Coastguard exercise prompts panic in Washington

The mood of the US capital turned from sombre, to near panic and then to red-faced all in the space of minutes after a terrorism scare unfolding on the Potomac river close to the Pentagon turned out to be a routine training exercise.

The sight of armed coastguard launches tearing across the water and the apparent sound of shots being fired over radio waves on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks had cable news channels scrambling for their hyperboles. CNN and Fox both began reporting, erroneously as it soon transpired, that shooting was underway on the water just beside a bridge over which Barack Obama had recently travelled.

With rolling news on high alert, the adrenaline rush spread rapidly outwards, intoxicating several federal agencies. The local FBI office, that had not been alerted to the training exercise, poured agents down to the river.

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights at the nearby Reagan airport between 10.08am and 10.30am. About 10 minutes into the national crisis, the first word was given by CNN's breathless presenters that it might all have been a false alarm. Soon after that it was confirmed that the event had been a routine exercise.

Vice Admiral John Currier, chief of staff of the US coastguard, said such exercises are carried out every day, 365 days a year. Ten shots had been simulated by the officers involved, using the highly sophisticated technique of shouting "Bang! Bang!" into their radio microphones.

It was those sounds that were picked up on open radio channels and that first excited the news channels.

Currier said that it was "unfortunate that it escalated to this level", but pointedly refused to apologise for something he described as pre-planned and utterly normal.

The White House has defending the coastguard's decision to hold the training exercise. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said he does not believe the White House was notified about the training exercise.

He said if law enforcement felt there was a need for the exercise it is "best not to second-guess". Gibbs sharply criticised CNN for airing an inaccurate report that shots were fired during the exercise, saying "before we report things like this, checking would be good".

The event bore echoes of the event in April when a presidential jet flanked by two fighter planes circled lower Manhattan, prompting momentary pandemonium on the streets. It turned out to be a photo shoot.


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