PHILADELPHIA, May 26: US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday denied accusations that he had authorized the military to shoot down a small plane that prompted evacuations of Washington power centers earlier this month. The Washington Post, quoting federal officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported on Wednesday that Mr Rumsfeld had given the military authority to take the action, if necessary, against the Cessna 150 that had wandered into restricted airspace over the Washington area on May 11.

But in a speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, the secretary denied that he had given any such authorization before the light plane was finally forced to land near Washington by F-16 fighter jets.

“It was totally not true,” he said, naming the Post in his speech.

“It was two anonymous sources and, of course, it wasn’t true. I never even got on the phone to discuss the circumstances of the little plane,” Mr Rumsfeld said after both the Pentagon and White House also denied the story. Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in Washington that Mr Rumsfeld had been prepared to act but never gave any order.

“The secretary was notified as soon as the situation developed. And he was available to make any necessary decisions with respect to this incursion. It never reached the point at which he had to make those kinds of decisions,” Whitman told reporters.

Whitman declined to talk about the military’s specific rules of engagement involving incursions by aircraft into restricted air space over the U.S. capital region. But he said if the situation had reached a certain point, commanders with the North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD, would have asked for Mr Rumsfeld’s involvement.

“The situation never reached that point,” Whitman said, adding that “the appropriate procedures were followed.” Asked about The Post report that the plane was 15 to 20 seconds from being shot down, Whitman said, “I don’t know how they got it so wrong.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan also said it was his understanding the situation never reached the point of Mr Rumsfeld making a shoot-down decision. The U.S. Capitol, White House and Supreme Court were evacuated as the plane approached. The two F-16 fighter jets fired four flares to get the pilot’s attention before escorting the propeller aircraft to nearby Frederick, Maryland.

The Federal Aviation Administration revoked pilot Hayden “Jim” Sheaffer’s license for one year. Troy Martin, a student pilot who was at the controls during the incident, was not disciplined. —Reuters

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