The Cable

Message Received: How Could a Mailman Expose D.C.’s Vulnerability From the Sky?

A U.S. postal worker just gave terrorists a blueprint for how to attack the White House and the Capitol.

469817540

The Florida mailman who flew a gyrocopter onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol meant to send a message to Congress. He ended up exposing a huge security flaw in the skies over Washington.

Since 2003, Washington has had a strict flight restriction zone known as an ADIZ (air defense identification zone) over the greater metro area. Planes flying above the capital must remain above an 18,000-foot ceiling. And flights into the region’s three major airports — Reagan National, Dulles International, and Baltimore/Washington International — must follow strict protocols. Planes that ignore the rules risk being shot out of the sky by military jets.

But somehow, Douglas Mark Hughes evaded the radar systems that protect the D.C. skies, according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Hughes, 61, flew his small gyrocopter from Pennsylvania to Washington, and now lawmakers want to know how that could happen.

Steve Hedges, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said it’s a legitimate concern. Hughes’ gyrocopter has metal parts, and was flying at a low speed and at a low altitude — meaning it should have been detected by radar, Hedges said.

“They said they never even saw him,” Hedges told FP. “That creates a real puzzle.”

If a disgruntled U.S. Postal Service worker — who flew in to protest campaign finance laws — can break the security cover over the capital, so too, theoretically, could someone with more nefarious purposes. And it’s not like the United States has been blindsided by the gaps in security: Witness the drone that in January was crashed on the White House lawn.

Admittedly, it’s highly unlikely a would-be terrorist could afford a $15.5 million Shadow drone, which is the smallest armed unmanned aerial vehicle used by the U.S. military. But it might not take much to strap a homemade explosive onto a drone and fly it at a target.

The Homeland Security Department is on alert for drone-delivered bombs, according to the New York Times. At a January 2015 conference in Arlington, Virginia, the same drone that crashed at the White House was on display — with three pounds of explosives attached to its body.

The White House tried to laugh off the breach. At a Thursday press briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest said the incident allowed the Secret Service to learn “useful lessons,” but made a joke about people — including, potentially, the president — not knowing what a gyrocopter is.

In the past, radars have worked and military craft have intercepted numerous aircraft violating ADIZ restrictions. The most notable occasion was in 2004 during former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral, when a plane carrying Kentucky’s governor caused an evacuation at the Capitol.

But Hughes has inadvertently exposed a loophole that could put President Barack Obama and lawmakers at risk.

“I think he expected to be picked up at some point,” Hedges said. “I don’t think he was trying to show the airspace restriction doesn’t work.”

He added, “Whatever point he’s trying to make, he made it.”

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

 

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola