A man believed to be a recreational drone operator accidentally crashed a small device onto the White House grounds early Monday, investigators said, briefly triggering a lockdown and reinforcing concerns about security at the executive mansion.
The man later called the Secret Service and explained that he never intended for his two-foot-wide “quadcopter” to breach White House security, the investigators said. They said the agency was working to corroborate his account.
The Secret Service said the drone operator contacted the agency voluntarily at 9:30 a.m. Monday, more than six hours after the device crashed, and was being cooperative. It did not immediately identify the person.
According to a U.S. official cited by the Associated Press, the man is a D.C. resident, and investigators currently do not have any reason to doubt his story.
The crash caused a lockdown at the compound until the device was recovered and examined, the Secret Service said.
The service later said it questioned a person who called to “self-report” the incident and that “initial indications” pointed to a “recreational use” of the drone.
The latest security breach at the executive mansion came as President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were visiting India, but their two daughters remained behind in Washington.
The Secret Service statement identified the object as a “quad copter,” a commercially available drone with four propellers.
“There was an immediate alert and lockdown of the complex until the device was examined and cleared,” the statement said. “An investigation is underway to determine the origin of this commercially available device, motive, and to identify suspects.”
In its subsequent update, on the incident, the Secret Service said: “An individual called the Secret Service this morning at approximately 9:30 a.m. to self-report that they had been in control of the quad copter device that crashed on the White House grounds early this morning. 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 added: “This investigation continues as the Secret Service conducts corroborative interviews, forensic examinations and reviews all other investigative leads.”
Earlier, White House press secretary Josh Earnest, speaking to reporters in New Delhi, said the device did not pose a threat to the building or the first family.
The Service said the drone was spotted about 3:08 a.m. flying at a low altitude onto the White House grounds, crashing on the southeastern side.
It was not immediately clear whether the Obama children, Malia and Sasha, were at the White House when the device was discovered before dawn. They were under the care of their grandmother, who also lives at the White House.
“There is a device that has been recovered by the Secret Service at the White House,” Earnest said when asked if a drone was found. “The early indications are that it does not pose any sort of ongoing threat to anybody at the White House.”
Around 5 a.m., authorities could be seen searching the White House grounds with flashlights. Investigators continued the search after sunrise as a light snow fell. The lockdown was later lifted.
The incident follows a series of lapses in security at the White House and a shake-up in the leadership at the Secret Service.
In September, a knife-wielding man scaled the fence at the White House and ran through much of the mansion’s main floor. An armed private security contractor in Atlanta also boarded an elevator with Obama that same month.
In a series of reports, The Washington Post disclosed how the Secret Service failed to respond well after a gunman shot at the White House in 2011. That incident raised major concerns among lawmakers.
Small drones previously have violated the highly restricted airspace near the White House and the Capitol. But this was believed to be the first time that a drone has penetrated the White House perimeter.
Most commercially manufactured quadcopters are small devices that weigh two to five pounds, measure one to three feet in length and sell for a few hundred dollars, AP reported.
“Something of that size is going to be very limited in terms of what it can carry, probably down to a few ounces in payload,” Paul McDuffee, vice president at drone-maker Insitu, said of the device that crashed, according to AP.
About 7:30 pm on July 3, a Secret Service patrol detained an individual who was flying a small quadcopter drone in President’s Park, about one block from the White House grounds, said an incident report filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The camera-equipped drone was flying about 100 feet in the air near the statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, close to the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street NW. The FAA report noted that the drone was confiscated by the Secret Service but did not identify the pilot or elaborate on whether charges were filed.
A three-mile area around the White House, called the P56 zone, is a permanent no-fly zone. All pilots are warned to steer clear though standard “notices to airmen,” and they are given emergency alerts if they come close to crossing the line.
Drones have violated that airspace on at least three other occasions in the past six months.
On Aug. 29, the U.S. Capitol Police reported detaining an individual for flying a small drone on the Capitol grounds, according to an FAA incident report that gave no further details.
Ten days earlier, on Aug. 19, District police arrested an unidentified man after they found him stuck in a tree in Freedom Plaza, just east of the White House at the intersection of 14th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue. According to an FAA report, the man had climbed up the tree to fetch a small drone that he had been flying when it got caught in the branches.
And on July 7, another person was questioned by the U.S. Park Police for flying a small quadcopter drone in the vicinity of the Lincoln Memorial, according to an FAA incident report that gave no other details.
A boom in sales of small consumer drones in recent years has triggered hundreds of other incidents around the country in which the remotely controlled aircraft have buzzed dangerously close to passenger planes, rescue helicopters and sports stadiums, according to FAA data.
Quadcopters also have been linked to smuggling attempts, including a failed bid last year to transport drugs into a Dublin prison. Last week, a quadcopter carrying 6.6 pounds of methamphetamine from suspected Mexican traffickers crashed into a supermarket parking lot in San Ysidro, Calif.
While the White House grounds are an especially sensitive area, drone operators have gotten into trouble elsewhere in the Washington region.
On Oct. 6, for example, Prince George’s County police arrested at least two people for flying a white drone over FedEx Field about one hour before the Washington Redskins kicked off against the Seattle Seahawks during a nationally televised Monday Night Football matchup, according to an FAA incident report. The drone, which was equipped with red and blue lights, was spotted flying about 150 feet over the stadium, according to the report, which did not identify the suspects or give further details.
A recent incident involving a drone crashing in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a campaign event reinforced the possible dangers posed.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been investigating the Service’s recent security lapses and said Monday in a phone interview that the incident is “deeply concerning”.
“These kinds of threats are not going away. But I do believe they are on top of it,” he said of the Service.
He stressed that the problems with drones is they are easily accessible.
“Anybody can go down to RadioShack and buy one of these. It could be a guy down by the river in his van or it could be a nefarious terrorist,” Chaffetz said. “You just don’t know.”
Zezima reported from New Delhi. Dana Hedgpeth, Brian Murphy and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.