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Farewell Ceremony Held for Resigning Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel


JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is still on the job until his successor -- Ash Carter -- is confirmed by the Senate, but on Wednesday the military held a farewell ceremony for the resigning secretary.

The event, held at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, including a marching honor guard and the Marine Band. President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey all attended and spoke about Hagel's commitment to service. Obama and Biden also shared stories of their time spent with Hagel in the Senate.

The president thanked Hagel for his "guiding hand" and said that because of him "this institution is better positioned for the future."

"We have a lot of obligations as a country," Vice President Biden said during his remarks. "We only have one truly sacred obligation...to equip those who we sent to war and care for them and their families while and when they come home from war."

"No one has been more committed to fulfilling that obligation than you," Biden told the secretary of defense.

Hagel also gave what was billed as a farewell address. Among the points Hagel made in the speech was the need to hold those who serve in the U.S. military to high standards, the ability of the U.S. to self-correct from mistakes and the acknowledgement that the U.S. does make mistakes. Hagel also called for the wise use of America's power, praising the "courage and dignity of America's servicemen and women all over the world."

"With all the world's travails and problems," Hagel said, "it is still a hopeful world. This, I believe."

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Civilian Army Contractor Charged in Bribery Case


VladimirCetinski/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A U.S. Army civilian contractor was charged on Wednesday with soliciting bribes from executives bidding on a contract that he managed out of the Pentagon.

James Glenn Warner, 44, allegedly made arrangements to meet with two executives of a Virginia-based company which held a five-year contract with the U.S. Army worth up to $120 million. During the meeting, the FBI claims that Warner had the two executives from the company communicate by typing into his cell phone, then later passed a menu to the executives containing a piece of paper with outlines soliciting a bribe and extortion.

Specifically, Warner allegedly suggested that if the company paid $500,000 it would secure a contract renewal with the Army, even suggesting that damaging information about the company would be destroyed.

The FBI says that the executives declined the offer, reported the conduct and cooperated with law enforcement agents. At the direction of law enforcement, a company executive met with Warner four subsequent times, paying him a total of $50,000 cash bribes.

If convicted, Warner faces up to 15 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1.5 million.

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Why Mitt Romney May Have A Mansion Problem (Again)


ABC/Donna Svennevik(WASHINGTON) -- Mitt Romney’s lavish homes, especially his one in La Jolla, California, were steady targets of Democratic criticism during the 2012 presidential campaign.

And as Romney now appears to be edging towards a third presidential bid, he’s reportedly considering selling the beachfront mansion, which he’s currently in the process of renovating.

An aide would not comment on Romney’s real estate plans, but did send a statement dinging potential Democratic candidate and, if she runs, likely front-runner Hillary Clinton: "It's going to be hard for Hillary Clinton to make Mitt Romney's wealth a fruitful line of attack, with her multi-million-dollar mansions in Georgetown and Chappaqua and her jet-setting lifestyle of the rich and famous."

On a recent weekend, ABC News caught Romney and his wife Ann inspecting the house’s construction site, walking through the framework of the second floor before descending a ladder to get down to the first.

Romney had been in town giving a speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, held on nearby Coronado Island.

The 2012 Romney camp also had to answer Democratic attacks on the trappings of the former Massachusetts governor’s personal fortune, which they painted as an indication that he couldn’t relate to average Americans -- especially one particular element of the La Jolla renovation, a “car elevator” that would be used to store multiple vehicles in tight spaces.

“While Governor Romney has been quite specific about putting the finishing touches on his car elevator in La Jolla, he has hid many of his domestic and foreign policy plans under lock and key,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told reporters at the time.

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Democrats Propose Legislation to Consolidate Food Safety into Single Agency


Credit: Architect of the Capitol(WASHINGTON) -- A pair of Democrats in Congress proposed legislation on Wednesday that would consolidate 15 different agencies currently in charge of food safety oversight into one independent food safety agency.

"The fragmented nature of our food safety system has left us more vulnerable to the risk of foodborne illness," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement. The proposed legislation "would transfer and consolidate food safety authorities for inspections, enforcement, labeling and research into a single food safety agency." The two Democrats also note that a single food safety agency could "allow us to prioritize system-wide food safety goals and targets."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., added that the fact that the food safety system is "hopelessly fragmented and outdated" means that "lives are unnecessarily put at risk."

