WASHINGTON — As the Department of Homeland Security debates making changes in how it helps patrol the skies over Washington, the Pentagon has weighed in on the subject, telling the department it favors a strong law enforcement presence over more guns in the air.
“They want badges, not bullets,” said a DHS source familiar with a classified Pentagon memo dated July 20, that includes a Memorandum of Agreement intended to carry the signatures of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The memo is the first official document between the Pentagon and DHS regarding security in the Washington airspace. Currently the airspace mission is outlined in a series of classified operational procedures and coordinated among civilian agencies and the military in weekly high level meetings.
A Government Accountability Office report released last month criticized the fact that civilian agencies and the military act simultaneously and without any one agency taking the lead during an airspace violation around Washington.
The memo comes to light at a critical juncture for DHS as it debates whether to keep responsibility for Washington airspace security as is, or hand off the mission to the Coast Guard, which has the capability to be more heavily armed.
However, because the Pentagon memo emphasizes that a strong law enforcement capability is needed in the air security role, some DHS officials are now questioning whether the Coast Guard is capable of taking over the mission.
The Pentagon memo outlines a three tiered level of responsibility: intercept low flying, slow speed aircraft, determine intent of the intruder and conduct a law enforcement investigation when the intruder has been forced to the ground. The memo also says no further firepower is needed in the skies, according to three DHS sources who have either seen the memo or been briefed on its contents. All of the sources spoke with MSNBC.com on the condition of anonymity because the memorandum of agreement hasn’t yet been made public.
The DHS currently uses Black Hawk helicopters and Citation jets that belong to the air division of Customs and Border Protection (CBP Air) to patrol Washington airspace. A DHS source said officials at CBP Air have been told to plan on “transitioning out” of the airspace security role on Sept. 30.
The Pentagon memo makes no mention of whether the Coast Guard or CBP Air would be better suited to the air security role, according to all three DHS sources.
Recently CBP Air officials were told to prepare for the possibility that “several million dollars” would be taken from their budget and “reprogrammed” to the Coast Guard to help fund its new air security role in Washington, according to a DHS source.
Law enforcement 'jump ball'
At a recent meeting of officials from the military, the White House and DHS to discuss the airspace security mission, a Coast Guard officer expressed concern. “If you’re looking for follow-up investigative work and ground law enforcement, that’s not us,” the officer said, according to a DHS source briefed on the meeting.
This discussion between the Pentagon and government agencies on “how best to enhance airspace security over the national capital region is an important one that will not be taken lightly,” said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke. “Any number of issues [regarding the future of the Washington airspace] will be and have been considered,” he said. “At this point, however, all discussion relative to a memorandum would be predecisional.”
The issue of the Coast Guard’s law enforcement capability in any kind of airspace security role around Washington is “pretty much a jump ball right now,” said a DHS source.
The Coast Guard has “very specific law enforcement authority for only a select core of people,” said a DHS official. “And for that law enforcement role to be exercised there must be present a ‘maritime nexus,’ in other words, associated with a maritime event,” he said.
Coast Guard Spokeswoman Jolie Shifflet declined to discuss the law enforcement issue in the context of this article because no decision has yet been made on the future of the airspace security role, except to say: “We will do this mission if asked of us.”
The Coast Guard does have a special law enforcement unit whose members are involved in all manner of criminal investigations; however, that group only has 300 persons attached to it. Other Coast Guard members are trained at a federal law enforcement training center in the practice of boarding ships, enforcing U.S. laws and drug interdictions. In addition, the Coast Guard also has flown air intercept missions at special high security events, such as the G8 Summit in Savannah last year and the 2004 presidential political conventions.
The impetus for the airspace security review was an incident on May 11 when a private Cessna violated the 23-mile ring that makes up the restricted airspace encompassing Washington and Baltimore. The single-engine plane, unable to communicate with any federal aviation sources, flew to within three miles of the White House and was in the cross-hairs of an Air Force fighter before turning away at literally the last second.
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