State releases heavily redacted recording of HI-EMA's missile mistake test

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday released a heavily redacted portion of the 24-second internal test message that triggered the state's missile alert mistake on January 13, 2018.

Hawaii News Now requested audio of the message shortly after the event. State officials had previously said they were reviewing records laws and the audio file itself to determine whether it could be released under Hawaii's open records law.

The recording of the message that was released Wednesday includes only three audible sections – a total of 11 words. The rest of the message was blocked out by a high-pitched sound that makes any other words inaudible.

The nature of the message was key to investigating the false alert because the warning officer who heard the message when it was played in the Emergency Management Center claimed he did not hear the voice at the beginning and end of the message that said "Exercise, Exercise. Exercise."

The recording released Wednesday includes those words, along with the phrase "this is not a drill" about nine seconds into the message. The word "exercise" is also repeated three times at the end of the recording.

A spokesman for the agency explained the redaction by saying that "the wording is the exact same or similar to what PACOM would use in a real-world event."

"If that was released into the general public, someone could use the language to try to spoof the state warning point into thinking that a real event was in progress," said Lt. Col. Charles Anthony.

But a legal expert on public policy says that shouldn't qualify as reason enough to redact such a significant portion of the recording.

"They're not saying that it's classified," says Brian Black, Executive Director of the Civil Beat Law Center, "They're not saying that's top secret information. All they're saying is the information could be used to fake out the DOD, and that doesn't seem to be quite enough."

Black says the issue is at the center of a dispute between the state and the fired warnings officer and the portion of the recording released seems to favor the state.

"Particularly when you've got that type of situation you need to be more upfront about what happened."

The warnings officer told Hawaii News Now last month that someone picked up the phone so the first part, "exercise, exercise, exercise," was not heard.  He says it was only put on speaker phone in time for him to hear, "This is not a drill."  He says the series of words that followed made him believe a real missile had been launched and he moved toward triggering the alert.

Other media requests for documents and test-related materials have been under review for several weeks. Hawaii's open records law requires agencies to respond to requests in ten days, but also allows time for agencies to review and redact material that may be considered private or somehow impede government operations.

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