Plane Scare in Capital Raises Security Questions
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was business as usual in the nation’s capital today, one day after a single-engine plane breached Washington’s airspace and prompted the frantic evacuation of the White House, the Capitol and some other federal buildings.
POLICE: Let’s go; let’s go; let’s go!
JEFFREY BROWN: Today, officials began to assess what happened and how the nation’s terror alert system functioned. This afternoon, reporters grilled Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan about just how close the plane came to the White House.
REPORTER: When we walked out of this door yesterday, when those of us who heard that there was a situation, when we walked out the door, we heard aircraft, jets, overhead. There is a concern that that plane came closer to the White House than the White House said, and it came within the three-mile radius.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: I said that it came within three miles.
REPORTER: It came — you said three miles. How close was it? How close was it?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: And I said it came within three miles. I don’t have…
REPORTER: How close was it? Someone has taken a picture of a plane being escorted on K Street. How close was the plane?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yeah. I mean, if the Department of Homeland Security or FAA has any additional information, I’m sure.
REPORTER: Scott, how close was it?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: April, it was.
REPORTER: You know how close it was. Please tell us.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes. Within three miles. I don’t know beyond that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Flights over the White House and the Capitol have long been limited, but after 9/11, the rules were tightened. A restricted zone circles the Capitol, extending 16 miles from the Washington Monument. A second area, called the Air Defense Identification Zone, reaches up to 50 miles from downtown Washington. Pilots flying there must identify themselves and stay in radio contact. Yesterday, air traffic controllers tried to reach the Cessna.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: This is Washington national tower on guard. Aircraft at 2,300 feet, ten miles to the northwest of Washington Airport at 2,300 feet. Identify yourself.
JEFFREY BROWN: When the plane entered the outer zone, customs officials sent a Black Hawk helicopter to intercept it. When the Cessna still didn’t respond and proceeded into the restricted zone, two F-16 jets scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base. They fired warning flares and tried to reach the intruder by radio. One of the fighter plane pilots told CNN how he made contact with what he called the target of interest or TOI.
LT. COL. TIM LEHMANN: I went by first, dropped flares. The TOI did not respond and then the other F-16 went past. He dropped flares as well. Still, we did not get a response from the TOI. It wasn’t until the third time we went past and dropped flares, that seemed to get his attention. I believe at that point the TOI realized, “Hey, something is definitely wrong here,” and that’s when he changed his course.
JEFFREY BROWN: The two pilots landed at an airport in Frederick, Maryland. They were briefly detained and released. The F-16 pilot said he would have fired if ordered to do so.
LT. COL. TIM LEHMANN: As they assessed this aircraft, relatively light aircraft, they did not assess it as a high-threat type of environment, so that order was never given to shoot it down. The one thing I think the American public should understand — that there is a layer defense around our nation’s capital.
We are not the only ones who can engage and bring down tracks of interest. And I’d like to assure your listeners that that airplane would not have penetrated; it would not have hit anything in D.C. And it would have been dropped from the sky before that would have happened.
JEFFREY BROWN: The incident ended before the president, on a bikeride in Maryland a half hour away, was notified. Reporters at the White House today pressed as to why that had happened.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: You have to take into account the circumstances. You have to take into account where the president is. The president was never considered to be in danger. The protocols that we put in place after Sept. 11, I think, worked.
This plane was warned by flares, and it turned and then was escorted to an airport in the area and the pilots were questioned. It was determined this was an accident, that they should not have been in the area and they did not realize where they were at the time.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another flight problem confronted homeland security officials today. The name of an Air France passenger bound for Boston matched a name on the no-fly list, causing officials to divert the craft to Maine’s Bangor Airport, where it landed this afternoon.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, some perspective on how the security system does and should work. Joining me is Daniel Kaniewski, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute; and David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Welcome to both of you. Help us figure out a little bit more or understand how these procedures work. When a plane passes through that outer zone, who notices, and who do they tell?
DAVID HEYMAN: Well, there’s a center out in Virginia called the Transportation Security Operations Center, TSOC, which is monitoring all air traffic in the region. And before it even gets into the center of the AIDZ , Air Defense Identification Zone, that plane needs to file a flight plan, it needs to contact Potomac approach, which is the air traffic controller, and needs to get a unique identifier saying you’re clear to go into that area.
On a radar you’ve got a blip with a line going through it showing where that plane is going. If the people at the Transportation Security Center notice that somebody who hasn’t filed a flight plan, doesn’t have a unique identifier is coming into that zone, we’ve got a problem.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Daniel Kaniewski, between the 50 miles and 16 miles, that’s got to be just a couple minutes, right?
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: It is just a few minutes, but what’s important to remember here is that’s a buffer zone. We don’t need to take action in that zone necessarily. Meaning we don’t need F-16 fighter jets coming up and threatening to take the plane down. We use that as a buffer zone, importantly, because that gives us time to react.
There are many agencies, many different stakeholders that need to be identified, and that need to have the information in hand before any action can be taken. So what you saw was a joint law enforcement from a civilian side, which is the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Patrol section, and the military, working together, understanding what the threat is so that when it does approach, even closer into that near-term decision point, that some action can be taken if necessary.
JEFFREY BROWN: Who decides when the jets go up? Are the jets just sitting there always ready to go up?
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: There are jets ready in Washington, certainly. But the question is not necessarily when to take off, because that is fairly self-evident, when there’s a threat approaching nobody is going to question the need to put the jets in the air. The question is when to take action against that aircraft.
DAVID HEYMAN: What happens is that at TSOC you have a request to scramble, you have a suspicious or unusual track, and that’s that line coming through, and if it starts approaching and hasn’t diverted they first try contacting. That’s the layer of defense that Dan talks about.
