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Potomac River training exercise sparks fears of DC attack

By Matthew Shaer / September 11, 2009

A Coast Guard boat races near the 14th Street Bridge on September 11, during a training exercise in Washington, DC. Media outlets first reported the exercise as an unauthorized incursion into a prohibited zone on the Potomac River, while US President Barack Obama attended a 9/11 anniversary ceremony at the Pentagon. The event was later confirmed by government officials to be a training exercise.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP

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In the end, it turned out to be nothing more than a Coast Guard training exercise.

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But for about an hour this morning, some outlets -- including the cable news networks CNN and Fox News -- aired reports of a possible unauthorized incursion into a prohibited zone on the Potomac River.

At the time, President Barack Obama was leaving an event at the Pentagon. His motorcade passed across the Memorial Bridge, near the spot where the Coast Guard was conducting the exercise.

The ensuing media firestorm, which came on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York, had something in common with Air Force One's infamous Manhattan flyover. In both cases, local residents and the media mistook a training exercise -- or a photo shoot -- for a terrorist attack. At around 10 a.m. on Friday, some media outlets had reported gunfire on the Potomac.

According to spokesmen for the Coast Guard, no shots were actually fired during the training exercise. Still, the Coast Guard has vowed to "take a good, hard look" at how it handled the the training exercise, Coast Guard Vice Adm. John Currier told CNN.

The frenzy over the training exercise was enough to temporarily put the brakes on flights leaving from Reagan National Airport in DC. Speaking to a reporter for the Washington Post, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said the delay began at 10:08 a.m., and ended 22 minutes later.

It was "based on reports of activity on the Potomac, as a precaution," Spitaliere said.

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