The bizarre stunt pulled off by a man who managed to steer a small aircraft onto the U.S. Capitol lawn has raised yet more questions about security at the most important installations of the federal government.
The man, a 61-year-old Florida mail carrier named Doug Hughes, wanted to protest money in politics. He slipped past the U.S. military, the Capitol police and the Secret Service, which interviewed him in 2013.
He was arrested only after the aircraft — an open-cockpit contraption known as a gyro-copter that he once described as a “flying bicycle” — thudded onto the grass on the West Lawn on Wednesday. His plan was to deliver letters to each of the 535 voting members of Congress. He is due to make his first court appearance at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday.
“The commanders need to re-game and rethink all the possible ways people could attack their protected areas,” said Jim Cavanaugh, a former official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and an NBC News law enforcement analyst. “Too many people are getting through.”
The stunt came at a time when the Secret Service is under intense scrutiny for one security breach after another. Just last week, a man shot himself to death outside the Capitol.
Hughes had told friends and The Tampa Bay Times about his plans, and he wrote about it on a website in a post dated September 2013. The Secret Service said that it visited him at his home a month later.
Hughes had also written on a website: “My flight is not a secret. Before I took off, I sent an Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The letter is intended to persuade the guardians of the Capitol that I am not a threat and that shooting me down will be a bigger headache than letting me deliver these letters to Congress.”
Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary denied it had been given advance notice of the stunt.
"On 4/15/2015, at approximately 1:00 pm, a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times called the Secret Service Headquarters to inquire if the Agency was aware of a permit obtained by a protestor named Doug Hughes to fly and land on the U.S. Capitol grounds via a gyro-copter," Leary wrote in an email to NBC News. "The Secret Service was unaware of any request and the caller was referred to the Capitol Police. At no time was the Secret Service alerted to the fact that subject was in the process of flying this aircraft in the .. area."
To the confusion of tourists, Hughes rounded the Washington Monument, then flew low over the National Mall and the Capitol reflecting pool before landing on the lawn.
Airspace security rules that cover the Capitol prohibit private aircraft flights without permission. The Federal Aviation Administration said that the pilot was not in touch with air traffic control and was not authorized to enter restricted airspace.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that authorities were prepared to shoot the pilot down if he had come much closer to the Capitol.
“Had it gotten any closer to the speaker’s balcony, they have long guns to take it down, but it didn’t,” he said.
Since Sept. 11, the military has positioned anti-aircraft missile systems — the number is classified — around Washington. U.S. military officials told NBC News that those systems might have been able to detect the gyro-copter.
At the same time, defense and military officials said, the gyro-copter was so small and slow that it could have been anything — even “a flock of geese,” one of them said.
In any event, the officials said, no one in authority would have ordered a missile strike over crowded metropolitan Washington to deal with such a slow, small and unidentifiable target.
A senior military official told NBC News that even jets already in the air would have been ineffective against such a small, low-flying target.
“The low, slow-flier threat has always been a big concern,” this official said.