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Government Employee Crashes Small Drone at White House

WASHINGTON — The small drone that crashed into a tree on the South Lawn of the White House early Monday morning was operated by a government employee who has told the Secret Service that he did not mean to fly it over the White House fence or near the president’s residence, according to law enforcement officials.

The employee — who does not work for the White House — has told the Secret Service that he was flying the drone for recreational use at about 3 a.m. in the area around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when he lost control of it.

So far, the Secret Service said it believed the man’s account.

In a second statement about the incident Monday afternoon, the Secret Service said an individual had called them at about 9:30 Monday morning 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. Initial indications are that this incident occurred as a result of recreational use of the device,” the statement said. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, says that a small electronic device found on the White House lawn overnight is not thought to pose a threat to anyone within the building.

The Secret Service also released a photo of the partially broken drone on the ground. It appears to be a version of the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter that is sold on Amazon.com starting at $448. Models equipped with HD cameras sell for as much as $1,258 on the website.

The small, commercial quad copter drone crashed on the southeast grounds, forcing a brief lockdown of the White House complex, the Secret Service said.

Officials said in a statement that a Secret Service officer posted on the south grounds of the White House “heard and observed” the device, which was about two feet in diameter, at about 3:08 a.m.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, who is traveling with President Obama and Michelle Obama in India, said the drone did not appear to be dangerous. Mr. and Mrs. Obama are on a three-day visit to India, but their daughters, Malia and Sasha, are in Washington.

“There is a device that has been recovered by the Secret Service at the White House,” Mr. Earnest told reporters. “The early indications are that it does not pose any sort of ongoing threat to anybody at the White House.”

Officials said a drone like the one that crashed on Monday probably could not carry enough explosives to significantly damage the White House structure. But the president is often outside the building inside the perimeter of the White House fence.

Mr. Obama and Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, are known to walk outside when the weather is nice, walking along the circular driveway that sits on the south side of the building. Mr. Obama also frequently participates in ceremonies on the South Lawn, just on the other side of fence that circles the complex.

The president’s helicopter, Marine One, lands and takes off on the South Lawn, mere steps from the entrance to the residence. Mr. Obama sometimes stands in front of the helicopter for several minutes to make a statement to the press.

While drones are commonly thought of in the context of missile-firing, unmanned vehicles used against terrorists, many small flying drones are available on the commercial market and are used as toys.

 

A hobbyist website lists “micro” sized drones that can fit into the palm of a hand for under $35 and “prosumer” models that are two feet wide and include live, high-definition video cameras. One such device is currently listed at Amazon.com for $2,899.

A spokeswoman for the Secret Service declined to say whether the agency had instituted any special protections against drones that could carry bombs or other dangerous payloads over the White House fence and toward the West Wing or the residence.

It remains unclear whether the drone in question had a camera or if it was equipped to carry anything else.

“Since the investigation into this matter is ongoing, there is no additional information at this time,” said Nicole Mainor, a staff assistant for the office of public affairs at the agency.

The report of the drone intrusion came at a time when other threats to the president’s family or their home have led to concerns about a lack of security at one of the most heavily guarded buildings in Washington.

The Secret Service has been criticized heavily for a number of recent security breaches, including an incident where an intruder climbed the White House fence last year and reached the interior of the White House before being caught by agents.

Four top Secret Service officials were demoted earlier this month in the wake of a scathing report by the Department of Homeland Security that revealed shortcomings in the way the department and its staff protected the president’s home.

“Change is necessary to gain a fresh perspective on how we conduct business,” Joseph P. Clancy, the agency’s interim director, said in a written statement at the time. “I am certain any of our senior executives will be productive and valued assets either in other positions at the Secret Service or the department.”

The question of what to do about commercial drones is increasingly bedeviling government officials, who fear the devices could pose a threat to commercial aircraft. And because the drones can be outfitted with cameras and can fly over fences, they raise questions about privacy.

By Michael D. Shear and Michael S. Schmidt, The New York Times

The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for regulating the airspace in the United States, last year released a list of incidents involving drones, including near-misses with commercial aircraft as well as reports of toys flying in restricted areas.

The list includes several incidents involving drones that were flying close to the White House or the Capitol in Washington.

Police detained an individual flying a drone near the Capitol building on Aug. 29. On Aug. 19, police arrested another person who had been flying a drone in Freedom Plaza, just blocks from the White House. That person was arrested while climbing a tree to recover the drone, according to the F.A.A. report.

On July 7, police questioned a person who was flying a small, quad drone near the Lincoln Memorial. And on July 3, police detained a person who was flying a drone at President’s Park, just south of the White House fence.

The F.A.A. description for the July 3 incident said that a Secret Service patrol reported someone operating a “quad-copter w/camera within P-56A” at an altitude of about 100 feet. The description said the individual was detained and the drone was confiscated by the Secret Service.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Monday that the incident at the White House proved that the F.A.A. should more heavily regulate the use of drones.

“Drones are an important new technology that will boost businesses, aid in storm preparedness and recovery, assist agricultural development and more,” Mr. Schumer said. “But rules to protect the safety and privacy of the American people must keep pace, and I am calling on the FAA and OMB to get these long-delayed regulations on the books.”

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