by Max Brantley
My FOI request this morning dislodged the agreement by which the city of Little Rock (actually Mayor Mark Stodola) permitted an Army Special Operations group to perform an unannounced training exercise over downtown Little Rock Friday night that alarmed many residents in the Governor's Mansion and other neighborhoods.
The exercise focused on the former VA hospital, now privately owned by an evangelist, on Roosevelt Road and commercial property a short distance to the southeast across Interstate 30 — some vacant land used for helicopter landing owned by Moon Distributors' Stan Hastings. They Army made arrangements to use the properties. Neighbors said the operation was noisy and lengthy and extended from late Friday to early morning hours Saturday. An agreement between the Army and city reveals the size of the operation:
The exercise will consist of 7-9 rotary wing aircraft, 2-3 fixed wing airframes and 80-100 Special Operation ground force personnel conducting full mission profile training as previously coordinated. Rotary wing aircraft will INFIL ground forces via fast rope and air land infiltration and will EXFIL ground forces via vertical hoist extraction and air land EXFIL in victing of "Moon Distributors." Ground Force personnel will conduct force on force simmunition training as well as mechanical and explosive breaching on the target facility in accordance with previously conducted coordination and distributed guidance.
Here's the full agreement. A key point in light of neighbors' complaints and the mayor's brief response when questioned by a neighborhood group: The agreement provided for public notice of the exercise, including press releases "to all appropriate Little Rock officials for dissemination," and specified that public affairs officers would be on the ground to handle any questions that should arise.
Little Rock Police Lt. Terry Hastings said police knew about the exercise, but said the portion of the agreement referring to public notice and door-to-door notification was understood by the city to be the military's obligation, not the city's. (He later supplied some e-mails that reflect this.) The agreement, however, specified "that Little Rock, AK [sic] public affairs officials publish official notification and door-to-door notifications of appropriate personnel through the desired media on a time-line deemed necessary by the mayor's office and city officials. This coordination will comply with the guidance disseminated to local officials throught he 160th SOAR(A) Public Affairs Office."
Maj. Mike Burns, public affairs officer for the 160th, said that such training exercises, which are conducted around the country, present a Catch 22. Too much advance knowledge can attract spectators that can add to the risk of the operations. He said the decision not to announce the exercise in advance was made cooperatively with the city, but he said it was ultimately the city's decision because the Department of Defense didn't have the authority to make announcement for the police or through the city website. "Bottom line, it comes down to what the police and city want to do," he said.
OK, it's agreed. Notice should have been given in neighborhood. I heard from Mayor Stodola late in the afternoon:
Public notice and fliers were supposed to be distributed door to door. I was assured that this would happen when I was briefed about this exercise on September 7th as I expressed the same concern that you and others have expressed. I had no further contact with the military as they were to work with our LRPD. Apparently someone dropped the ball.
Mayor Stodola had said that this was an operation by the "same military unit that captured and killed Osama bin Laden." Both Burns and a Pentagon spokesman said it was inaccurate to say this — in part because the Defense Department has never officially identified any specific units that participated in that exercise. Press accounts say, however, that the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation regiment flew Navy SEALS to bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. Its unclear whether SEALS were part of the weekend training operation in Little Rock. Burns would say only that the exercise was a joint operation of the Special Operations Command and he would not identify specific units involved.
Burns was on the ground in Little Rock during the exercise and he had a statement prepared to read to anyone who should call 911 about the unusual activity. He said he worked with police SWAT teams and other units and some blocked streets at times for the exercise.
A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the operation was coordinated with air traffic controllers to keep the area clear from other flight activity. He said normal flight rules — such as minimum altitudes over cities — did not apply to military operations. It coordinates to ensure they are conducted safely, he said.
Mayor Stodola has not been responding to my questions (on this or other matters). Mine are simple: 1) Why wasn't public notified as the agreement allowed? 2) why wasn't he more helpful when questioned by Kathy Wells after the fact? 3) Is it reasonable to think an operation with 11 aircraft, 100 troops coming down ropes and simulated ammo would not cause public questions? 4) if the operation had used St. John's Seminary in the Heights would public notice have been done?
STATEMENT FROM MAJ. MIKE BURNS ON NOTIFICATION
We have found that if we make a broad public notification before the training there is a potential to create a greater public safety hazard with people gathering to try and watch the training. We regret any anxiety this training may have caused. Know that we are extremely sensitive to the impact this training has on local residents and we intend to train safely and courteously.
Public Affairs Officer
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)
Night Stalkers Don't Quit!
Following is the specific release that would have been read to any who inquired:
"Military training exercises will take place within and around the Little Rock area between Nov. 18th and Nov. 19th. Military personnel will conduct training exercises to ensure the military's ability to operate in urban environments, prepare forces for upcoming overseas deployments, and meet mandatory training certification requirements. Military helicopters will be used in these exercises."
"The Little Rock Police Department has worked to ensure minimal impacts on our citizens and their daily routines. Safety precautions have been taken to prevent risk to the general public and the military personnel involved. Training site locations are not open to the public and will be guarded by uniformed personnel to provide additional safety."
"Any further questions may be directed to Maj. Mike Burns, Army Public Affairs Officer, at 931-472-4770.