Thursday, May 12, 2005

20 Minutes in D.C.

The White House says it's reviewing security procedures, after a light plane violated the no-fly zone that covers the White House, Supreme Court, the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings. If you were watching cable news around noon EDT on Wednesday, you were treated to the spectacle of thousands of politicians, federal employees, tourists and journalists running through the streets of Washington, as the Cessna 172 approached.

Thankfully, the incident ended after only 20 minutes. An Air Force F-16, scrambled to intercept the intruder, finally caught the attention of the Cessna pilots, and they landed at a nearby airfield, where they were led away in handcuffs. Those pilots--an instructor and a student--claimed that they became lost enroute to an airshow in North Carolina, and wandered into the no-fly zone by accident. Federal authorities have apparently decided not to press charges. The Chief of the police force that protects Capitol Hill claims the evacuation went smoothly, though some politicians (mostly Democrats) disagreed.

My assessment would be somewhere in the middle. I think the Capitol Police did a credible job in carrying out the evacuation--never an easy task under any circumstances. Air defense procedures also appeared to work, although I would like to know how long it took the F-16s to respond, and the proximity of the intercept point to the center of the no-fly zone. The F-16 flight lead was interviewed this afternoon on Fox News, and he pointed out that, along with his fighters, other "measures" were in place to take out the intruder, if the order had been given. Those "other measures" likely include HUMVEE-mounted STINGER missiles (the Avenger system), which have been used to protect high-value targets in Washington.

But other elements of the incident are disturbing. We're not sure how close defense officials were to pulling the trigger, and ordering the F-16s to engage. Apparently, the Cessna never displayed any "hostile intent," so blowing it out of the sky was not a serious option. Appearing on Fox, former federal prosecutor John Loftus, who's become something of an expert on terrorism, argued that a "shoot to kill" order should have been given. I'm not sure I disagree; conservative rules of engagement might give terrorists an idea about staging future air attacks. Use a light plane; fly a benign profile into the no-fly zone, then dive on your target at the last possible moment. Using those tactics, it would be more difficult to engage the target.

Equally disturbing is the mass exodus from downtown buildings, and the target it presents to terrorists on the ground. Masses of humanity, fleeing from federal buildings, would offer a tempting--and lucrative--target to vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), suicide bombers and snipers. Here's hoping the D.C. security plan includes establishment of a tight, outer perimeter during evacuations, with serious restrictions on incoming vehicle traffic.

Protecting high-value targets in downtown D.C. is never easy, and that task becomes proportionately more difficult during an evacuation. At some point, security officials may have to consider other steps, such as "sheltering" some personnel in place, or shutting down the metro and moving some evacuees, on foot, through subway tunnels.

I would like to hear from anyone who participated in yesterday's evacuation, and your thoughts on security in the heart of the nation's captial.

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