Plane's security breech reminder of present threats
Wednesday afternoon, May 11, provided everyone on Capitol Hill with a very strong reminder of just how real the threats are against our nation's capital – even to this day – and how in many respects we still find ourselves very vulnerable.
Just after noon on that day, an alarm was sounded by the U.S. Capitol Police advising members of the House of Representatives and Senate, their staffs, and the thousands of tourists and visitors to evacuate and run as far from the Capitol building as possible. The alarm also extended to other buildings throughout downtown Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and within the overall area commonly referred to as the "Capitol campus."
The cause of this evacuation, as has been widely reported in the hours and days since that time, was the inadvertent entrance into restricted air space by a small Cessna aircraft. Frighteningly, this aircraft – being piloted by a student and his flight instructor, who were relying on outdated flight charts – came (under fighter escort) within three miles of the White House and four miles of the Capitol before ultimately diverting to a landing strip in Maryland by F-16 fighters, a Customs Service jet, and two Blackhawk helicopters.
Had the plane continued on its same course without acknowledging the escort fighters, it would have – no matter how lost or innocent the pilots were – been forced down.
Anyone who was working in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, undoubtedly felt a very frightening sense of deja vu. Certainly, security and the monitoring of airspace in and around the nation's capital have both been stepped up significantly in the four years since that time. However, no security measures on earth can alleviate the concern when you receive an announcement stating simply (but forcefully), "Evacuate the Capitol complex immediately – inbound unidentified aircraft."
Regardless of the criticism offered by countless "Monday morning quarterbacks" in the time immediately following this security breach, I have to commend the Capitol police for their outstanding efforts in facilitating the evacuation. On a typical workday in Congress, there can be more than 20,000 members, employees, and visitors in the 16 acres of space within the Capitol building and the adjoining offices and annexes. An evacuation of that scale is certainly not an easy task, but the police and security officers overseeing the effort did a commendable job.
If there is any issue that I could identify as a potential concern, it would have to be the area of communication. While there are thousands of cell phones and "blackberries" in the hands of congressmen, senators, and employees, the signals from these devices are, in the event of an extreme security threat, blocked in order to eliminate the possibility that their signals could be used to detonate explosives in the area or provide beacons for terrorist-flown aircraft. As a result of this, it is difficult to stay in touch with colleagues and staff.
Thankfully, I was able to reach my family and members of my staff. However, as I was running down the street, I saw looks of frustration and just plain fear as folks tried unsuccessfully to reach friends or family members to assure them they, too, were safely out of the Capitol complex.
There will most certainly be continued discussions in the weeks and months ahead among local, state, and federal law enforcement officials on how better to coordinate inter-agency communication and threat response in the event of future breaches.
For the present, however, we should all feel thankful that the worst thing to come out of this incident was some extreme embarrassment for the two pilots and some frightening moments for all of us.
Bonner represents Southwest Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives