The Hawaii government’s erroneous warning of an imminent ballistic missile attack caused confusion at U.S. military facilities, frustrating senior officers and causing them to question procedures for communicating with state officials, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.
The emails were sent in succession after thousands of people received a text-message warning Jan. 13 that prompted hysteria in parts of Hawaii. The U.S. military had no role in sending the mistaken message but nonetheless had to deal with the fallout.
“Apparently, they were getting ready to do a drill when the ‘drill’ part was lost in translation,” Adm. Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, wrote to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an hour after the message was sent. “Totally uncoordinated with us of course.”
The emails were obtained Friday night through the Freedom of Information Act. They detail efforts by the U.S. military to address what happened, gather information internally and answer questions to better handle crises in the future. They make no mention of President Trump or White House staff, who declined to address the issue and referred to the gaffe as a “state issue.”
warning, sent to people’s cellphones at 8:07 a.m. local time, was issued by an employee who did not realize a drill was underway, a federal investigation found.
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” the warning said. “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
It took the Hawaii government 38 minutes to issue a follow-up text message indicating the alert had been sent in error, though officials did attempt to assuage concerns through social media.
The employee who posted the message was fired. An investigation found that he thought the threat was real and had made similar mistakes in the past.
U.S. Pacific Command began responding to media questions about the alert by 8:23 a.m., saying there was no threat and state officials would issue a correction. Harris’s email to Dunford and other senior Pentagon officers indicated that the notification system “worked as we hoped it would” and that Pacific Command had several tasks to do.
“There will be heavy press play here, for sure, which we’ll handle for those questions which concern PACOM forces,” Harris wrote. “Will also work with the State of Hawaii and internal to PACOM — am sure there are lessons learned where we can improve.”
However, there was “a lot of explaining by the State of Hawaii to do,” Harris added.
Dunford’s response was short: “Tracking all Harry… thanks,” he wrote. “Safe travels.”
The email to Dunford was forwarded a short time later to other senior members of Pacific Command’s staff, prompting conversation about what exactly state officials needed to fix.
Andrew Singer, a retired admiral who is now Harris’s deputy director for intelligence, wrote to Air Force Maj. Gen. Kevin Schneider, Harris’s chief of staff, that the state “has more than the alert system to work on.” It is unclear what he was alluding to; parts of his email are redacted.
“Happened to be in Yoga class when one of the ladies blurted out missile attack and ran out followed by most others,” Singer wrote. “Looking about town most just kept pursing [sic] getting their coffee or Malasadas,” he added, referring to a doughnut-like pastry.
Schneider responded a short time later agreeing with Singer, saying that there is “lots of work to be done on the communications piece.”
Harris also emailed the top Air Force officer in the Pacific, Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, asking for additional information about a warning broadcasted on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
“Just for my education and edification, when the Big Voice went off at Pearl Harbor-Hickam this morning, there was no indication that this was a drill; in fact just the opposite,” Harris wrote. “So, what happens on the flight line, and what message, if any was passed to aircraft in the air?”
O’Shaughnessy’s responses are partially redacted, but he told Harris that afternoon in another email that air-traffic controllers did not pass warnings of incoming ballistic missiles to aircraft or hold any aircraft on the ground.
“Thanks Shags,” Harris responded. “I think we’re going to learn a lot here. For ~25-30 minutes, there was a real alert, mistaken though it was.” Part of his email is redacted.
Pacific Command’s deputy commander, Army Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton, followed up with Schneider that night, saying that Harris wanted additional information, including what ships, squadrons and ground units were told to do and how military families were informed. Harris also was concerned that word of the false alert did not immediately reach the Pacific Command operations center because U.S. troops there are required to leave their cell phones outside as a security measure.
Harris asked similar questions of Rear Adm. Matthew J. Carter, the deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii. Carter responded that they were planning a “deep dive on this event,” including mapping out and surveying shelters on military installations.
“This is a good outcome for all the Components,” Harris responded. “We should take full advantage of this unforced error by the State of Hawaii.”
A Pacific Command spokesman, Navy Cmdr. David Benham, declined to answer specific questions about the emails, including whether questions that Harris raised in them have been resolved.
“We are a learning organization,” Benham said, “and took this false alert as an opportunity to review and improve our communication and coordination with state and federal emergency management agencies.”