WASHINGTON - A morning of remembrance turned into one of flashbacks, fear and media missteps Friday when a Coast Guard exercise - unfolding near Pentagon ceremonies marking the Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary - was mistaken as an attack. The false reports of gunfire on the river briefly spooked the capital, sending FBI agents to the scene and grounding flights.
The episode left the Coast Guard promising to "take a good hard look at what we did here today."
Military families were sore that officials would simulate a confrontation on the Potomac River on a day of raw emotions and high security.
But the exercise, involving speeding boats and at least one helicopter, probably would have passed unnoticed except that CNN and Fox News confused simulated chatter over a Coast Guard radio for actual events and reported that the Coast Guard had opened fire on a suspicious vessel near ceremonies attended by President Barack Obama.
In fact, no shots were fired and there was no trouble on the river.
The Coast Guard's chief of staff, John Currier, said participants in the exercise were given simulated instructions by radio to fire 10 rounds, and someone said "bang, bang, bang" - the routine signal of compliance in drills that don't involve live fire.
Other agencies were not widely notified of the drill because the Coast Guard considered the exercise routine.
Currier said no apology was necessary for conducting a routine drill. Still, he said, "we're going to take a good hard look at what we did here today and ensure that if we need to modify procedures, if we need to modify notification, we will do so in the future."
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs defended the Coast Guard's decision to train in the Potomac on the Sept. 11 anniversary. "I tend not to question law enforcement in keeping the nation's capital safe," he said.
As for the errors of the networks, he said: "Before we report things like this, checking would be good."