Capitol gyrocopter stunt exposes security flaws: Senate report

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 05, 2015 5:05 PM

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The high-profile gyrocopter landing at the U.S. Capitol in April exposed security lapses that included communications and investigative breakdowns and a radar gap, a bipartisan Senate report said on Wednesday.

The stunt by Florida mailman Douglas Hughes showed the need for improved information-sharing and air security technology, the report from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said.

The report also recommended stricter penalties against airspace violations in the U.S. capital and the naming of a lead agency to investigate potential flight incursions.

"Law enforcement agencies need to do more to help ensure people such as Mr. Hughes are not able (to) slip through the cracks and carry out unlawful and unsafe plans, especially within or near our nation's capital," committee Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said in a statement.

Hughes was arrested on April 15 after piloting the small unauthorized aircraft from Pennsylvania and landing on the west lawn of the Capitol. He was carrying a letter for each of the 535 members of Congress calling for campaign finance reform.

Hughes' flight was among the most high-profile in a raft of recent security lapses in Washington. He has pleaded not guilty to six charges, including aircraft registration and airspace violations.

The Senate panel's 21-page report said that during a 2013 investigation of Hughes, Secret Service agents failed to carry out a follow-up interview with him even though he had misled agents about his ownership of a gyrocopter.

The Capitol Police also failed to complete its own investigation into Hughes, relying instead on incomplete information from the Secret Service, the report said.

Murky lines of responsibility over investigating possible future breaches of airspace over the U.S. Capitol, White House, National Mall and the vice president's residence led to breakdowns in communication between the Secret Service, U.S. Park Police and Capitol Police, it said.

The Secret Service failed to respond effectively to calls from a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times newspaper who asked whether Hughes had permission to land at the Capitol, according to the report.

Radar also was unable to pick up the low-flying, slow gyrocopter, which was indistinguishable from a flock of birds or weather pattern, it said.

A gyrocopter resembles a helicopter but has an unpowered rotor and separate propeller.

The report said that the processes of the Capitol Police, Secret Service and Park Police to alert the right units to a security breach worked properly.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Sandra Maler)