Drones over D.C. stir con­cern

Na­tion’s de­fenses aren’t keep­ing up with ris­ing threat, of­fi­cials say

The Dallas Morning News - - Texas Health Daily - Michael Laris,

Over a ca­reer that has taken him to Afghanistan and Iraq, Col. Pa­trick Dug­gan has seen the lethal power of drones. Now, as a base com­man­der in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, he is wor­ried that fre­quent il­le­gal flights buzzing over Wash­ing­ton could pose a threat.

In the mid­dle of a fed­eral no-fly zone for drones, in some of the most sen­si­tive and re­stricted airspace in the United States, tech­ni­cians work­ing with Dug­gan recorded nearly 100 drone sight­ings over two months last sum­mer. And that was just around two Army posts he over­sees.

Many of the op­er­a­tors were prob­a­bly obliv­i­ous to the flight ban or just ig­nor­ing it as they flew for fun, he said. But he’s not sure. “Are they bad guys? Well, we don’t know,” Dug­gan said. “It’s a tech­nol­ogy that can be used to at­tack us at home. Why? Be­cause we are not as pre­pared as we need to be.”

In an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the threat, Congress in Novem­ber voted to broadly ex­pand the De­fense De­part­ment’s anti-drone pow­ers within the U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed the mea­sure last month.

Mil­lions of ag­ile and easyto-fly quad­copters and other drones are sold in the United States each year. Yet many of the quan­daries that come with the de­vices have not been ad­dressed. Al­though any tool or tech­nol­ogy, from a ri­fle to a rental truck, can be mis­used, se­cu­rity ex­perts say drones have in­tro­duced broad new dan­gers and have out­paced ef­forts to reg­u­late them.

Whether con­trolled by re­mote or set to fly au­tonomously, drones can carry sur­veil­lance cam­eras, hack­ing de­vices or ex­plo­sives long dis­tances, eas­ily evad­ing ground de­fenses, ex­perts say. And, they add, the threat from what of­fi­cials call “un­manned air­craft sys­tems” (UAS) is not the­o­ret­i­cal.

An anal­y­sis pre­pared by mem­bers of a team at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida spe­cial­iz­ing in counter-drone op­er­a­tions re­ported in 2016 that “crit­i­cal as­sets within the con­ti­nen­tal United States have al­ready been ‘at­tacked’ by ne­far­i­ous UAS op­er­a­tors.”

Mem­bers de­clined to spec­ify the tar­gets or pro­vide de­tails, given se­cu­rity and other con­cerns.

“While no deaths have been at­trib­uted to th­ese UASs, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore th­ese sys­tems are di­rectly or in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for loss of life or in­ter­fer­ence with crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture in the home­land,” the anal­y­sis said.

In tes­ti­mony be­fore the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in March, a top mil­i­tary leader voiced con­cern about re­cent unau­tho­rized drone flights over Navy and Air Force in­stal­la­tions.

“Th­ese in­tru­sions rep­re­sent a grow­ing threat to the safety and se­cu­rity of nu­clear weapons and per­son­nel,” said John Hyten, com­man­der of the U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand.

In the al­most three years since a recre­ational drone user crashed his 2-foot-wide quad­copter on the White House grounds early one Jan­uary morn­ing — and called to “self-re­port” the in­ci­dent to the Se­cret Ser­vice six hours later — fed­eral author­i­ties have been try­ing to fig­ure out how best to pro­tect the cap­i­tal.

A few months af­ter that in­ci­dent, in Tokyo, a pro­tester was ar­rested for land­ing a drone car­ry­ing a harm­less amount of ra­dioac­tive ce­sium on the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice.

It’s tough to tease out the po­ten­tial at­tack­ers from the “knuck­le­heads,” and of­fi­cials say the U.S. gov­ern­ment has been ham­strung as it works to up­grade se­cu­rity.

Un­der the leg­is­la­tion Trump signed last month, the De­fense De­part­ment’s pow­ers were ex­panded sig­nif­i­cantly. There are six new ar­eas where it can track or take down drones, in­clud­ing work­ing to pro­tect the pres­i­dent, vice pres­i­dent “or other of­fi­cer im­me­di­ately next in or­der of suc­ces­sion.”

Air de­fenses, in­clud­ing in Wash­ing­ton, Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces ac­tiv­i­ties, and cer­tain com­bat sup­port, test­ing and ex­plo­sives fa­cil­i­ties also were in­cluded.

The mil­i­tary’s sense of ur­gency is due, in part, to its ex­pe­ri­ences us­ing drones to deadly ef­fect over­seas and fac­ing off-the-shelf drones on the bat­tle­field.

The De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity says that “without statu­tory re­lief we re­main con­strained in re­spond­ing” to the threat of drones and must rely on “con­ven­tional means.” Without le­gal changes, spokes­woman Anna Franko said, the agency is “lim­ited in its abil­ity to fully de­velop counter UAS tech­nolo­gies — fur­ther de­lay­ing our se­cu­rity re­sponse.”

To­bias Sch­warz/Agence France-Presse

Whether con­trolled by re­mote or set to fly au­tonomously, drones can carry sur­veil­lance cam­eras, hack­ing de­vices or ex­plo­sives long dis­tances, eas­ily evad­ing ground de­fenses, ex­perts say.

Michael Laris/The Wash­ing­ton Post

“Are they bad guys? Well, we don’t know,” Col. Pa­trick Dug­gan says of the scores of drones fly­ing over Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “We are not as pre­pared as we need to be.”

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