WASHINGTON — It was 42 degrees, lightly raining, and pitch black near the White House early Monday morning 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.
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, which sells for hundreds of dollars and is popular among hobbyists, had crashed 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, 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 shield that the Secret Service erects around the White House complex.
The drone, which measures about 2 feet by 2 feet, evaded White House radar that is calibrated to warn of bigger threats, such as a plane or missile.
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 for several years, law enforcement officials said. A classified study of how to bring down small drones has led the agency to try to develop ways to detect and stop such craft.
A spokesman for the geospatial agency confirmed 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 spokesman Don Kerr. “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 through interviews and by analyzing video footage from cameras around the apartment where the man operated the drone.
The Virginia-based geospatial-intelligence agency employs satellites to gather data for the military and other agencies by using imagery to detect human activity and to map changes in physical features on the ground.
The crash was the latest security breach showing the difficulties the Secret Service has had protecting the White House. 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 Obama’s daughters was home.
Obama, who was traveling abroad, declined to comment on the drone episode. But in a CNN interview 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.” The president said that commercially available drones can benefit individuals, such as farmers who are managing crops, but that the government needed to provide “some sort of framework that ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad.”
Obama noted that the drone that landed at the White House was the kind “you buy at Radio Shack,” and added, “We don’t really have any kind of regulatory structure at all for it.”