Co-sponsors for the bill include Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The proposal would additionally provide authority to require the recall of unsafe food, require risk assessments and preventive control plans to minimize adulteration of food products, strengthen contaminant performance standards, improve the inspection of foreign food and require full traceability to identify the sources of outbreaks.

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White House Declines Comment on Michelle Obama's Decision Not to Wear Headscarf in Saudi Arabia


SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The White House on Wednesday declined to say whether first lady Michelle Obama's decision not to wear a headscarf while in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday was intended to be a political statement.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters that "the attire the first lady wore on this trip was consistent with what first ladies in the past have worn," naming Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as examples.

Schultz responded to a question regarding a tweet from Sen. Ted Cruz which congratulated the first lady for "standing up for women," saying only that Michelle Obama "felt like she was warmly welcomed by the King" and "very much enjoyed her visit to both India and Saudi Arabia."

 

Kudos to @FLOTUS for standing up for women & refusing to wear Sharia-mandated head-scarf in Saudi Arabia. Nicely done http://t.co/TlSw4Qc9KQ

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) January 28, 2015

 

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Air Force Says Boeing 747-8 Will Be Next Air Force One


Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The Air Force has selected the Boeing 747-8 as the next Air Force One.

Presidents have been flying aboard Boeing 747s since 1989, and the trend will continue with the latest selection. "The presidential aircraft is one of the most visible symbols of the United States of America and the office of the president of the United States," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. She noted that the Boeing 747-8 "is the only aircraft manufactured in the United States [that], when fully missionized meets the necessary capabilities established to execute the presidential support mission, while reflecting the office of the president of the United States of America consistent with the national public interest."

Previously completed analyses determined that the only two aircraft that met the needs of Air Force One's mission -- four-engine, wide-bodied aircraft -- were the 747-8 and the A380 manufactured by Airbus in France.

"The current fleet of VC-25 presidential aircraft has performed exceptionally well," James said. "Yet, it is time to upgrade." She cited obsolete parts, diminishing sources for manufacturing and increased maintenance need as reasons to field a new aircraft.

The decision, Col. Amy McCain, the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program manager, said, "is not a contract award to procure 747-8 aircraft," noting that both the "overall acquisition strategy" and "risk-reduction activities" must be completed to define the planes' capabilities and cost.

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Romney Will Portray Hillary Clinton as 'Clueless' on Jobs, Foreign Policy


Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) --  Mitt Romney spoke about poverty in a speech in the nation’s poorest state Wednesday evening -- while directly taking aim at Hillary Clinton, saying she “cluelessly pressed a reset button for Russia.”

Romney addressed students at Mississippi State University, and in excerpts provided to ABC News before the speech by an aide, Romney outlined an early line of attack he may employ if he again runs for president.

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cluelessly pressed a reset button for Russia, which smiled and then invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation,” Romney said. “The Middle East and much of North Africa is in chaos. China grows more assertive and builds a navy that will be larger than ours in five years. We shrink our nuclear capabilities as Russia upgrades theirs.”

Romney also described three issues the nation needs to improve, likely topics he would build his campaign on, including the “need to help make the world a safer place,” the “need to restore opportunity, particularly for the middle class" and the “need to lift people out of poverty.”

In what looks like an early attack against Clinton, trying to align her with President Obama, Romney asked, “How can Secretary Clinton provide opportunity for all if she doesn't know where jobs come from in the first place?”

Romney then jabbed the president, asking how he expects to “make America the best place on earth for businesses, as he promised in his State of the Union address” if there are high business taxes, regulations that “favor the biggest banks and crush the small ones,” as well as a “complex and burdensome health care plan,” an attack he tried to employ in his last campaign unsuccessfully.

The president’s health care plan was repeatedly compared to Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, something he denied, but an issue that will likely come up again by GOP opponents in a future campaign.

Romney added the country needs a president who will “do what it takes to bring more good paying jobs to the placement offices of our college campuses.”

He also called the president’s foreign policy “timid” because he walked “away from his red line in Syria, of paring back our military budget, and of insulting friends like Israel and Poland? Strong American leadership is desperately needed for the world, and for America.”

If Romney does run again in 2016, he will of course have a competitive GOP primary first before being able to take on Hillary Clinton if she is the nominee, or any Democrat. In his first run for the White House in 2008 he also went after Clinton during the GOP primary. That year he lost the primary to Sen. John McCain.

Romney’s 2012 campaign did not focus on poverty, although his running mate Paul Ryan did address the issue at times during his part of campaign, but it’s clear this will be a central issue to Romney if he does move forward.

