Rumsfeld Disputes Plane Story
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday denied giving military officials authority to shoot down, if necessary, a small plane that violated restricted airspace over Washington on May 11.
Speaking in Philadelphia, Rumsfeld disputed accounts of two senior federal officials reported by The Washington Post yesterday, saying, "It was totally not true."
According to a Reuters news service report, Rumsfeld said: "It was two anonymous sources, and, of course, it wasn't true. I never even got on the phone to discuss the circumstances of the little plane."
In Washington, Rumsfeld spokesman Bryan Whitman said the secretary "never gave orders or authority to shoot down the plane." He described the sources as "clearly misinformed."
The statements denounced accounts given Tuesday and reiterated yesterday by two U.S. officials who were briefed about a tense sequence of events, occurring over a period of about 11 minutes, when customs aircraft and fighter jets attempted to intercept a Cessna 150 that strayed into the Washington no-fly zone.
The plane ultimately changed course but only after flying to within three miles of the White House and triggering noontime evacuations at the executive mansion, the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court.
The pilots, Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer, 69, and Troy Martin, 36, both of Pennsylvania, were diverted to an airport in Frederick, where they were questioned upon landing. Sheaffer is appealing a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to revoke his pilot's license.
According to separate interviews with the two officials, top military and civilian authorities convened a conference call to manage the aircraft's intrusion. The officials, whose agencies were involved in the incident, spoke on condition of anonymity because operational details of the air defense system over Washington and military rules of engagement are generally classified.
The officials said they wanted to illustrate the time pressures that authorities face within the air defense system. Neither expressed criticism of Pentagon officials; in fact, they pointed out that the national chain of command was ready to act.
At 12:02 p.m. May 11, with the plane continuing to approach the White House, the conference call was upgraded to an Operation Noble Eagle call. Noble Eagle is the name given to military homeland defense operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The participants included representatives of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, according to a timeline prepared by the multi-agency air defense system.
Within a three-minute span, F-16 fighter jets took over the intercept from customs aircraft; the White House and the Capitol were evacuated; a fighter jet shot warning flares; radio communications were finally established with the pilots; and the plane was turned away.
A separate log prepared by federal security officials shows how tensions escalated to the point where a military jet was "about to use missiles" to shoot the plane down. That entry came at 12:04 p.m., as the White House was on its highest level of alert.
The officials said they were told that Rumsfeld gave authorization to shoot down the plane if military officials declared it a hostile threat. Because of such factors as the aircraft's slow, constant speed and course and the apparent disorientation of its pilots, that declaration was never reached, they said.
"I was told at the time . . . if this individual is threatening, authority has been given to take it down," one of the officials said yesterday. He added, "I was told that Rumsfeld gave that implied authority."
A third federal official provided a similar sequence of events but was uncertain whether Rumsfeld or his deputy gave the authority to shoot down the plane if necessary.
The officials' accounts and additional information were given Tuesday to Army Maj. Paul Swiergosz, a Pentagon spokesman and homeland defense specialist, before publication of yesterday's article. Swiergosz did not issue a denial. He said the Pentagon would not discuss specific rules of engagement or individuals with shoot-down authority.
Swiergosz did say the authority, delegated "to a very, very small number of senior civilian and military officials," worked "very well. . . . It is well rehearsed. There is nothing ad hoc about it."
In an interview May 11, Swiergosz said a Noble Eagle "conference call was kicked up, and he [Rumsfeld] was notified. "
Whitman said yesterday: "I guess it depends on how you want to parse it. The fact of the matter was, he was notified immediately of the situation and he was standing by, prepared to take any appropriate action that was necessary."
Whitman added: "If the situation had reached that point, based on the judgment of NORAD commanders, the NORAD commanders would have asked for the secretary's involvement in that. The situation never reached that point."
Military and homeland security officials closely guard details of command authority and tactics because such information can be exploited by adversaries.
But command authority is a sensitive issue. During the 2001 terrorist attacks, the chain of command needed to down a civilian aircraft ran into problems, according to a federal commission that investigated the attacks. The issue remains a topic of discussion, particularly concerning the airspace surrounding Washington, where advanced radar, fighter aircraft and ground-to-air missiles enforce a no-fly zone for small planes.
Staff writers Sari Horwitz, John Mintz and Ann Scott Tyson and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.