Members still unnerved by Capitol Police airspace snafu

Ryan, Newhouse want more information on what led to a lack of communication during a possible aircraft threat

Tim Ryan wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone
Chairman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, conducts the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee hearing on the Capitol Police budget request in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 11, 2020 at 12:48pm

Members of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee want more information from the Capitol Police over why the force failed to alert staff in November about a possible aircraft in a restricted zone near the Capitol complex.

At a budget hearing Tuesday, Chairman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican, both asked Capitol Police Chief Steven A. Sund what happened during the airspace incident.

Many high-ranking staffers on Capitol Hill were bemused and outraged by the lack of communication from the force in the face of a possible threat.

“What kind of plane was it?” Ryan asked.

“It was no plane,” Sund said. “It was nothing,” he later added, referring to the occurrence as a “radar anomaly.”

Newhouse and Ryan both said they wanted to learn more about the way in which the Capitol Police addressed the situation, and Sund said he would be open to that in a nonpublic setting.

Ryan said the panel plans to hold another meeting with the department to gather more information on what Sund described as a deviation from normal operations.

“I know you’re the new chief, but that seems mind-boggling to me that we wouldn’t have something in place,” Ryan told Sund, who became chief in June. “That we wouldn’t be alerted here.”

Sund described Nov. 26, the date of the incident, as one he would “remember for a long time.”

He recalled being in the command center that day and explained that airspace surveillance is a significant component of the force’s security portfolio. The Capitol Police work with federal partners on gathering information pertinent to the surrounding airspace, Sund said.

“That morning we were getting information on a possible aircraft that was not far from the Capitol,” Sund said. “It was concerning in its behavior.”

There is a tiered air security progression the Capitol Police follows, which goes from yellow to orange to red. Red calls for a building evacuation, while orange represents a heightened level of security that involves closing entrances. An assessment of orange, which applied to the November airspace incident, is usually meant to last for a very short period of time, not more than one minute, according to Sund.

But Sund said the Capitol Police couldn’t get certitude on what the object was, and that resulted in the orange level lasting over 20 minutes.

“It turned out to be a radar anomaly that we just couldn’t get a clear answer on,” he said.

In that time frame, roadways were being closed as were doors, leaving staffers out of the loop.

“During that time, we’re at fault. We want to keep our congressional community aware of what’s going on,” Sund said. “We should have notified people.”

In response to this lapse, Sund said the department now has automatic notifications and messaging for a level orange incident.

Ryan noted in his testimony that the Capitol Police — funded at $464 million — accounts for almost 10 percent of the entire Legislative Branch budget. For fiscal 2021, the department is requesting $520 million, 12 percent or $56 million over the 2020 level.