"The Coast Guard is having a presser. Hopefully CNN will go," Gibbs said.
Updated: Friday, 11 Sep 2009
WASHINGTON - Coast Guard Chief of Staff John Currier spoke at news Conference Friday, September 11, 2009, to discuss a training exercise in the Potomac River that sparked confusion amid commemorations of the 9-11 terrorist attacks anniversary.
The White House derided CNN Friday for misreporting a Coast Guard training exercise near the Pentagon that the network represented as a possible suspicious incident complete with gunfire.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he wasn't going to second guess the Coast Guard's decision to hold an exercise on the day the United States was commemorating eight years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but suggested the cable channel may have wanted to use a little more discretion before going with its report.
"Let's understand that best I can tell there was reporting based on listening to a police scanner that was not verified, and then it was on television and now we’ve raced back to find out that it's a training exercise. So I think it appears as if a lot of this might have been avoided," Gibbs said.
Confusion reigned following a CNN report of the Coast Guard firing 10 rounds at a suspicious boat and then aired images of vessels circling in the water. Coast Guard Chief Keith Moore said immediately after media inquiries that no shots were fired as part of the exercise and Coast Guard Chief of Staff Vice. Adm. John Currier later announced that no suspicious boats were in the area.
But the initial report, which other media outlets cited, forced D.C. police and federal agents to swarm the area. As a precaution the Federal Aviation Administration put flights on hold at nearby Reagan National Airport.
The Coast Guard called a news conference to say it had no reason to apologize for the training exercise it conducted on the Potomac River despite the panic and confusion sparked by the report.
By that time, the White House had weighed in.
"The Coast Guard is having a presser. Hopefully CNN will go," Gibbs said, noting the cable news network had heard from the White House over the incident.
Coast Guard Chief of Staff Vice Adm. John Currier told reporters that the agency was holding a normal training exercise, as it does every day, and an operational commander at the scene didn't see a reason to cancel just because it's an emotional day for many Americans.
"It's unfortunate it escalated to this level," Currier said at a news conference. "When we have a threat or when we have a security issue in the national capital region, all agencies can come together under secure communications protocol and execute security operations very professionally and successfully."
Currier added that the Coast Guard would review how its exercise led to TV news reports that were "based on overheard radio calls made over a training frequency" normally used only by the Coast Guard.
Asked about the confusion caused by the report, Gibbs said, "Here's my suggestion, call."
More than an hour after its first reports, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips said on the air that CNN's initial report stemmed from someone saying "bang, bang, bang" over a radio frequency monitored by the network's police scanner.
"We did call the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard said, 'We don't know what you're talking about,"' she said. CNN went ahead with the story based on a reporter's other sources, Phillips said.
"We're still trying to hammer this out, but we did what we were supposed to do, according to our folks in Washington," Phillips said.
Currier said that as part of its exercise, the Coast Guard aired simulated instructions to participants to fire 10 rounds. He said someone said, "Bang, bang, bang" over the radio to simulate compliance, adding that the radio frequency was not encrypted, as it was just an exercise and not an actual incident.
Neither the White House, nor the Department of Homeland Security, FBI or Secret Service were notified about the exercise, which was not unusual, Currier said.
"This is a low-profile, normal training exercise that goes on every day as we train people to handle boats, handle the security protocols. There's really no reason for specific agency notification," he said.
The brief panic had been compounded by the fact the reporting revealed President Obama had just traveled nearby the scene to lay a wreath in a Pentagon ceremony commemorating the terrorist attacks. He was not near the Coast Guard exercise as it happened.
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Still, the news of an exercise caused one group for military families to express outrage that it had taken place near the Pentagon at the same time families of those who died during the Sept. 11 attacks had gathered there for a memorial.
"September 11th is a day to remember the loss of 2,973 innocent victims in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon; not a day to create an unnecessary panic near a terrorist's target," Military Families United said in a statement.
The Coast Guard said in a statement it was gathering information on how the training event "might have been misconstrued as an actual incident. We will conduct a thorough review of this incident."
"The best way that we in the Coast Guard can remember Sept. 11 and our security obligations to the nation is to be always ready and this requires constant training and exercise," the statement read. "To ensure the appropriate readiness posture we conduct training scenarios across the nation on a daily basis."
Lawmakers expressed concern about the timing of the exercise.
"The anxiety caused by this situation on such a solemn day is extremely disturbing," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, in a written statement. "I look forward to hearing from Secretary Napolitano about the decision-making process leading up to today's events. It sounds very much like the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing."
The incident was reminiscent of a controversial flyover by a presidential jet over the Manhattan skyline in April for a photo-op that sparked memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, panicked New Yorkers and led to the firing of Louis Caldera, the head of White House Military Office.
The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The Coast Guard and the Secret Service were placed within the department. The massive reorganization was designed to promote sharing of information within the department and among other law enforcement agencies.
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