They’ll try to contact the pilot. If that doesn’t succeed, they launch. And the first people to launch, it’s a coordinated effort between the Air Force and Department of Homeland Security, but your Black Hawks go up and they try to intercept those planes, tell them to divert, or if they have to, take other action.
JEFFREY BROWN: You told me you’ve been on a Black Hawk that goes up?
DAVID HEYMAN: Yeah. These guys are very talented, some of them Special Forces, they are flying at super fast speeds out to intercept these plans to make sure we can protect the capital.
JEFFREY BROWN: Before we get to what happens in the air next, in the meantime a lot has to happen on the ground. That’s what happened yesterday. So who again, what’s the chain here, what’s the link? Who talks to whom?
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Clearly it’s an information sharing mechanism, because what we’ve been talking about here is the federal response, that we have the Department of Homeland Security and United States Air Force both sending a response in the air.
At the same time there’s a need for information to be shared with the stakeholders on the ground, those stakeholders are clearly those targets that are potentially vulnerable, which in this case would be the Capitol and White House. They each have their own decision matrixes in place, they know when they receive a message what to do; they take action and have their evacuation plans down.
The question is: how fast can you share that information. Within that buffer zone, a lot has to take place, again, both in the air, on the ground, and between the federal, state and local authorities potentially. A lot has to take place.
JEFFREY BROWN: What would you say happening on the ground?
DAVID HEYMAN: Well, after TSOC find something unusual is going on and they’ve launched, that information goes to the security homeland operations center, which the command and control center for our nation’s homeland security, they share all the information with cities, states, mayors, local law enforcement officials.
At that center, you’ve got folks from the private sector, you’ve got folks from all the federal agencies plus the cities and governments. They all have roles to play. Secret Service is sitting there, Secret Service gets information, they take care of the White House.
Folks in the local city, the D. C. government sitting there, they’re responsible for making sure that the D.C. government is ready and prepared for some type of an attack. The information that we saw yesterday was that that got somehow bungled. We heard the mayor of Washington saying we didn’t get the information.
Now, he’s got a representative in part of that Homeland Security Operation Center, but it’s unclear whether the information didn’t get to him, or he didn’t get to his group and that needs to be worked out, we need to do a better job making sure that the first responders here in Washington D.C. get the information as soon as the White House does.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the meantime, in the air, as the plane is getting closer, we heard in our setup piece the pilot talk about the warnings. He made it clear that he was prepared to shoot it down. Who makes that call, who gives the order to shoot it down?
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Now this is a chain of command issue. And it’s a chain of command issue that has to be flexible. What I mean by flexible is that, depending on the amount of time you have, you don’t necessarily know how deep into that chain of command you’re going to get.
Ideally you’d have a situation where the president and all the senior leadership of the United States would be involved in this decision. However, that’s not always possible. Now, while the military isn’t necessarily going to tell you what they’re going to do, they’re not going to show you a decision matrix.
They’re not going to show you based on this information we’re going to do X, Y and Z because it’s very nuanced. This wasn’t a 747 heading to the Capitol, this was a small, relatively harmless private plane. So there is no one-size fits all approach to this.
DAVID HEYMAN: You actually have two chains of command, you have the military, who launched the F-16s and they have to get authority to shoot down. And they’ve got a plan in place, depending on the risk. And the F-16 pilot talked about this not being a high threat, so they had no authority to shoot down.
Then you’ve got the civil law enforcement, the Black Hawks, those guys are law enforcement officials like cops on the street, they have the same authority that any cop on the street has to use necessary force to protect the public. That means they don’t have to go back to the chief of police, so to speak, or mayor or whatever, if they believe they need to take action, they have the authority to do it.
JEFFREY BROWN: And David the other issue that came up that the president had not been notified.
DAVID HEYMAN: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Were you surprised by that?
DAVID HEYMAN: I was shocked by that. It seems after 9/11 the first person would want to know that there’s a problem, a possible terrorist attack is the president. I was also hearing the White House explanation for that, that they were counting on the Secret Service as professionals to do their notification as needed, and that they weren’t worried about the president’s safety.
Those aren’t the issues. If this was a real terrorist attack, who do we want to be in charge? We voted for the president to be in charge, not for the Secret Service, not for others to be the people in charge. If this had been a terrorist attack, we would want him making the decisions.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: I take a different view. I actually trust the chain of command so to speak that exists in the White House, whether that’s the Secret Service or the political leaders that advise the president. Clearly they had very specific information. For them not to tell the president, I believe it’s because they felt that it wasn’t significant threat, they knew the White House was evacuated and they didn’t see this small plane, again, playing a significant threat.
So the judgment was made by someone in the White House, but I think that’s a legitimate decision that can be made, and again this would all be different if that plane was viewed as a very significant and imminent threat, which I don’t think anybody is today saying it was.
DAVID HEYMAN: At the time though that this was taking place, you have literally 60 seconds, perhaps up to 3 minutes to make a decision about what you’re going to be doing. And the president should be notified that the White House is being evacuated, his staff is being evacuated, his wife is safe, who was in the president’s office.
I think we want our president to be in charge, and not the Secret Service. And it just seems to me I think the White House will come out and say look we fouled up on this and the president is going to say, “I want to know as soon as something happens.”
JEFFREY BROWN: IN fact, I did see Scott McClellan said today the process would be reviewed.
DANIEL KANIEWSKI: Absolutely. The entire process should be reviewed and we should view this as an exercise. Again, in hindsight we can say what worked and what didn’t work. We have the luxury now of 20-20 vision and of saying, “Hey, this wasn’t a terrorist attack, we’re lucky it wasn’t, we’re happy, ecstatic, but we did learn something here. We learned that the plans in place do work and that we have success about stopping airplanes coming from capital incursions.”
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. David Heyman and Daniel Kaniewski, thanks both.