"The Week That Was" in Washington, D.C.

For several days last week the attention of official Washington was focused neither on the war in Iraq nor on the judicial nomination process, but on homeland defense. What turned out to be a relatively brief period of turmoil and confusion – and occasional panic – started on Wednesday morning, 11 May, shortly before noon when Capitol Police, the U.S. Secret Service, and other security and law-enforcement agencies ordered a massive, and immediate, evacuation of the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court Building, and the U.S. House and Senate office buildings.

More than 35,000 people, including many extremely surprised tourists, were given the foreboding news that “This is not a drill!” – and some, according to various news reports, were told to “Run for your life!”

Fortunately, no one seems to have been trampled in the rush or otherwise injured, it was a clear and pleasant day, and the all clear sounded less than 20 minutes after the frenzied mass evacuation started. What had happened was that a two-seat 1,000-pound civilian-owned Cessna 150 aircraft had – unintentionally, it is presumed (but several official investigations are still underway) – flown into a huge bubble of restricted airspace surrounding the entire Washington, D.C., area and was only three miles away from the White House before it heeded several warnings to turn away. The F-16 fighter jets that had been scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base in nearby Maryland to intercept the Cessna reportedly were in position – and would have been authorized – to shoot down the Cessna if it failed to turn away.

The maximum speed of the Cessna 150, according to one of several marvelously detailed articles in the Washington Post, is 160 mph and the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is 1,600 pounds – more than enough to carry a dirty bomb or small nuclear device, or a medium-sized biological or chemical weapon.

All Went “Reasonably Well”–Almost 

The detection of the incoming aircraft, the orders to evacuate, and the crowd-control procedures that were followed all went reasonably well, according to Capitol Police, White House, and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) spokespersons. There were a number of communications problems – D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city officials were not notified about the mini-crisis, for example, until the aircraft was no longer a threat – but it seemed obvious that the overall U.S. domestic-preparedness alert system is now much more effective than it was before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Whether “much more effective” is sufficient is still far from clear, though, and there is considerable evidence that it was not sufficient last Wednesday, and will not be for the foreseeable future. A slightly faster aircraft – one capable of just over 200 mph, for example – would actually have reached the White House, or Capitol, or the Pentagon or any other potential target along its projected flight path by the time the F-16s were scrambled. A slightly larger aircraft, moreover, carrying a dirty bomb or any other WMD (weapon of mass destruction) into the District of Columbia at any point could have caused incalculable damage even if it were shot down. Also, the fact that so many White House and Capitol Hill employees (plus tourists) were evacuated does not mean that they were therefore safe – many were still on the way out, in fact, by the time the all clear had sounded.

The best that can be said, therefore – assuming that the Cessna intrusion was just “a stupid mistake,” as one commentator suggested – is that the 11 May incident was a useful albeit unscheduled drill from which a number of valuable lessons might be learned. Those subscribing to this optimistic theory, though, might ask themselves how many lessons were learned from the first terrorist attack (26 February 1993) on the World Trade Center and how many, if any, of those lessons were used to minimize the loss of life during the second attack on 11 September 2001 – more than eight years later.

Port-Security Funding: Better, But Still Insufficient 

By a remarkable coincidence – there is no way it could have been planned – the Department of Homeland Security announced on Friday 13 May that it would allocate approximately $141 million in port-security grants to improve security at U.S. ports “by providing funding to increase protection against potential threats from small craft, underwater attacks, and vehicle-borne improvised explosives, and to enhance explosive detection capabilities aboard vehicle ferries and associated facilities.”

The specific dollar totals of the grants, which will be distributed to 66 port areas that “have been identified as eligible applicants,” are determined through a new “risk-based formula” that, DHS said, “considers three elements – threat, vulnerability, and consequence,” to ensure that the bulk of the funding is allocated to “federally regulated ports, terminals, and U.S.-inspected passenger vessels” that are considered to be “assets of the highest national strategic importance.”

The American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), which worked with DHS and the Department of Transportation in developing the grant program, welcomed the DHS announcement – but also expressed concern that the amounts being provided are still well below what is required. The U.S. Coast Guard estimated in 2002 that U.S. seaports would have to spend $5.4 billion over ten years to comply with various security improvements and upgrades mandated under the Maritime Transportation Security Act. For that reason, said Kurt Nagle (AAPA president and CEO), the organization believes that DHS port-security grants must be increased “to at least $400 million a year to ensure the ability of U.S. seaports to protect themselves and their communities against attack.”

Nagle did not point out – he did not really have to, considering that it had been less than two days between the Cessna scare and the DHS grant announcement – that on any given day in almost any U.S. port there are scores, sometimes hundreds, of ships and small craft – ranging in size from supertankers and containerships to private yachts and sailboats – capable of carrying, and concealing, WMDs larger than any that a Cessna 150 might be carrying.

Activity, Commotion – and Maybe Progress 

Whether coincidentally or intentionally, the Department of Defense (DOD) released its latest BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) list on the same day that DHS made its grant announcement. The 2005 BRAC, which proposes the closure of 33 major bases and the consolidation and/or realignment of almost 150 others, would save an estimated $49 billion over the next 20 years, according to DOD. It also would eliminate or shift tens of thousands of jobs – and thus, cause economic distress in scores of cities throughout the United States while adding to the prosperity of others.

One of the several factors considered in the BRAC base decisions, officials said, was the vulnerability (to terrorist attacks, particularly) of certain bases and activities, especially in urban areas such as Crystal City in Northern Virginia. When and where possible, DOD officials said, workers at activities headquartered in private-sector office buildings that are relatively close to major naval/military bases, where security is already much tighter and can be made even more so, will not lose their jobs but simply move to office buildings (old or new) on those bases.

The Cessna investigations are continuing, the proposed BRAC closings still have to be reviewed before Congress can or will give its final approval, and the DHS grants also are subject to additional internal and external review. So the reverberations of the Washington “Week That Was” probably will continue for some time to come. There was, in short, considerable activity in the nation’s capital, and a certain amount of commotion as well. But activity and commotion are not always, or necessarily, the same as progress.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.



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