RUSKIN, Fla. (AP) — Many questions surround the political stunt of a postal worker charged Thursday with violating national airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft by landing his gyrocopter on Capitol Hill.
Q: Who is he?
A: Doug Hughes, 61, delivers the U.S. mail in a quiet suburb of Tampa, Florida, where he lives with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. He's also an amateur pilot and occasional blogger, expressing his frustration over the influence of money in politics.
Q: What was he flying?
A: Hughes described his 250-pound gyrocopter, which looks and sounds something like a lawnmower, as nothing more than "a flying bicycle" that could be shot down by a Boy Scout with a BB gun. He said he assembled it from a kit and put the U.S. Postal Service logo on its tail to help make a point about delivering a message to Capitol Hill.
Q: What was his message?
A: Hughes expressed hopes that his flight, which ended with his immediate arrest by Capitol Police, would persuade people to press for stronger campaign finance restrictions. He said he was carrying 535 letters on the subject, one for each member of "a sold-out Congress."
Q: What inspired him to take such risks?
A: A mix of family tragedy and public policy, it seems. Hughes wrote that he committed himself to lead a more meaningful life while grieving his son's suicide. He also expressed dismay that Americans don't pay more attention to people like Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard University professor whose online Rootstrikers campaign is struggling to inspire a mass movement to reform Washington.
Q: Police don't even let kids fly kites near the White House or Capitol. What Hughes did has prompted investigations by the U.S. Secret Service, the Homeland Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and other agencies. What was he thinking?
A: "No sane person would do what I'm doing," Hughes told The Tampa Bay Times before his flight. "I have carefully planned it so that nobody will get hurt, including me, especially me."
Q: But isn't it irresponsible to provoke a response by federal agencies focused on preventing terror attacks?
A: "I'm not suicidal," Hughes wrote. "Terrorists don't announce their flights before they take off. Terrorists don't broadcast their flight path," he told the Times, describing himself as a kind of showman-patriot, a mix of revolutionary hero Paul Revere and legendary circus owner P.T. Barnum.
Q: So the government knew he was coming?
A: Just who knew what when was under investigation Thursday, but Hughes had been discussing his plan in the broad strokes for years. Tipped to the scheme, the Secret Service said it interviewed Hughes as part of a "complete and thorough investigation" two years ago. Hughes laid out his plans on his website, and wrote that he even tried to warn the president. "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," he wrote.
Q: Still, government snipers were ready to shoot Hughes down if he came much closer to the House and Senate. Now he could face years in prison and the loss of his postal worker's job. He wrote that he didn't even tell his wife about his plans, even though all this must affect her as well. Was he prepared to pay these and other consequences?
A: Hughes answered this one on his website before taking off: "Civil Disobedience is not without risk, consequence and cost. Thoreau made that clear in his essay, and I accept the price, whatever it may be."
Q: So has he made a difference?
A: Too early to say. Campaign finance reform is a dead letter in the current Congress. But people trying to bring attention to the issue "owe him a great deal of gratitude," Lessig told The Associated Press on Thursday. "If you look at everything of importance in social movements, it always begins with people who behave in a way that at the time seems crazy, but over time their views seem obvious, and then no one can remember the time when they seemed crazy."
Q: What's next for Hughes?
A: Hughes was released on his own recognizance from federal court on Thursday and cleared to return to home in Florida, where he must check in weekly with authorities pending his prosecution.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush