It was 42 degrees, lightly raining and pitch black near the White House when an inebriated, off-duty employee for a government intelligence agency decided it was a good time to test-fly his friend’s quadcopter drone that sells for hundreds of dollars and is popular among hobbyists.
But officials say the plan was foiled, perhaps by the wind or a tree, when the employee - who is not being named by the Secret Service - lost control of the drone. He texted his friends, worried that the drone had gone down on the White House grounds.
Investigators said the man had been drinking at an apartment nearby. It was not until the next morning, when he woke to his friends telling him that his drone was all over the news, that he contacted his employer, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and then called the Secret Service to confess.
In the process of what officials describe as nothing more than a drunken misadventure with a drone, the employee managed to highlight another vulnerability in the protective shield that the Secret Service erects around the White House complex.
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The drone, which measures about 2 feet by 2 feet, evaded White House radar that is calibrated to warn of much bigger threats, like an airplane or a missile. It was the latest in a string of incidents that have raised questions about how secure President Barack Obama and his family are.
The issue of how to stop small drones that could be operated by sinister individuals has been the subject of intensive inquiry by the Secret Service’s air branch for several years, law enforcement officials said. A classified study of how to bring down small drones has led the agency to try and develop new ways to detect and stop such flying craft.
A spokesman for the geospatial agency confirmed Tuesday that a government employee had been questioned the day before by the Secret Service in connection with the drone episode.
“The employee self-reported the incident Monday,” said Don Kerr, the spokesman for the agency. “The employee was off duty and is not involved in work related to drones or unmanned aerial vehicles in any capacity at NGA.”
Kerr said in a statement that the employee was using “a personal item,” but that the agency took the incident seriously. He declined to identify the individual or to say what disciplinary action, if any, was being taken.
On Tuesday, Secret Service investigators were trying to verify the man’s account, interviewing people the man said he had contacted in the hours before the episode. The Secret Service was also analyzing video footage from cameras around the apartment where the man said he had operated the drone.
The geospatial-intelligence agency employs satellites, with headquarters near Springfield, Virginia, to gather data for the military and other agencies by using imagery to detect human activity and to map out changes in physical features on the ground. The website for the agency cites the discovery of “atrocities in Kosovo,” support for intelligence operations during the Olympics and assistance responding to Hurricane Katrina.
James R. Clapper Jr., the current director of national intelligence, became the head of the agency - then called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency - just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The crash was the latest security breach showing the difficulties the Secret Service has had protecting the White House in recent years. In September, a man with a knife climbed over the White House fence and made it deep inside the home before officers tackled him. In 2011, a gunman fired shots that hit the White House while one of Obama’s daughters was home.
Obama, who was traveling abroad, declined to comment on the drone episode. But in an interview with CNN broadcast Tuesday, Obama said he had instructed federal agencies to examine the need for regulations on commercial drone technology.
Obama said he had told the agencies to make sure that “these things aren’t dangerous and that they’re not violating people’s privacy.” He said that commercially available drones empower individuals, but that the government needed to provide “some sort of framework that ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad.”
“There are incredibly useful functions that these drones can play in terms of farmers who are managing crops and conservationists who want to take stock of wildlife,” the president told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “There are a whole range of things we can do with it.”
But he noted that the drone that landed at the White House was the kind “you buy at Radio Shack.” And he said that the government had failed to keep up with the use of the flying devices by hobbyists and commercial enterprises.