles of the White House, and authorities had started evacuations.
Lanier said that she quickly sent a page to alert her superiors. Ramsey, at his desk and unaware of the evacuations, received his page at 12:11 p.m. The page said that a plane had entered restricted airspace and that fighter jets had intercepted it and turned it away from the city, Ramsey and Lanier said.
Ramsey said he then alerted the mayor.
The chief said he is looking into how the other communications breakdown occurred. Someone in the D.C. police command center -- a high-tech setting where officers monitor daily operations, emergencies and world events -- had lost the telephone connection that is supposed to be continuously tied to the FAA communication system. The network, connected to a speakerphone in the police command post, carries air traffic control communications when a major incident occurs anywhere in the country.
Ramsey said: "Had they been listening, we would have gotten an earlier heads-up that there was some activity in skies around Washington. At least we would have known something was going on."
Ramsey said officers in the command center also monitor two computer systems that display alerts about emergencies. The system, run by the Homeland Security Department, never issued an alert about the plane, he said.
"It didn't have anything" about the airplane, Ramsey said.
Staff writers Sara Kehaulani Goo, Sari Horwitz, Fredrick Kunkle, Susan Levine and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.