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For Coast Guard and CNN, an Exercise in Embarrassment

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

It has been eight years since the terrorists struck, but the fog of war has yet to dissipate.

Sept. 11, 2009, 10:04 a.m.: President Obama was returning to the White House from a 9/11 memorial event at the Pentagon. CNN was broadcasting from the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pa., when anchor Heidi Collins broke in with alarming news -- the Coast Guard had "engaged" a boat on the Potomac near the Pentagon.

"We have seen at least one boat come up the Potomac and challenge the Coast Guard," reported CNN's Jeanne Meserve, as the network showed a gloomy, long-range image of the river with the caption "Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River." The Coast Guard, Meserve said, "sent a transmission saying they expended 10 rounds."

Gunfire on the Potomac! Near the Pentagon! On 9/11! Federal Aviation Administration officials, watching the scene on CNN, ordered a ground stop at nearby Reagan National Airport. About 10 police cars sped to the scene, between the Memorial and 14th Street bridges. Officials at Coast Guard headquarters didn't seem to know what was going on.

The media-industrial complex began to turn its gears. Seven minutes after the CNN report, the Reuters news service issued a bulletin: "Coast Guard Fired on Suspicious Boat on Potomac River in Central Washington, DC.--CNN."

Not to be outdone, CNN arch-nemesis Fox News interrupted its broadcast with the "breaking news" that a "U.S. Coast Guard ship of some type fired on what is considered a suspicious boat in the Potomac River." By that time, CNN had Bush administration homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend on air, talking about how "it is very unusual."

Unusual, indeed. Particularly because there were no intruders, no suspicious boats, no guns and no shots. After half an hour of chaos, red-faced Coast Guard officials explained that they had undertaken a routine training exercise -- the sort that occur on the river about four times a week.

Somebody overheard the Coast Guard's radio communication and -- evidently missing the words "this is a drill" and the words "bang, bang, bang" in the place of actual gunfire -- mistook it for the real thing.

The result was the biggest government-induced security scare since the Pentagon flew an Air Force One look-alike low over Manhattan for a photo op earlier this year. The Coast Guard managed to eclipse an October 2005 incident in which hundreds of Washingtonians feared an attack because they didn't know the Kennedy Center was having a fireworks show.

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist strikes, the Coast Guard incident served as an unwelcome reminder of two facts of life in the capital: Homeland security authorities continue to bear an occasional, unnerving likeness to Keystone Kops, and the cable-news-driven, minute-by-minute news cycle has a unique ability to sow mass confusion and misinformation.

At noon, Vice Adm. John Currier, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, stepped out of his service's headquarters, ready to explain why it was a good idea to hold a terrorist-apprehending exercise involving simulated gunfire right near the Pentagon on Sept. 11, around the time the president was in the area.

"This was a pre-planned, normal planning exercise," Currier explained, as if it had happened on, say, Sept. 10.

Yes, "bang-bang was verbalized on the radio." No, the Secret Service was not notified. No, the Coast Guard couldn't possibly have done the drill in a less sensitive place on the river. Yes, it's quite possible they said on the radio that "I've expended x number of rounds."

Was Sept. 11 really the best day for this?

"We will look at our procedures and our timing of this exercise," Currier allowed, but commanders saw no reason to postpone what was supposed to be a "low-profile" drill that became rather more. The admiral said no apology would be made for the "unfortunate" situation, but he held out hope for what Obama might call a teachable moment.

"This is very instructive for us," Currier said. "We're going to review our own protocols, our own procedures. . . . We may even ask some of you for advice on how we can preclude this type of thing from happening again."

Here's some advice: Don't pretend to shoot terrorists near the Pentagon on Sept. 11 with the president nearby.

This, in turn, would have prevented considerable embarrassment at CNN, which spent more than half an hour speculating ominously about the scene on the Potomac.

"This is pretty incredible," said anchor Collins.

Said Meserve: "People seem intent on trying to violate that zone. For what purpose we can't possibly say, but the Coast Guard is putting up a defense." She tried to identify on-screen "which boats are Coast Guard boats and which are the intruder."

Townsend contributed: "If you go past the shot we're looking at now and go closer to the Pentagon, you're even in a better position if you wanted to launch some sort of an attack from the water on the Pentagon," so "it really is understandable both why the temporary restrictive zone is there and why the Coast Guard is so aggressive about protecting it today."

From the Pentagon, CNN correspondent Barbara Starr spoke of the "unsettling" possibility that the bad guys were surrounded and a chase would ensue.

Finally, after much more of this, Meserve returned with the news that other media outlets had already reported: Never mind. It was a "training exercise." For all concerned.

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