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Hawaii’s false missile alert sent by troubled worker who thought an attack was imminent, officials say

Hawaii residents received emergency alerts warning of a “ballistic missile threat” in the early morning of Jan. 13. It was a false alarm. (Video: Victoria Walker, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The Hawaii employee who sent out a false alarm warning of an incoming missile attack earlier this month said he misunderstood that a drill was underway and believed that a ballistic missile had actually been fired at the state, authorities said Tuesday.

Officials also revealed that the errant Jan. 13 alert, which sent waves of panic across the Hawaiian islands, was not the first such mix-up for the employee. At least twice before the false alarm, he “has confused real life events and drills,” a state investigation concluded, part of a troubled work history that had “been a source of concern . . . for over 10 years” to his co-workers.

The false warning blasted out to cellphones across Hawaii led many residents to fear for their lives at a time of heightened tensions with North Korea and renewed fears of nuclear attacks. Exacerbating the terror, the message blaring “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” went uncorrected for an agonizing 38 minutes.

‘BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,’ the alert screamed. It was a false alarm.

A federal investigation found that the employee believed there “was a real emergency, not a drill.” That directly contradicts earlier explanations from Hawaii officials, who have said the alert was sent when an employee accidentally hit the wrong button on a computer drop-down menu. A state investigation released Tuesday found that the emergency message was followed by a lengthy period of confusion, during which authorities didn't immediately know how to correct the alert though they knew it to be false, leaving the public unaware that there was no real emergency underway.

Authorities were apologetic after what Gov. David Ige (D) had previously called “a terrifying day when our worst nightmares appeared to become a reality.” Ige and other officials on Tuesday defended their public response to the false alarm and pledged to continue improving the state's Emergency Management Agency.

“What happened on January 13th will never, ever be repeated again,” Ige said at a news briefing.

The employee who sent out the alert was fired last week and has not been publicly identified. State officials said his name will be released when any disciplinary appeals are complete.

It was not clear if the employee contested his firing or disputed the public account of what happened. A spokesman for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The agency's top official — administrator Vern T. Miyagi — “has taken full responsibility” for the incident and resigned Tuesday, said Maj. Gen. Joe Logan, the state adjutant general, who oversees the department.

The state investigation released Tuesday described the employee who sent out the alert as having a poor history at the agency, with other members of the staff saying they did not feel comfortable with his work. While the employee was counseled and corrected on the spot after previous issues, state officials said, he remained in his position.

The state report describes a frenzy of activity after the false alarm was issued, but even as some employees began notifying others, the employee who sent the alert was “sitting and seemed confused.” Other workers were given mental health counseling after the false alarm, according to the report.

Hours before Hawaii officials released their findings, the Federal Communications Commission published its own preliminary report saying that the state employee claimed to have sent out the alert because he did not realize a drill was underway.

The incident began when a night-shift supervisor decided to test incoming day-shift workers with a spontaneous drill, the FCC report stated. The supervisor managing the day-shift workers appeared to be aware of the upcoming test but believed it was aimed at the outgoing night-shift workers. As a result, the day-shift manager was not prepared to supervise the morning test, the FCC said.

Following standard procedures, the night-shift supervisor posed as a U.S. Pacific Command official and played a message to the emergency workers warning them of the fake threat. The message included the phrase “Exercise, exercise, exercise,” the FCC report said, but it also included the “This is not a drill” language used for real missile alerts.

The worker who then sent the real emergency alert to the public said he did not hear the part of the message declaring that it was an “exercise.” The employee declined to be interviewed by investigators, but he did provide a written statement, the FCC said.

In Hawaii, retired Brig. Gen. Bruce Oliveira, the internal investigating officer tasked with probing the incident, said he received the written statement from the fired employee -- identified in the report as "Employee 1" -- two days after the false alarm. But that statement had to be investigated and compared with what other people recalled, Oliveira said.

Authorities in Hawaii defended not releasing the fired employee's explanation earlier.

“General Oliveira was tasked with doing a fair and impartial assessment, and he needed to interview all of the employees and everyone involved in the process,” Ige said. “I think it would be unfair to release statements collected piecemeal. Certainly it wouldn't allow a full and complete evaluation of the event as it occurred if you're releasing statements . . . one at a time.”

In his report, Oliveira blamed a combination of “insufficient management controls, poor computer software design, and human factors” for both the ballistic missile alert and the delayed correction. Amid criticism of how long it took officials to correct the mistake, Ige has said his response on Twitter was delayed because he had forgotten his account's password.

Three minutes after the message was sent, the day-shift supervisor received the false alert, and the process of responding to the mistake began. The state emergency management agency notified Ige of the problem. Seven minutes after the alert was sent, officials stopped broadcasting it. But because there was no plan for how to handle a false alert, the agency could not issue an official correction.

It was not until 26 minutes into the crisis that officials settled on a proper way to inform the public about the all-clear, and workers began drafting a correction. It took another 14 minutes for the correction to be distributed.

The lack of a contingency plan reflected a critical failure on the part of Hawaii's emergency management agency, said Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC.

“Every state and local government that originates alerts needs to learn from these mistakes,” Pai said Tuesday. “Each should make sure they have adequate safeguards in place. … The public needs to be able to trust that when the government issues an alert it is indeed a credible alert.”

The false alert on Jan. 13 was not checked by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency's computer systems because there is little difference between the user interface for submitting test alerts and the one for sending actual alerts.

“Hawaii’s alert software allows users to send live alerts and test alerts using the same interface,” said James Wiley, an attorney adviser at the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

Wireless emergency alerts warning of danger are typically sent out by state and local officials through a partnership between the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the wireless industry.

Practices for handling such alerts vary from state to state. In Washington state, for instance, any message about a possible missile alert would “undergo layers of scrutiny before it was sent,” Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department, wrote in an email.

Shagren said her state has just two pre-written alert messages — one related to tsunamis, another to volcanic activity — and each warning requires approval from at least two people before they are sent out to the public.

Hawaii authorities said they now require additional approvals before alerts and tests are transmitted. The state suspended emergency alert drills after the false alarm and also plans to provide more warning before drills. Officials in Hawaii also say a second person will be needed to confirm sending out alerts.

When the false alarm splashed across cellphones on Jan. 13, people began frantically trying to determine how long they might have to reach safety. Some sought shelter in their homes, while others described “mass hysteria” on the roads.

The alert came at a fraught moment for people in the western United States, with a war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un stirring unease about a potential attack on U.S. soil.

Hawaii, given its location in the Pacific, stands as a possible target of a North Korean attack. In a remarkable sign of concern, Hawaii last year brought back its statewide Cold War-style sirens to warn of a potential nuclear assault.

Navy Cmdr. David Benham, a Pacific Command spokesman, said in an email Tuesday that his military headquarters is using the incident as an “opportunity to improve our internal processes as well as coordinate with state authorities.” He declined to comment on the specifics of those procedures, citing security concerns.

In a separate action Tuesday, the FCC voted to approve new requirements designed to enhance the geo-targeting of cellphone alerts. The move is aimed at making the distribution of alerts more accurate so that those outside of an emergency area will not receive warnings that do not affect them. The FCC will also require cellphone carriers to allow consumers to review any alert for up to 24 hours after they receive them. Carriers will have until November 2019 to implement the changes.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report, which has been updated. 

Further reading:

‘Is this the end of my life?’: False alert of missile attack sends Hawaii scrambling

Hawaii brings back Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens amid fears of North Korea strike

Hawaii governor didn’t correct false missile alert sooner because he didn’t know his Twitter password

To counter North Korea, admiral says the U.S. should consider adding ballistic missile interceptors in Hawaii