By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 11/15/2005 1:57:55 PM ET 2005-11-15T18:57:55

The Coast Guard has been tapped to play a major role in protecting the airspace surrounding the nation’s capital, MSNBC.com has learned.  The move would replace the civilian Customs and Border Protection aircraft currently flying the mission, and allow for a more streamlined military chain of command in the event an aircraft needed to be shot down.

The decision became official Nov. 3 in a memo signed by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.  “Upon review of the Air Intercept mission requirements as determined by the [Department of Defense], and based on its DoD relationships and command and control systems, I decided that the U.S. Coast Guard is the agency within the Department of Homeland Security to perform this mission going forward,” Chertoff said in the memo to Adm. Thomas Collins, commandant of the Coast Guard.

Although the Coast Guard falls under Homeland Security's authority, it is a military organization and as such, follows the same command and control and operational protocols as other military units. 

A Coast Guard spokesman had no comment on the memo and referred calls to the Department of Homeland Security. 

“The Coast Guard has a very unique relationship with the Department of Defense and its inherent structures within the Coast Guard for law enforcement responsibilities make the Coast Guard better equipped for these missions,” said Russ Knocke, DHS spokesman. 

The move caps nearly six months of intense discussion and debate inside DHS as to whether the Coast Guard was the best fit to take over the air security role.  Coast Guard officials have for years warned Congress its mission was made increasingly difficult because it wasn’t able to adequately upgrade its aging fleet of aircraft and ships. 

In July, the Pentagon, which would move into action should any plane have to actually be shot down, for the first time laid out the duties it expects from the civilian-led homeland security agencies in support of the air security role.  In that memo, the Pentagon says it doesn’t need any more fire power in the skies; however, it does need a strong law enforcement presence, according to three DHS officials that have read the memo and who spoke to MSNBC.com on the condition of anonymity because the memo hasn’t been made public.

Although the decision to give the Coast Guard the air security role has been made, when it actually takes formal control of the mission isn’t known.  The Coast Guard now has 30 days to come up with a blueprint, including a budget, of how it intends to carry out the mission.  Because a plan must still be presented and accepted, Chertoff’s memo “really indicates the Secretary’s intention,” to give the Coast Guard full control of the air security role, Knocke said. 

Customs and Border Protection staff had previously been informed that the transfer of the air security role would happen Oct. 1.  Then Hurricane Katrina hit and the Coast Guard “nearly flew its birds into the ground,” said a DHS official with knowledge of the rescue operations flown in Louisiana by the Coast Guard.

Too little, too late
Airspace security around Washington came into sharp focus on May 11 when a small, privately-owned prop plane wandered into the 23-mile ring that makes up the restricted airspace encompassing Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.  That single engine plane came within three miles of the White House and was within seconds of being blasted out from the skies by an Air Force fighter before it shifted course and saved itself. That incident rocked security agencies in Washington and raised questions about air security protocols in place to protect the area.

A month later another private prop plane came near enough to the White House and Capitol buildings to cause the evacuation of government officials.  An Air Force fighter again intercepted the plane and successfully turned it about eight miles from the Capitol.

Those two incidents prompted Chertoff to review the entire air space security role leading up to Thursday’s decision to hand the task to the Coast Guard.

“After the airspace incursion of May 11th, we have been looking all up on how we manage the airspace security mission here in Washington, D.C,” DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson previously told MSNBC.com.

“No one is suggesting that CBP fell short of their mission,” Knocke said.  “Quite to the contrary, they did a remarkable job.”  Secretary Chertoff underscores this in his memo, saying about Customs and Border Protection: “I commend their efforts in executing this critical homeland security role.”

Until Chertoff signs off on the Coast Guard plan, CBP will remain in its role as chief protector of the Washington area airspace.  “Proper timing of the mission transfer is critical,” Chertoff says in his memo.  “I expect there to be a seamless transition.”

The Coast Guard, Pentagon and CBP have already begun discussions about the mission and what additional assets might be needed to carry it out, Knocke said.

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