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Police Tighten Security at Capitol

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People run from the East Front of the Capitol on 9/11 after a plane crashed into the Pentagon.

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Capitol regulars might notice a heightened state of alertness from security staff, as police stay vigilant in case of a retaliatory attack following the killing of al-Qaida figurehead Osama bin Laden.

As of Monday, there was no information leading officials to believe that the Capitol is an imminent target, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said. But even hours before President Barack Obama took to the airwaves to announce bin Laden’s death, the building’s security personnel were told to be on guard.

“Hopefully there’s not wannabes out there who somehow want to revenge the actions of our special operations forces,” Gainer said.

Gainer, who is also chairman of the Capitol Police Board, said he found out that bin Laden had been killed through media reports, but he was contacted Sunday night before Obama’s announcement and told to be alert.

“A couple of hours before that, we were getting information from our federal partners that they were stepping up some of their security, so it was clear that something was going to happen,” Gainer said. “Chief [Phillip] Morse very quickly took that into consideration as he began stepping up searches around the building and increased foot patrol.”

Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider confirmed that the department has ramped up security around the Congressional campus.

“The public may notice an increased police presence and enhanced patrols in the field — and some measures may not even be visible to the public,” Schneider wrote in an email. 

The department will probably not staff the Capitol with more officers than usual, but officers scheduled to be training off the Hill will likely be near the campus instead, said one officer who is not authorized to speak to the media.

The officer also said canine units will probably sweep the building more often.

Indeed, much of the enhanced security will happen behind the scenes, where security officials communicate with intelligence agencies, monitor threats and watch the Capitol airspace — something they have done since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It’s too early to tell whether bin Laden’s death will have as lasting an impact on the Capitol campus as the attack, said current and former security officials. But at least for the next few weeks, security will be in the forefront of many Hill workers’ minds.

Security around the Capitol has increased many times over since al-Qaida terrorists hijacked a plane with the intention of crashing it into the Capitol.

“9/11 has driven security at the Capitol,” said James Varey, who was chief of the Capitol Police during the attacks. “Back then, the Capitol was wide open. The screening processes then, prior to 9/11, weren’t quite as thorough as what the people are going through at the moment.”

Most apparent is the Capitol Visitor Center, which separates the public entrance from the main building. Officials have also installed a series of bollards and hydraulic vehicle barriers and closed off streets around the campus. 

The attack led to increased cooperation with the intelligence community, Gainer said. He noted the Capitol Police has officers embedded with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and also in the CIA.

“One of the gigantic benefits that came out of 9/11 was the need to share information, connect the dots, keep each other informed,” he said. “There’s been rich working relationships that have developed and they’re paying off.”

The officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity also noted the Capitol Police’s monitoring of the airspace.

“Pilots have to be in contact with the tower if flying at a certain altitude,” the officer said.

“We have the capability of knowing who those folks are and we have a procedure that if in fact these aircraft get too close to the Capitol, we can order an evacuation of the Capitol.”

More than 30 freshman Members got a rare opportunity Monday to get intelligence information straight from the source. It was unclear at press time what was discussed or how many Members attended the previously scheduled meet-and-greet with CIA Director Leon Panetta. But bin Laden surely came up.

“The director has been looking forward to meeting the Members for some time,” CIA spokesman Preston Golson said. “He’s pleased, of course, that he’s able to discuss with them one of the CIA’s greatest accomplishments.”

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