Air assault punctures President's defences

DWARFED by the undamaged white pillars of the south portico of the White House, the puny wreckage of the red- and-white Cessna light aircraft flown by a truck driver, Frank Corder, does not look like a serious instrument of political assassination. The broken branch of a magnolia is the only visible sign of the latest attempt on the physical safety of a US President.

President Bill Clinton was not in danger. Repairs to the White House had forced him and his family to stay a hundred yards away in Blair House, normally used by foreign leaders, on Lafayette Square. Given that the Clintons' temporary displacement was widely publicised on television, the timing of the suicidal crash is surprising.

It is, nevertheless, the most serious threat to the security of an American president since John W Hinkley shot President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton in 1981. Although the two-seater plane was too small to smash through the walls of the White House, it could have done more damage if its broken fuel tanks had ignited, instead of soaking into the White House lawn.

The Clinton administration would prefer to see the crash as the act of a mentally deranged man than to discover a political motive. Even before the pilot's identity was established, an anonymous White House aide said he had mental problems and that the incident 'may have more to do with the pilot's own problems as opposed to any kind of security attempt on the President's life'.

Security guards saw the aircraft 14 seconds before the crash at about 2am, when it turned to the left near the Washington Monument and crossed the south lawn of the White House. It is not likely it was trying to land, as the lawn is protected by a metal fence and a hedge and is dotted with trees. After tearing into the grass 50 feet short of the White House, it clipped an elderly magnolia and 'tumbled and came to rest against the building, no flame, no fireball', a White House spokesman said.

A search by the FBI and the security services to find the origin of the plane and the identity of the pilot revealed a medical certificate in the wreckage. It was in the name of Frank Eugene Corder from Maryland. John Corder, his brother, said he was a truck driver, aged 39, from Perryville, Maryland, who had been a licensed pilot for 10 years and had no history of mental illness. He allegedly stole the plane from a small airfield in Harford County, north of Baltimore.

Little is know of Frank Corder, who worked at Baltimore International Airport. He is not thought to have held strong political beliefs. He is said to have separated from his wife three weeks ago after 10 years of marriage. Even if his motives were personal, it will be interesting to see if he was influenced by the torrent of personal abuse directed against Mr Clinton since he took office.

Although an inquiry into White House security is inevitable, it is almost impossible to police the skies over Washington. Aircraft are prohibited from flying over the White House and the Washington Monument, but the main approach to National airport is down the Potomac, a mile from the exclusion zone. Security guards at the White House are said to possess shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. But a kamikaze attack such as yesterday's would not have given them time to deploy them.

Given the frequency with which the US military abroad and police at home have wrongly identified targets in recent years, Mr Clinton may shrink from telling his security men to open fire more quickly in future.

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