WASHINGTON (AP) - The Homeland Security Department is considering whether it should
seek authority for its pilots to shoot down errant planes around the nation's
capital like the one that came within three miles of the White House this month,
according to an internal agency memo obtained by The Associated Press.
Putting the Coast Guard on air patrol duty in the Washington area could raise
questions about whether Homeland Security or the Pentagon would give an order
to use lethal force in an emergency.
Hundreds of general aviation aircraft mistakenly enter the restricted zone
each year, and are steered away by Customs and Border Protection helicopters
scrambled to intercept them. But Customs helicopters do not have authority to
fire warning or disabling shots, while some Coast Guard aircraft already do.
Both agencies are arms of the Homeland Security Department.
The issue arose at a May 16 meeting of Homeland Security officials that focused
on the brief scare this month when a lost Cessna flew into restricted airspace.
The Cessna was intercepted by Customs Black Hawk helicopters and Air Force F-16
fighter jets before veering away - just as officials discussed shooting it down.
On Monday, the government revoked the license of the pilot in charge of the
"We raised the issue of the cops ... out there having the right of self defense
under use of force policy,'' Homeland Security Acting Undersecretary Randy Beardsworth
wrote in an internal May 17 e-mail about the meeting that included Secretary
Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson.
"As you can easily recognize, a potential option is to have the CG (Coast
Guard) take this mission,'' Beardsworth said in the e-mail, which was obtained
by The Associated Press. Beardsworth is a former Coast Guard officer.
It was not immediately clear whether such a change would have to be approved
by Congress or if it could be taken care of as an internal Homeland Security
matter. Homeland Security officials are expected to discuss the proposal further
in coming days, said Customs and Coast Guard officials who spoke on condition
The Pentagon declined comment on the idea, except to say that the Defense Department
"welcomes any ideas or concepts that they would share with us to further the
goal of making the homeland safe.''
Some other officials questioned the safety of expanding shootdown authority,
saying a clear chain of command to give such an order would need to be established
between Homeland Security and the Pentagon.
"If the law enforcement and military decision making is not synchronized,
then you run the risk of creating a conflicting use-of-force environment in
the skies over the National Capital Region,'' said George Foresman, Virginia's
homeland security director.
The restricted airspace reaches a 30-mile radius including Dulles International
Airport in Virginia, Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland
and Reagan National Airport outside Washington.
Military analyst John Pike of Globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Va., said the
Coast Guard would probably need to be hooked up to U.S. Northern Command systems
during an emergency incident. Northcom, a military operation, was created after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to coordinate defense missions.
"That would not be overly difficult,'' said Pike, who suggested it would make
sense for Homeland Security to have shootdown authority. "If they get up there
and discover there's evildoers in the airplane and all they're armed with are
laser pointers and flares, they're going to feel pretty stupid.''
Pilots who violate the airspace typically do so by mistake, and the Coast Guard
would be tasked with routine interception missions that Customs currently undertakes
- what Beardsworth called in his e-mail "a rather tedious chore.''
A spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents
400,000 private pilots nationwide, said the Cessna scare showed the system is
working as is. Were it to change, the interceptions and subsequent action "must
be very, very clearly delineated,'' said AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy. "An abundance
of caution ... is absolutely critical.''