On March 17, 2003, at around 12:30 pm (EST), Watson, wearing a military helmet and displaying an upside down American flag, drove a John Deere tractor towing two vehicles into a shallow pond in Constitution Gardens near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Watson said that he was protesting the cutting of federal tobacco subsidies (on which he blamed his own farm's failure) and the government's treatment of Gulf War veterans. He claimed to have explosives that he would detonate if police approached him.
In response to Watson's threats, the United States Park Police cordoned off a large area on the Mall extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. Several nearby government offices were also evacuated and major traffic arteries in the area were closed, which caused massive jams and paralyzed rush-hour traffic across the Washington metropolitan area.
A SWAT team composed of around 200 FBI and Park Police officers kept the pond surrounded as Watson drove his tractor around in circles, dug up part of an island in the pond, and communicated with authorities and the media on a cell phone. Watson finally surrendered to federal authorities on March 19 after a 48 hour standoff. No explosives were found.
Watson was subsequently convicted on September 26, 2003 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for making a false threat to detonate explosives and for destroying federal property. Watson is scheduled to be sentenced on January 14, 2004, with a maximum potential of twenty years in prison, but likely to receive around six years according to federal sentencing guidelines.
The fact that one man had managed to disrupt so much of the nation's capital and hold federal law enforcement officers at bay for two days raised many concerns over the vulnerability of Washington to future terrorist attacks, especially coming mere months after the Beltway sniper killings and coinciding with the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many criticized the authorities for their passive handling of Watson, as he was even left alone to sleep aboard his tractor during the two-day standoff. Others argued that the threat of a possible explosion on the Mall required patience and a peaceful resolution.
In 1982, an incident similar to Watson's ended differently. After a ten hour standoff, police shot and killed nuclear weapons protestor Norman Mayer, who was threatening to blow up the Washington Monument.