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Small drone breaches White House grounds, prompting lockdown

A recreational quadcopter reportedly crashed into a tree on the grounds of the White House.
A recreational quadcopter reportedly crashed into a tree on the grounds of the White House.(US Secret Service/EPA)

WASHINGTON — A White House radar system designed to detect flying objects like planes, missiles, and large drones failed to pick up a small drone that crashed into a tree on the South Lawn early Monday morning, according to law enforcement officials. The crash raised questions about whether the Secret Service could bring down a similar object if it endangered President Obama.

The drone, which was about 2 feet in diameter and weighed about 2 pounds, was operated by a government employee whom the Secret Service did not identify. The agency said the employee was flying the object near the White House around 3 a.m. for recreational purposes when he lost control of it. Officials did not explain why the man, who does not work at the White House and who has not been charged with a crime, was flying the drone at that hour.

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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 building before officers tackled him. In 2011, a gunman fired shots that hit the White House while one of the Obamas’ daughters was home.

On Monday, a Secret Service officer who was posted on the south grounds of the White House “heard and observed” the drone, the agency said, but the officer and others stationed at the residence were unable to bring it down before it passed over the White House fence and struck a tree. The drone was too small and flying too low to be detected by radar, officials said, adding that because of its size, it could easily have been confused for a large bird.

The incident comes days after the Department of Homeland Security held a conference in Arlington, Va., on the dangers that such drones pose to the nation’s critical infrastructure and government facilities. On display at the meeting was a DJI Phantom drone, the same type of drone that crashed at the White House on Monday. But the drone on display had 3 pounds of fake explosives attached to the payload as part of an effort to show how easily it could be used to launch an attack, according to a participant at the conference.

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In a photograph released by the Secret Service, the drone that crashed on the South Lawn looks partly broken. It appears to be a version of the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter that is sold on Amazon.com starting at $479. Models equipped with high-definition cameras sell for as much as $1,258 on the website.

In a statement Monday afternoon, the Secret Service said a man had called the agency about 9:30 a.m. Monday to report that he had been the one controlling the drone when it crashed on the White House grounds.

“The individual has been interviewed by Secret Service agents and been fully cooperative,” the statement said. “Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device.” Under federal law, it is illegal to fly a drone in Washington.

Secret Service agents conducted interviews Monday with people who knew or had spoken to the government employee in an attempt to substantiate his account. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, who is traveling with the president and Michelle Obama in India, said both Obama daughters were home at the time of the incident. The drone caused a temporary lockdown at the White House. Earnest said the craft did not appear to be dangerous.

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Security experts said Monday that small drones are particularly difficult to defend against because it is hard to shoot them down. A military official said the Defense Department “typically scrambles fighter aircraft for aerial threats over Washington, but when it gets to a toy, that’s not something the military typically addresses.”

Officials said a drone like the one that crashed Monday was probably too small to carry enough explosives to significantly damage the White House structure. But the president is often outside the building on the White House grounds.

Several years ago, the Secret Service’s air security branch, which protects the area around the White House, began a classified study of how to bring down small drones. Since then the agency has tried to develop new detection methods and ways to stop them.

“There’s no silver bullet,” a law enforcement official said. “It’s difficult because if you bring it down on Pennsylvania Avenue you could kill a dozen tourists.”

The Secret Service declined to discuss radar abilities at the White House and why the drone was not detected.

Brian Hearing, a founder of Droneshield LLC, which makes drone detection systems, said radar systems are effectively useless for catching such small drones.