Less that nine hours after an early-morning incident that scrambled police around the Pentagon, officials on Friday afternoon deemed Lance Cpl. Yonathan Melaku, confirmed as a Marine Reservist, no serious threat, an apparent 22-year-old lone wolf not associated with any terrorist group or part of a bigger plot.
In other words, he provided Washington a well-executed fire drill to test the government’s defenses for a real threat.
According to a tick-tock of the incident revealed by the FBI, the man was approached by Fort Meyers Police shortly after 1 a.m. in Arlington National Cemetery, where he was loitering before the cemetery opened to the public. Unwilling to cooperate with police, he was taken into custody by U.S. Park Police and apprehended. The suspect’s car near the Pentagon was searched by Pentagon Police and the Pentagon Force Protection Agency in association with the FBI.
Is this how responses to would-be terrorist threats are supposed to work?
The Washington Field Office of the FBI manages the full response to incidents ranging from bomb threats to white powdery substances in the mail. When an incident like the one at Arlington is reported to the office, officials decide which agencies need to be involved, and how to scramble everyone quickly.
“There’s a threshold,” says Lindsay Godwin, a spokeswoman for the agency. “It’s assessed who needs to be on scene. We’re very used to working together with other agencies. There’s a longstanding protocol we follow.”
Most federal counterterrorism agencies bulked up after 9/11 and the national landscape of intelligence agencies expanded. According to an investigation last year by The Washington Post, as many as 33 new buildings were created to survey new threats. The intelligence world, according to the report, had ballooned so much that “no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it, or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”
The Washington Field Office conducts exercises every day in the Washington area, and responds to threats—most of which go completely unreported—just as often. Records are kept on all components of a response, from the timing to the number of people involved to make decisions for the next incident.
The Pentagon specifically has been the site of several would-be attacks recently, including another incident earlier this week when a driver was found with a gun and suspicious package near the building. There was also an incident in which gunfire was exchanged between a man and security personnel last spring. Several months later, a suspicious blinking package in the Pentagon metro station caused a coordinated response.
Still, even false alarms like the one on Friday are helpful in how they highlight weak points in response times and capacity of equipment.
“There are almost infinite numbers of people and circumstances in these situations, so there will always be new vulnerable points,” says Glenn Carle, a former CIA service officer, whose new book, The Interrogator: An Education, offers a deep portrait of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies. “But does any exercise reveal things? It very well does.”