D.C. Alert Triggered By Clouds
President Bush was rushed to an underground shelter yesterday morning because of “unidentified aircraft” had entered restricted space near the White House. As Rob Tagorda reported here yesterday, it was a false alarm. Now, as Paul Harvey would say, we have the rest of the story:
D.C. Alert Triggered By Clouds (WaPo, A5)
The mysterious flying object first blipped across U.S. security radar 20 miles south of Reagan National Airport at 10:40 a.m. yesterday and appeared headed swiftly toward the District. About 15 minutes later, President Bush was in an underground bunker at the White House and Vice President Cheney was escorted off the White House grounds to a secure location, officials said.
The “target” — as Customs and Border Protection officials called it — showed up on the radar intermittently. It was moving through restricted airspace at about the speed of a helicopter, said agency spokesman Gary Bracken. Customs officials reported the object’s approach to the Domestic Events Network, a 24-hour secure communications line connecting all major security-related agencies. Army officials at Davison Army Airfield in Fort Belvoir, Va., spotted a low-flying helicopter in the area but could not determine whether it was the object that had set off the alert. After vanishing from radar, the target then reappeared several minutes later — this time just seven miles from National Airport, stirring serious concern among Customs and Border Protection officials, Bracken said. The agency dispatched a Black Hawk helicopter to the scene. A U.S. Park Police helicopter and another from a local law enforcement agency, which were already airborne, also scanned the area.
But all the search teams saw were clouds. Turns out, that’s all it was.
“It does happen,” Bracken said. “We have to deal with weather anomalies showing up on the radar screen.” U.S. officials say it is not uncommon for radars scanning the sky for terrorist threats to mistake a weather system or a flock of birds for a unidentified aircraft — and it sends them scrambling. Yesterday’s scare was the first known incident to send the president to the White House underground bunker since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Officials said the swift reaction illustrated the improved communication system among security agencies charged with keeping the sky around Washington secure. “Out of an abundance of caution, the appropriate security measures were taken,” said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “Basically there was an apparent aircraft that showed up on the radar, it turned out to be a blip. Aircraft already in the vicinity were able to verify there was in fact no plane.”
Ooops! One can’t fault security officials for making the best decisions they can with the information they have available. But if our sensor equipment is so bad that it can’t distinguish an airplane from water vapor, we need to go back to the old drawing board.