(The hill) – A growing number of House lawmakers are calling for a congressional investigation into the interagency communications debacle that led to the emergency evacuation of the US Capitol complex on Wednesday night.
Lawmakers are stunned that a stunt by Army paratroopers at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium — a pre-planned event that allowed a small, twin-engine plane to enter tightly restricted airspace near Capitol Hill — could unleash just as much chaos even as law enforcement in Washington is under heavy pressure to improve security protocols following the deadly attack on the Capitol last year.
While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) knew the Army plane would circle Nationals Park, about a mile south of the Capitol, the agency did not notify the United States Capitol Police. , according to the police department and lawmakers. The communication failure prompted the USCP to issue a startling evacuation order warning that the unidentified plane “poses a probable threat to the Capitol Complex.”
The order was quickly rescinded and the FAA said it was investigating the incident. But a number of lawmakers believe a congressional investigation is also deserved.
‘I think, certainly, we need to get to the bottom of what happened,’ the House Majority Leader said Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Thursday by phone.
“It’s unbelievable…that not everyone was fully informed,” he added. “It’s hard to imagine.”
representing Jason Raven (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was not on Capitol Hill during Wednesday’s evacuation. But he said it affected his staff and was particularly traumatic for those who lived through the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
“It’s disappointing for so many people who were here that day,” he said. “So we have to look into it, we have to understand what went wrong, and there has to be some accountability, because clearly the ball has been dropped.”
The small plane carrying the Army parachute unit, known as the Golden Knights, took off Wednesday night from Joint Base Andrews, a massive installation just outside Washington’s Beltway in Maryland, and flew headed to Nationals Park to participate in Military Appreciation Night. Capitol Police said that while they routinely receive notices of “hundreds of flights permitted into restricted airspace” each week, the plane carrying the Golden Knights was not one of them.
“The decision to evacuate the campus is not a decision we take lightly,” the department said in a statement Thursday. “It is extremely unusual not to be informed of a flight in advance.”
Capitol police issued their evacuation order just after 6:30 p.m. and rescinded it less than 20 minutes later after determining there was no threat.
The scare was short-lived, but forced countless Capitol Hill staff to flee the compound. And it made the President furious Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which wasted no time in issuing a statement condemning the incident as “scandalous and inexcusable.”
“The unnecessary panic caused by this apparent neglect has been particularly damaging to members, staff and institutional workers still dealing with the trauma of the attack on their workplace on January 6,” she said.
The U.S. Army Recruiting Command released a statement Thursday saying the Golden Knights followed all proper protocols to fly in the restricted airspace around the Capitol.
“We have confirmed that the parachute team has filed all appropriate and required Federal Aviation Administration documentation and received FAA approval prior to operating in National Capitol Area airspace,” said said spokesperson Kelli LeGaspi.
In a statement of its own, the FAA appeared to acknowledge that the error originated in its offices.
“We know our actions affect others, especially in the National Capital Region, and we must communicate early and often with our law enforcement partners,” the agency said, promising “a review thorough and rapid” of Wednesday’s events.
It’s unclear whether a congressional investigation will follow the agency’s investigation. A Pelosi aide said the internal FAA review was the “first step.” Be p. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the chairman of the Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on aviation, said that while he instructed committee staff to seek information from the FAA, he has yet to heard directly from the agency.
“I expect to see the results of the agency’s investigation soon,” Larsen said in an email.
Although such incidents are very rare, this is not the first time the Capitol has been evacuated following the false threat of an airstrike. In 2004, Pentagon officials were close to jamming fighter jets to shoot down an unidentified plane flying over Washington’s restricted airspace. The twin-engine plane was carrying Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher (R) to Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
Hoyer, who was in the Capitol Rotunda when the evacuation order was issued, said it “caused real panic.”
“Ultimately this was resolved before everyone left the Capitol. But it was an incident that caused a lot of disruption,” he said. “You would think the people leading this effort would know that everyone needs a warning if you have a small plane flying anywhere near the Capitol dome.”
In another bizarre incident in 2015, a Florida postman protesting campaign finance laws piloted a gyrocopter through the National Mall and landed it on the grounds of the Capitol. He was arrested without incident and sentenced to four months in prison.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who said she landed in Washington Wednesday night just after the Capitol evacuation was completed, praised Capitol Police officers who spearheaded the process.
“The officers did their job, they were exhausted when I arrived,” she said.
She was quick to add that the incident also made it clear that communication between the country’s security agencies needs to be improved.
“We better establish a rigorous chain of accountability,” Kaptur said. “I think that’s what it taught us.”
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