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Falkenrath: 'This is all about striking a balance'

'We're talking about a matter of seconds'


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CNN security analyst Richard Falkenrath
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two men who flew a single-engine plane into restricted airspace around Washington were released without charges Wednesday after the Secret Service ruled their intrusion an accident.

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs discussed the incident with CNN security analyst Richard Falkenrath, a former deputy homeland security adviser.

DOBBS: This aircraft entered and stayed for a number of minutes in restricted airspace over the nation's capital. How could that be tolerated?

FALKENRATH: This is the most tightly guarded airspace in the nation. And this is the deepest penetration into that airspace that we've had since [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks]. And it was not an acceptable outcome.

The air defense system that is designed to protect Washington basically worked as designed. The plane was intercepted, and it was taken out to another airfield to land. But this was a very bad mistake on the part of that pilot.

DOBBS: This looks like a very small margin of error, talking about what is 15.7 miles, a circle around the nation's capital. In your judgment, should that be expanded?

FALKENRATH: I don't. I think it should probably not be expanded. ... This sort of thing happens a fair bit.

We've probably had about a dozen of these sorts of situations since 9/11. This one is the worst, but there have been prior incidents. And you need to strike a balance.

The main beneficiaries of this [balance] are, of course, the security officials in Washington, who need to prevent an attack like 9/11. But it also has a pretty serious impact on the aviation community, who need to get through this area to go north and south.

This is all about striking a balance. And a lot of attention has gone into where we should draw these lines. We tried to do it the best we could.

DOBBS: I understand the accommodation issues, but the fact of the matter is that moving that restricted airspace out by even 15 miles could -- certainly that's very little in the way of inconvenience to aircraft. And it could be the margin of difference should this have been not a small, lightweight aircraft, but rather a jet or a more powerful propeller-driven aircraft armed with, say, a missile or an explosive that could have been dropped.

FALKENRATH: Well, it is a risk. And the general aviation community would probably have a difference of opinion with you on this.

There are a couple aspects of the system which we didn't see today that you should know about. There are missiles on the ground in Washington that could shoot down a plane if necessary. The interceptors for the F-16s are also armed with missiles that can shoot it down.

Further, the Department of Defense has just deployed ground-based lasers which will illuminate any aircraft that comes too close into the no-fly zone so that they can see what's going on. It's a pretty complex system with some safeguards -- but not foolproof, as you know.

DOBBS: The idea that people were told effectively, "Run," by the Capitol Hill police -- they are credited with handling this extremely well. But, in your judgment, again, were they given sufficient time to carry out an orderly evacuation?

FALKENRATH: Well, probably not. Time is very tight. And the evacuation was not entirely orderly.

We're talking about a matter of seconds here, really. When you are three miles out from downtown Washington and flying at 150 miles an hour, you have maybe 60 seconds before impact. So the timelines are extremely tight.


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