America’s most important base was breached by a guy wearing a weird mouse hat
It was shockingly easy.
An Air Force watchdog report found that a distracted guard, malfunctioning gate, and complacent airmen allowed an unauthorized civilian to access Joint Base Andrews in Maryland before going inside a C-40 aircraft in February.
The intrusion represented a serious security failure at Andrews, which is best known for transporting senior government and military leaders. The base is home to the President’s jet, Air Force One, several different kinds of transport aircraft, and F-16 fighter jets.
“We take any unauthorized intrusions at any of our facilities seriously, and this one even more so because of all the distinguished visitors and Air Force One” at Andrews, said Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Sami Said, whose office conducted the investigation into the incident.
The investigation found that a security forces airman at the base gate was distracted by personal issues and therefore did not carry out the proper procedures for checking out the civilian’s credentials, Said told reporters on Thursday.
“The airman acknowledged they had the right training but in this instance they were distracted by personal issues,” Said said. “So at the end of the day, it was human error at the gate.”
The intrusion took place at 7:16 a.m. on Feb. 4, according to the inspector general report. It was not clear from security camera footage if the civilian showed any form of identification prior to passing through the gate, the report said, and the gate guard did not use his biometric ID system or entry access list to otherwise identify the man.
“When questioned, [the airman] said he got complacent and did not follow the normal procedures,” the report said. “There is no evidence that indicates [the airman] knew and intentionally allowed [the civilian] on base.”
The report also found that fatigue was not a factor for the airman’s lapse, the report said. Over the next several hours, the civilian went to the base exchange food court and the passenger terminal for the 89th Airlift Wing, but there were several stretches of time where the investigation could not pin down the intruder’s exact whereabouts. The report said evidence suggests that the civilian “was simply wandering around the base and did not enter the base to meet anyone … [the civilian] said he came on base because he wanted to see airplanes.”
And see airplanes, he did. At about 12:10 p.m., the civilian got onto the flight line through a malfunctioning automatic gate that was partially open, the report said. Once on the flight line, the civilian wandered unchallenged onto an open C-40, a military version of the Boeing 737-700 business jet that is often used to fly combatant commanders and members of the Cabinet and Congress. The aircraft was open because of aircrew training at the time, the report said.
“[A]ircrew members were focused on training and did not recognize that [the civilian] was not wearing a restricted area badge and did not challenge him or notify anyone regarding his presence on the aircraft,” the report said.
Part of the reason the civilian got so far onto the base was that his clothes looked similar to those worn by civilian contractors. He was wearing “dark pants, a dark jacket, black high top sneakers, and carrying a brown backpack,” the report said. “According to 89 Airlift Wing leadership, civilian maintenance personnel … characteristically wear dark blue pants and tops with black boots …. even military aircrew often fly in civilian clothes.”
But the one thing that set the intruder apart was his hat. According to the report, it was bright red or pink, partially covered his ears, and “had distinctive balls on top that looked a little like mouse ears.” Another airman on the flight line noticed this strange hat and reported it to security. The civilian was arrested shortly afterward and turned over to local police. Though his statements were disjointed, there was no indication he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the report said.
“We have zero reason to believe this individual meant to harm anybody,” said Said. “His response was ‘I just wanted to see airplanes.’”
The general said “command action” had been taken against the airman at the gate who let the civilian in, but he could not specify what exact disciplinary actions were entailed. Since the incident, Joint Base Andrews has requested more money to spend on buying new camera and detection equipment to hedge against human failure, the general said. He explained that security on the base was also re-emphasizing the basic steps of gate control to security forces airmen.
“I’m comfortable and confident that Joint Base Andrews gets it … they’re going the extra mile to make sure they cover down and prevent something like this from happening again,” Said told reporters.
However, the report notes that the intrusion revealed a blind spot in security forces responsibility. While security forces are responsible for monitoring the entire flight line, the intrusion occurred while the C-40 was parked at an area that was out of sight for the security forces. That meant they could not provide “intrusion detection capability” for the entire flight line, the report said, though it was also partially the aircrew’s fault for not checking the intruder for a security badge.
This is the first incident Said was aware of where an intruder managed to penetrate three separate levels of security: getting onto the base, then onto the flight line, then into an aircraft. “I’d be shocked if that’s happened before,” he said.
The C-40 was in a relatively low-security area, designated protection level three, the report explained. The security measures for a protection level one area, such as the one surrounding Air Force One, are much more robust, Said told reporters.
“This individual got nowhere close to that area [around Air Force One], the layers of security are orders of magnitude [greater],” he said. “We didn’t find anything that would lead us to believe he could have gotten close to that.”
Still, the breach prompted a worldwide review of Air Force installation security. That review was made all the more necessary when news broke of a British man breaching the gate at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, England, on Jan. 23 just a few weeks before the Andrews intrusion.
“We’re doing a broader review of installation security to make sure we’re not missing anything,” Said told reporters on Tuesday. “It’ll take a few months … it’s not really an investigation, more a prudent review. That’s ongoing.”
Featured image – Multiple UH-1N Iroquois “Huey” aircraft from the 1st Helicopter Squadron sit on the flightline at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Dec. 17, 2019. The 1st HS is the Air Force’s largest operational helicopter squadron and provides contingency response in the National Capital Region. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Spencer Slocum)