Prosecutors will not charge White House drone operator, FAA may fine

Published 12:58 pm Thursday, March 19, 2015

WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors said Wednesday they will not charge the recreational drone operator whose device crashed onto the White House lawn Jan. 26, but the Washington resident and intelligence community worker may face a fine from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The decision, announced by the office of U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen, came after the security breach of the executive mansion grounds focused national attention on potential threats posed by the growing use of small, unmanned aircraft.

U.S. Secret Service agents presented the results of their investigation of the case, but in a statement, prosecutors said a forensic analysis determined that the drone’s operator was not in control of it when it crashed.

“The decision was made following an investigation by the United States Secret Service and a review of applicable law,” the U.S. attorney’s office said. “The Federal Aviation Administration has begun a review of the incident for possible administrative action.”

The FAA bans flights by unauthorized drones within a 30-mile circle around Washington, a security measure implemented after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The aviation agency’s regulations do not make exceptions for a pilot’s lack of intent, officials said, and the FAA could propose a civil penalty of up to $1,100.

Elsewhere in the United States, amateur pilots must keep aircraft at least five miles away from airports and below 400 feet.

Shawn Usman, 31, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency employee who operated the aircraft, was unavailable for comment but is fully cooperating with authorities and wished to express his sincere apologies to all involved, especially the Obamas and security officials, his attorney said.

In a statement, James Garland, a partner at Covington & Burling, added, “Mr. Usman is pleased and grateful that the U.S. Attorney’s Office has decided not to pursue charges in this matter. This entire incident, while unfortunate and understandably alarming, was totally inadvertent and completely unintentional.”

In a statement, the NGA said Usman faced no adverse action as a result of the off-duty incident, and remains employed as a research and development scientist who is not involved in any work related to drones.

Authorities had said Usman contacted the Secret Service about six hours after a two-foot-wide DJI Phantom “quadcopter” landed on White House grounds early Jan. 26, triggering a lockdown.

Prosecutors said the investigation determined that Usman borrowed the quadcopter from a friend. Usman told investigators he flew it around his northwest Washington apartment and outside his window a few blocks from the White House the night of Jan. 25. About 3 a.m. Jan. 26, Usman said, he lost control of the drone and saw it climb to about 100 feet over 10th Street NW.

“The man knew that the drone’s battery was nearing the end of its charge and expected that it would crash somewhere over the Mall. He went to sleep not knowing where the drone had gone,” prosecutors said. “After he awoke to news reports of the crash on the White House grounds, he self-reported the incident to the Secret Service.”

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were visiting India at the time, and the Secret Service said the device did not pose a threat to the building or the first family.

The incident follows a series of security lapses at the White House that triggered a shake-up of the Secret Service leadership.

In September, a man with a knife in his pocket scaled the White House fence and ran through much of the mansion’s main floor. An armed private security contractor in Atlanta boarded an elevator with the president without authorization that same month, and new criticism surfaced over the Secret Service’s response to gunshots fired at the White House in 2011.

Meanwhile, small drones have violated a three-mile, permanent no-fly area around the White House, called the P56 zone, four times since July, according to FAA reports.