In the speech, he said during that last campaign he “met folks…almost every week during my campaign” who had “fallen into poverty as result of an unfortunate event, like losing a job.”

“These folks were almost uniformly optimistic about finding their way back into the middle class,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “But I also met folks who had been in poverty from generation to generation. These we have to help escape the tragedy and the trap of chronic generational poverty.”

Romney said “for fifty years and with trillions of dollars,” Washington has tried to fight the “war on poverty with failed liberal policies,” but it hasn’t worked.

“It's finally time to apply conservative policies that improve America's education system, promote family formation and create good-paying jobs,” he added.

In the 2012 campaign, Romney was ridiculed and called unrelatable for his “47 percent” comments or when he said following his win in the Florida primary that he is “not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” Comments that will definitely come up or find their way into television ads if he were to run again.

In national exit polls after the 2012 loss, President Obama won 81 percent to Romney’s 18 percent of voters who said the candidate quality that was most important to them was he “cares about people like me.”

With Romney’s early pivot to focus on poverty, he is likely trying to avoid those issues that derailed him last time. Of course, it won’t be that easy. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported extensively about Romney’s four luxurious homes including an 11,000 square foot one in La Jolla, California he may be trying to sell, possibly before another presidential bid. The home has a spa and a car elevator, a luxury that Democrats jumped on during the last campaign and will likely once more if he runs again.

Romney aides believe Clinton’s own wealth will make his no longer a political liability, with an aide telling ABC News in the same statement given to the Globe: "It's going to be hard for Hillary Clinton to make Mitt Romney's wealth a fruitful line of attack, with her multi-million dollar mansions in Georgetown and Chappaqua and her jet-setting lifestyle of the rich and famous.”

A spokesman for Clinton declined to comment.

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Senator to AG Nominee Loretta Lynch: 'You're Not Eric Holder, Are You?'


Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- "You're not Eric Holder, are you?"

That question, posed to Loretta Lynch nearly two hours into her confirmation hearing to be the next attorney general, seemed to encapsulate what every Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee was likely thinking.

"No, I'm not," Lynch assured the man who asked the question, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with a wry smile. "I will be myself. I will be Loretta Lynch [if confirmed.]"

Cornyn said Holder's record has weighed "heavily" on some of his fellow senators' minds, insisting Holder was "openly contentious" toward Republican lawmakers, "stonewalled legitimate" oversight investigations, and "harassed" states that passed laws requiring certain forms of identification for voters to cast ballots in elections.

At the opening of the hearing, committee chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hoped Lynch “has what it takes” to “fix” President Obama’s Justice Department.

Still, by lunchtime much of the hearing remained tame -- with Lynch and senators from both sides of the aisle calmly trading questions and answers on issues that have been debated in such hearings for years.

However, Republicans also took sharp aim at the Obama administration’s plan to bring sweeping changes to the U.S. immigration system, using executive action to offer temporary legal status to nearly five million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Many Republicans on the Senate committee derided the move as a deliberate violation of the U.S. Constitution and pressed Lynch over how she would handle the executive action.

Lynch rebuffed Republican suggestions that the executive action amounted to a refusal to enforce the law, saying it was instead an attempt to set priorities.

She echoed the Obama administration in suggesting the point of the executive action was to “prioritize” deportations of the “most dangerous” people, namely criminals, terrorists and other violent offenders. And she called it all a “reasonable way to marshal limited resources.”

She said she has not seen regulations laying out exactly how the Department of Homeland Security will enact the new action, but she said she has reviewed an opinion from the Department of Justice assessing the president’s legal authority to take such action.

She said that assessment seemed reasonable, noting the department did conclude in some instances that certain administration proposals were not allowed under the law.

Pressed by Sen. Jeff Sessions over whether undocumented immigrants have a right to citizenship, Lynch called citizenship a “right” for those born in the United States and “a privilege” for others. Sessions agreed.

But when asked by Sessions whether she, as attorney general, would take legal action against any employers who preferred to hire undocumented immigrants over U.S. citizens, Lynch called it an “important point” that should be reviewed.

On the immigration issue, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., strongly defended the Obama administration, saying it’s a “myth” that prioritizing law enforcement resources -- known as “prosecutorial discretion” -- amounts to a failure to enforce laws.

