Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief. Following a chaotic episode in Washington D.C. on Wednesday night, in this installment we’ll be looking at 1) what prompted Capitol Police to warn lawmakers about an unidentified aircraft over Washington, prompting evacuations, 2) how Congress responded to the unnecessary concern the incident caused, and 3) what this means for the agency that oversees civil aviation over the United States.
Quote of the Week
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”
With all that out of the way, it’s time to shift our attention to the concerning incident that occurred in Washington Wednesday night, and what the response has been as far as what many view as a striking oversight by aviation officials in the Nation’s Capitol.
Alarm Bells in the Nation’s Capital
On Wednesday night, tensions were high in Washington D.C. as police warned that an unidentified aircraft circling the U.S. Capitol, later touted as “a probable threat,” caused a temporary shutdown and evacuations of lawmakers.
At approximately 6:30 PM, U.S. Capitol Police warned congressional staffers that an aircraft had been observed circling Washington, resulting in temporary chaos as employees fled federal buildings.
“Evacuate now: Aircraft intrusion” had been the alert received by many in Congress, who were reportedly warned about an “aircraft that poses a probable threat to the Capitol complex” that Capitol Police said they were tracking.
However, it was soon revealed that the “probable threat” had merely been a plane delivering members of the U.S. Army Golden Nights to a pregame demonstration at Nationals Park Wednesday evening.
Needless to say, the incident led to sharp criticism from lawmakers and raised several serious considerations about the level of communication and coordination between the military, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the U.S. Capitol Police.
Congress Speaks Up
Once it was revealed that the aircraft was involved with the Nationals Park pregame demonstration, members of Congress were quick to respond to the alarming situation.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi responded by criticizing the FAA and its “apparent failure to notify U.S. Capitol Police of pre-planned activities” on Wednesday night.
“Today, and every day, our Congressional community is extraordinarily grateful for the heroism of our United States Capitol Police officers,” Pelosi said, praising the daily work of police forces in attempting to mitigate threats in Washington. “In ordering the evacuation of the Capitol and vigilantly monitoring for a potential aircraft threat, our officers ensured the safety of all who work in these hallowed halls — and we thank them for their exemplary service.”
“The Federal Aviation Administration’s apparent failure to notify Capitol Police of the pre-planned flyover Nationals Stadium is outrageous and inexcusable,” Pelosi said. “The unnecessary panic caused by this apparent negligence was particularly harmful for Members, staff and institutional workers,” Pelosi’s statement added, referencing a now-infamous January 6, 2021 incident involving a mob attack at the U.S. Capitol building following a rally in support of then-President Donald Trump.
“Congress looks forward to reviewing the results of a thorough after-action review that determines what precisely went wrong today,” Pelosi said, “and who at the Federal Aviation Administration will be held accountable for this outrageous and frightening mistake.”
The FAA Responds
Following Pelosi’s statement criticizing the FAA and its failure to alert Capitol Police about the aircraft’s flyover in Washington on Wednesday, the agency tasked with monitoring civil aviation over U.S. airspace issued its own response.
“The FAA takes its role in protecting the national airspace seriously,” the statement read, “and will conduct a thorough and expeditious review of the events this evening and share updates.”
“We know our actions affect others, especially in our nation’s capital region, and we must communicate early and often with our law enforcement partners,” the statement read, in apparent acknowledgement of the agency’s failure to properly coordinate with Capitol Police in advance of Wednesday night’s incident.
“We are reviewing all aspects of the event to ensure all procedures were followed appropriately to coordinate both the flight and the parachute demonstration,” said U.S. Army Recruiting Command spokesperson Kelli LeGaspi.
Part of the reason for the concern Wednesday night’s incident has aroused has to do with how the military is equipped to respond to any actual threats that enter the Capitol airspace. Along with several sites where surface-to-air missile systems wait poised for launch, U.S. military aircrews remain on 24-hour alert.
This also raises the interesting question of whether U.S. Army and other military branches had been aware of the Nationals Stadium event, since none of these military systems were alerted or scrambled, despite what Capitol Police briefly characterized as a “probable threat.”
Bottom line, in a post-911 America, such issues cannot be taken lightly, nor can they be overlooked. Going forward, the FAA must ensure that proper communication and coordination related to all aircraft operations in U.S. airspace—especially those over sensitive areas like Washington D.C.—is maintained at all times.
Late Monday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Russia had launched its long-anticipated offensive along Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. “It can now be stated that Russian troops have begun the battle for Donbas, for which they have been preparing for a long time.”
As the Pentagon’s Director for Defense Intelligence and a senior executive in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security OUSD(I&S), Garry Reid was in charge of all counterintelligence, security, and law enforcement operations within the Department of Defense.