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  1. Florida Politics

Gyrocopter incident draws heat in congressional hearing (w/video)

The pilot, Doug Hughes of Ruskin, is facing federal charges.
The pilot, Doug Hughes of Ruskin, is facing federal charges.
Published Apr. 30, 2015

WASHINGTON — A Ruskin man's gyrocopter stunt may have failed to provoke much conversation on the role of money in politics, but it exposed serious holes in security around the nation's capital, drawing blistering recriminations from lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday.

Top aviation and law enforcement officials conceded they were unaware of the gyrocopter until right before it landed on the U.S. Capitol lawn two weeks ago.

"We will yank you up here time and time again until we get answers," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a hard-charging Republican from Utah who chairs the House Oversight Committee. "We need results because we had some yahoo in a gyrocopter land right over there."

The airspace around Washington is supposed to be the most secure anywhere, "yet a postal worker — hello, a postal worker from Florida — was able to fly his gyrocopter through 30 miles of restricted airspace," said a similarly aghast Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Of pilot Doug Hughes, whose truthfulness came into question during the hearing, Cummings said: "What if he had weapons? What if he were carrying a bomb?"

The April 15 breach of restricted airspace was possible, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration testified, because the gyrocopter was "indistinguishable" from other small, unidentified objects on radar, including weather systems, birds, balloons or kites.

Even after a postincident analysis of raw radar data, "the dot appeared only intermittently throughout the flight," FAA administrator Michael Huerta said, adding it looked more like a weather formation.

A system to detect smaller threats is being tested, said Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

"On the scale of 1 to 10, it's about a 50," Gortney said about the urgency of the problem.

Lawmakers spared no criticism, saying that billions in national security spending after 9/11 should have made technology possible and that communication gaps were indefensible.

"At this point, ignorance is no longer an excuse when it comes to drones and small aircraft," Chaffetz said.

He noted how news of Hughes' stunt had spread on social media and that Hughes "live streamed" the flight over the Internet.

"Is Twitter like a new thing for ya?" Chaffetz testily asked the witnesses, which included the Secret Service, Park Police and Capitol Police. "If it's not showing up on the radar, it was showing up in the media's radar," he went on. "You all have billions of dollars. Billions. And you don't see a dude in a gyrocopter?"

Officials said they learned some details from a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times but stressed they did not know the extent of the situation or that it was imminent. The Times knew about Hughes' flight plans and posted a story on tampabay.com as soon as Hughes took off.

Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said he was in his office that day and saw the commotion outside, including police with guns. "I said to the staff, 'I don't know what's going on but something's coming down.' "

A security alert was never transmitted across the Capitol, even as it was briefly shut down. "We never heard a thing," Mica said, waving a device that alerts are supposed to come through.

Officials on Wednesday acknowledged bad communication — alerts went to the Senate but not the House — and said steps were taken to prevent it from happening again.

Mica said no one knew what the gyrocopter was carrying — letters to Congress about campaign finance reform or 50 pounds of plastic explosives. He pointedly asked Joseph Clancy, director of the Secret Service, what that amount of explosives would do.

Clancy replied: "It would be devastating."

Officials have said they had weapons trained on Hughes but decided not to take action. When pressed, Kim Dine, chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, was shaky in his words before saying the guns were trained on the man "as he landed," leaving the impression it would have been too late.

Some details about the incident, such as placement of the weapons, are considered classified and the committee will hold a closed-door briefing soon.

As much as the authorities came under fire, so did Hughes, a 61-year-old postal carrier from Ruskin.

Clancy testified that Hughes first came to the attention of the Secret Service about a year and a half ago. When special agents interviewed Hughes on Oct. 5, 2013, Hughes "denied owning an aircraft or having plans to fly one to Washington. But subsequent, corroborative interviews revealed differently."

Hughes was interviewed again Oct. 8 but declined to speak without a lawyer present, Clancy testified. He said while information revealed "no evidence of intent to harm" protected people or sites, the Secret Service made information available to other law enforcement agencies.

"I want to be clear: At no time did the Secret Service receive actionable, advance notice or any information that this event was taking place," Clancy said.

Hughes previously told the Tampa Bay Times and reasserted Wednesday he was honest in his replies to the Secret Service. But Hughes said he was not completely forthcoming in volunteering details of his plans.

He said he did not want to make a "confession" to the agent who interviewed him, but he said he did reassure the agent that he posed no threat of violence.

"In that discussion I gave (a Secret Service agent) one and one, but I did not tell him it added up to two," Hughes said in an interview.

"I did tell him I owned a gyro. I did tell him I was politically active. I did not give him confirmation of the specific plan, which he did already have in writing in his hand" from having interviewed others. "They had all the details all the way down to the specific airport that I was flying from."

Hughes contended the hearing was an attempt by Congress and other Washington power brokers to divert attention from campaign finance reform by focusing on national security.

But there has been growing concern in Washington about security, from a couple who crashed a White House party several years ago to a small drone that crashed on the White House complex in January.

"I get the sense that we're behind the curve again," Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said. "I am worried about the president. . . . We've got to do better. Dear God, we've got to do better."

It was a U.S. Park Police officer who first observed the gyrocopter, flying about 100 feet off the ground near the Lincoln Memorial about 1:20 p.m. that Wednesday, and alerted others. Another officer followed the aircraft eastbound in his patrol vehicle to where it landed on the west grounds of the Capitol.

Hughes was arrested and has been charged with two federal crimes. He is under house arrest.

Chaffetz suggested force should have been used against an unknown threat — and to send a clear message to others.

"Every time we have an incursion and they are not taken down fast and hard, some other nut job is going to get an idea, and terrorists are going to get more ideas," he said. Glaring at the witnesses, he added:

"Figure it out. It's been a long time since 9/11. Figure it out."

Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report.