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and Congress “only allocates” enough resources for Homeland Security to deport 400,000 of them, so suggesting that the Obama administration is willfully skirting the law is “absurd,” Schumer said.

“Obviously, you have to make some choices here,” Schumer said. “This idea of going after higher-level dangerous crimes first is how law enforcement has gone on for hundreds of years, and should.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., took strong issue with Republicans’ criticism of Holder, saying he had no opportunity to defend himself at the hearing and insisting their claims “would not withstand” further scrutiny.

It’s “easy to...blame him” and history will show that Holder “actually brought the department back from a place where it had sadly been politicized” under the Bush administration, Whitehouse said.

Over and over, Lynch vowed to be an “independent and objective” attorney general, pointing to her long record as U.S. attorney.

And, she pledged, when she and lawmakers inevitably disagree on an issue, she will hear their concerns and “be open to discussion.”

She said it was important “to work with people who might disagree.”

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Makers of Drone that Crashed at White House to Enforce No-Fly Zone in DC


U.S. Secret Service(NEW YORK) -- DJI, the maker of the drone that crashed on the White House lawn earlier this week, announced on Wednesday that it will enforce a no-fly zone on downtown Washington, D.C for its products.

Once the drones are updated in the next few days, they will not be able to take off from or fly into the nation’s capital or a 15-mile radius around it, according to a news release from the company. GPS technology in the drones will be able to identify the no-fly zone, warn the operator and then stop at the no-fly zone’s border.

According to DJI spokesperson Michael Perry, if a drone enters the no-fly zone, the craft’s GPS receiver gets pinged by a satellite and it will automatically land. To maneuver the drone out of the restricted area, the pilot can move it forwards and backwards and side-to-side, but not have it gain any altitude.

DJI’s update is to comply with the Federal Aviation Administration’s restriction of unmanned flight around the D.C. area.

"With the unmanned aerial systems community growing on a daily basis, we feel it is important to provide pilots additional tools to help them fly safely and responsibly,” Perry said in a statement. “We will continue cooperating with regulators and lawmakers to ensure the skies stay safe and open for innovation."

DJI is an international company based in Shenzhen, China -- the city considered the Silicon Valley of China -- that specializes in making “easy-to-fly” camera drones.

The drone that landed on the grounds of the White House was not considered a threat, and President Obama was away from Washington at the time of the incident, but the situation once again raised questions about presidential security.

In a move that might land him on FAA's "naughty list," a government employee was drinking when he lost control of the drone.

The Secret Service is still conducting further investigation into the White House security scare.

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'Ready for Hillary' Thanks Sarah Palin for Fundraising Boost


Scott Olson/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Remember last weekend when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stood up in Iowa before a group of Republicans and waved the “Ready for Hillary” flag? Well, turns out she inadvertently did the group a huge favor.

On Monday the pro-Clinton super PAC, Ready for Hillary, sent out an e-mail message to their supporters about Palin’s Iowa moment. And in response, they’ve since raised roughly $25,000 in donations, according to the group.

“Here’s the kicker -- by raising $25,000, Sarah officially qualifies as a Co-Chair of our National Finance Council,” the message from the group’s Executive Director Adam Parkhomenko says. “We will wait until Sarah calls before officially adding her name to the list.”

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Could Indiana Governor’s Medicaid Expansion Deal Cut His 2016 Chances?


Office of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence(WASHINGTON) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence drew headlines this week for his odd if not just plain ill-conceived state “news” service. But the most consequential thing Pence may have done this week, at least when it comes to his 2016, is the deal he cut to expand Medicaid using funds available under Obamacare.

If Pence winds up running, his move will become a major point of contention with voters. If he doesn’t, he’s given some other key candidates a strong talking point, maybe even precious cover.

A 2016 prospect’s position on President Obama’s health care plan is shaping up as one of the biggest fault lines inside the Republican presidential race. Possible candidates will run the range of outright rejection of Obamacare funds -- like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry --  through special state-specific deals for some expansion such as in Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker, and now Indiana’s Pence, right up to accepting the money and the coverage expansion that was designed as a key piece of President Obama’s healthcare overhaul like New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich.

Of course, we’ll also have the senators in the field, who can -- and almost surely will -- take the clean stance that any acceptance of Obamacare funds is abetting a fatally flawed program.

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Attorney General Nominee Loretta Lynch to Make History If Confirmed


US Dept. of Justice(WASHINGTON) — President  Obama's nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch, faces tough Senate questioning as she begins two-days of confirmation hearings before Senate Judiciary.

