The White House said Monday a no-fly zone the U.S. government imposed over Ferguson, Missouri, for nearly two weeks in August should not have restricted helicopters for news organizations that wanted to operate in the area to cover violent protests there.
Audio recordings obtained by The Associated Press showed the Federal Aviation Administration working with local authorities to define a 37-square-mile flight restriction so that only police helicopters and commercial flights could fly through the area, following demonstrations over the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The Obama administration's defense of its actions centered on a provision of obscure federal regulations intended to allow press flights as long as they meet certain conditions. White House spokesman Josh Earnest sidestepped questions about conversations on the tapes showing police working with the FAA to keep media away.
"In this case, what the FAA says is that they took the prudent step of implementing the temporary flight restriction in the immediate aftermath of reports of shots fired at a police helicopter, but within 12 to 14 hours, that flight restriction was updated in a way to remove restrictions for reporters who were seeking to operate in the area," Earnest said.
In Missouri, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar defended his department's involvement Monday, telling reporters that "at no time did we request that only media be kept out of the airspace." The chief said the safety restrictions were prompted by reports of gunfire and that conversations on the tapes were "out of context." He did not elaborate.
On the tapes, an FAA manager is heard assuring a St. Louis County Police Department official that the updated restrictions would allow planes to land at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport but, "It will still keep news people out. ... The only way people will get in there is if they give them permission in there anyway so ... it still keeps all of them out."
"Yeah," replied a county police captain. "I have no problem with that whatsoever."
The disclosures about the secret motivations by local police to keep press flights away emerged during a sensitive time in Ferguson, which is awaiting a decision by a grand jury whether a city police officer, Darren Wilson, will face criminal charges for fatally shooting Brown on Aug. 9. Violence flared for weeks across the city through September, and the FAA put the first temporary flight restrictions, known as TFRs, in place on Aug. 11.
The police chief said the FAA contacted police first about restricting flights. The audio recordings between the department and the FAA indicated it was the police who wanted the restrictions — and that FAA officials accommodated them.
"Were you the gentleman I spoke to that actually issued the TFR?" the FAA manager asked. "Yes," the police captain replied.
Elsewhere in the tapes, one FAA manager talks to another about renegotiating with police over the size of the restricted area and persuading authorities to accept one with a lower altitude than they initially wanted.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday the Justice Department was not involved in the FAA considerations and said the American public needs to understand what is happening in Ferguson.
"Anything that would artificially inhibit the ability of newsgatherers to do what they do is something I think needs to be avoided," Holder said Monday.
A spokesman for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the FAA should impose flight restrictions "for one reason and one reason only: public safety." Her office will follow up with the FAA "to ensure that was the basis on which these restrictions were imposed," said the spokesman, John LaBombard.
At the White House, Earnest stressed that under FAA rules the no-fly zone as it was re-designated after Aug. 12 would have exempted press flights as long as pilots had filed flight plans and carried accredited reporters on board.
"The updated flight restriction didn't have any impact on media access."
But the administration's statement about what it believes should have happened under the no-fly rules is inconsistent with what actually happened during the period. None of the St. Louis television stations was advised that media helicopters could enter the airspace even under the lesser restrictions, even under federal rules that would have permitted flights "carrying properly accredited news representatives." The FAA's no-fly notice indicated the area was closed to all aircraft except police and planes coming to and from the airport.
"Only relief aircraft operations under direction of St. Louis County Police Department are authorized in the airspace," it said. "Aircraft landing and departing St. Louis Lambert Airport are exempt."
The Obama administration has said it was unaware of any news organization's complaining about the restrictions.
"To the best of our knowledge, during the 11-day period flight restrictions of varying levels were in place, no media outlets objected to any of the restrictions," FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta said in a statement.
Yet news organizations have broadly protested — almost always in vain — temporary flight restrictions the FAA has imposed in recent years across the country at the request of local police, said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a trade group for broadcasters. TV stations have complained that police ask for temporary flight restrictions without justification and the FAA approves them too readily without scrutiny.
"Our concern, based on what we were hearing from stations, is that it was kind of, 'Put a TFR in place and ask questions later,'" Cavender said. "There was certainly not the justification for a flight restriction that there ought to have been."
The RTNDA, which formally complained Monday to the FAA, said broadcasters in St. Louis were complaining to it during the period, even if they were no longer registering formal complaints with the FAA.
"We certainly, during that time, certainly heard either directly or anecdotally that the television stations in general in St. Louis were hampered," Cavender said. The group's complaint to the FAA said the restrictions were intended to "repress the media coverage" and called the FAA's response to the AP's report "disingenuous."
"We are sorely disappointed that, to this day, officials including those at the FAA continue to maintain their actions were necessary and appropriate to preserve safety and security," the complaint said.
Around the same time as the violence, the National Press Photographers Association, another journalism trade group, complained to the police chief in Ferguson about the department's "complete lack of understanding and respect for the First Amendment." That followed the no-fly restrictions and the arrest and detention of journalists on the ground covering the violence there.
The AP obtained the recordings under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act after asking for the information roughly 10 weeks ago.
"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," one FAA manager said about the county police on the tapes. "But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on."
At another point, a manager at the FAA's Kansas City center said police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR all day long. They didn't want media in there."
The conversations contradict claims by the St. Louis county police, which said the restrictions had nothing to do with limiting the press and instead were imposed because of gunshots fired at a police helicopter. But county police officials told the AP recently there was no damage to their helicopter because of the gunshots, which an FAA manager called unconfirmed "rumors."
The restricted flight zone initially encompassed airspace in a 3.4-mile radius around Ferguson and up to 5,000 feet in altitude, but police agreed Aug. 12 to reduce it to 3,000 feet after the FAA's command center in Warrenton, Virginia, complained to managers in Kansas City that it was impeding traffic into St. Louis.
The flight restrictions remained in place until Aug. 22, FAA records show.
Associated Press writer Alan Scher Zagier in St. Louis contributed to this report.
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