Radio Traffic Led to False News Reports of Gunfire on Potomac

Vice Adm. John Currier of the U.S. Coast Guard discusses the Friday morning training exercise on the Potomac that caused high alert in the metro area.Editor: Jonathan Forsythe/The Washington PostPotomac River footage courtesy of WJLA
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 11, 2009; 4:21 PM

Radio traffic about a Coast Guard training exercise Friday led to erroneous television news reports that guardsmen had fired on a recreational boat in the Potomac River, near where President Obama was remembering the 9/11 attacks, a senior Coast Guard official said.

The news reports generated "uncertainty," said Vice Adm. John Currier, the Coast Guard chief of staff, that prompted federal and D.C. officials to respond anxiously. D.C. police raced to the riverside, and the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily grounded planes at Reagan National Airport, .

Currier told reporters outside Coast Guard headquarters in Washington that no local, state or federal agencies were notified of the training exercise because it was "routine" and "low-profile." He did not apologize for the incident, but said the Coast Guard would review its procedures to ensure that future training exercises would not spark similar alarm.

"No shots were fired," Currier said. "There was no suspect vessel. There was no criminal activity. This was a pre-planned, normal training exercise."

He said that unspecified "members of the public" had "intercepted" clear-channel, unencrypted Coast Guard radio transmissions regarding the exercise and apparently concluded erroneously that a real interdiction of a suspect vessel was taking place on the Potomac, near Memorial Bridge. Not far from the river, President Obama attended a ceremony Friday morning at the Pentagon to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Currier said that although no shots were fired during the exercise, there was "verbalization of gunfire" in the radio transmissions.

"Somebody said, 'Bang! Bang!' on the radio at an appropriate time in the training exercise when the actual interdiction of the boat would have taken place," he said.

CNN, Fox and other media outlets cited police radio transmissions in which officers allegedly ordered shots fired. Television anchors and analysts speculated on-air as to whether the allegedly "suspicious vessel" confronted by the Coast Guard could be linked to the 9/11 anniversary.

D.C. police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said that her agency received a flurry of media calls about the incident after it was broadcast on television and that police were able to confirm that the action was a training exercise, not a threatening situation. Hughes said she did not know whether local authorities had been told about the exercise before it happened.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that it was "best not to second-guess" the Coast Guard's decision that it needed to conduct the exercise on such a sensitive date.

"I tend not to question law enforcement trying to keep the nation safe," he told reporters. Gibbs said he did not believe the White House was notified about the exercise.

He sharply criticized the news media for "reporting [that] was based on listening to a police scanner" and was not "verified" before being broadcast.

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