While Lynch is expected to win confirmation, she’s the first Obama Cabinet nominee to appear before a Republican-led committee as she seeks to become the first black woman to hold the nation's top law enforcement job.  

Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, would replace Eric Holder, who announced his resignation last fall.

A Justice Department staffer tell ABC’s Mike Levine that while Lynch testifies, she’ll have a Navy Seal trident pin on the table in front of her. It’s her brother’s -- a former Seal who died in 2009 and it’s there “in order to feel her late brother’s presence at the hearing.”

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Army Says Still No Decision on Bowe Bergdahl's Fate


ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- No decision has been made about Bowe Bergdahl's future, military officials said Tuesday, as an Army general continues to review the circumstances surrounding his 2009 disappearance that led to five years in Taliban captivity.

Since his return to the U.S. last year, the Army has investigated whether Bergdahl willfully left his remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan and whether he should face disciplinary action.

A months-long investigation headed by Major General Kenneth Dahl concluded in early October and was then forwarded to Army leaders at the Pentagon.

In late December, the investigation and its recommendations were forwarded to General Mark Milley, who heads U.S. Army Forces Command, for his review of the matter.

It will be Milley who will decide if Bergdahl should face disciplinary action. If warranted, disciplinary action could take the form of either a court-martial or some form of non-judicial punishment. Milley may also decide that no punishment is warranted in Bergdahl’s case.

The Army issued a statement Tuesday denying media reports that said Bergdahl would be charged with desertion, possibly as early as next week.

Major General Ronald Lewis, the head of Army public affairs, labeled the reports as "patently false."

"To be clear, there have been no actions or decisions on the Sergeant Bergdahl investigation," Lewis said.

The investigation remains with Milley, "who will determine appropriate action -- which ranges from no further action to convening a court-martial," Lewis added.

"There is no timeline to make that decision and General Milley is not being put under pressure to make a decision either way," Rear Admiral John Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.

Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Milley "is going to be given the time he needs to decide how this case ought to be disposed."

Milley is "still very much in a deliberative process here of working his way through the investigation that General Dahl did. And has come to no conclusions and he has made no decisions," Kirby added.

Bergdahl remains an active-duty soldier assigned to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, until his case is resolved.

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Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy: Hillary Clinton ‘Needs to Be Talked To’


State Dept photo(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, said Tuesday he still intended to summon former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify as part of the investigation into the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya that killed four Americans.

“Every witness who has relevant information needs to be talked to,” Gowdy told reporters after a committee meeting Tuesday.

If he didn’t call Clinton before the committee, Gowdy said, it would be “an incomplete investigation.”

The House Select Committee on Benghazi is charged with delivering the final word on the attack, which has been the subject of an intense political battle.

Several previous congressional investigations into the attack have found no wrongdoing by U.S. officials, but that has done little to cool the partisan acrimony surrounding the incident on whether the State Department under Clinton’s direction did enough to prevent the attack.

Clinton, who is believed to be moving closer to announcing her bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, has said she would testify. But Democrats believe she should have already been called and worry that a delay could interfere with her presidential campaign.

Her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2013 has become a soundtrack for Republican opposition to her candidacy. Her supporters fear another round of testimony would only inflame the partisan debate over the Benghazi attack.

Gowdy told reporters Tuesday that he has been unable to get documents from the State Department pertaining to the attack, which has delayed his call for Clinton to testify. He said the government has been dragging its feet in releasing emails and other documents.

“I am willing to do it sooner rather than later,” said Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican. “What I am not willing to do is do it in a vacuum where I don’t have access to the documents.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, downplayed the criticism over the release of documents. He said Clinton has been willing to testify.

“If the committee wants her to come she is willing to come,” Cummings, D-Md., told reporters. “So if the excuse is that the State Department documents haven’t gotten there, it makes no sense.”


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Pilot of Drone Found on White House Premises Is National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Employee


Pete Souza / The White House(WASHINGTON) -- The pilot of the drone that landed on White House grounds on Monday is an employee with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

According to a statement from the NGA, the employee was off-duty at the time of the incident and self-reported what had occurred. The NGA notes that the unidentified individual does not work with drones or unmanned aerial vehicles at the NGA.

"Even though the employee was using a personal item while off-duty, the agency takes the incident very seriously and remains committed to promoting public trust and transparency," the statement read.

The U.S. Secret Service is continuing to investigate the incident.

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