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You Can't FOIA the Capitol Police

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., or Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, ever taken an elevator ride alongside an armed contractor with a criminal record?  

The answer to that and other sensitive security questions about congressional protective details is hard to find, thanks to legislation enacted in 2004.  

Capitol Police are exempted from having to release to another entity any information “that relates to actions taken ... in response to an emergency situation, or to any other counterterrorism and security preparedness measures” unless they determine that releasing the information will not “jeopardize the security and safety” of the Capitol complex.  

House appropriators inserted that language into the Legislative Branch Appropriations measure at the request of the department, according to reporting from this news organization and others at the time. A senior Capitol Police official said then that authority of the agency to withhold information had been challenged by various executive branch agencies.  

The law shielded Capitol Police from having to provide information security plans to the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA and other executive branch agencies that might submit Freedom of Information Act requests.  

Counterterrorism information, such as actions related to anthrax or ricin attacks at the Capitol, could also be exempted. Asking for the exemption in 2004 bucked a post-Sept. 11 trend toward more information sharing among law enforcement agencies.  

Nothing in the law prevents members of Congress or committees from obtaining information from the Capitol Police regarding operations and activities that affect the House or Senate.  

Under the legislation, the Capitol Police Board — which consists of the police chief, architect of the Capitol, and both chambers' sergeants-at-arms — has the authority to release information only if they determine it will not compromise safety of the buildings, grounds or any individual they protect. The board must act in consultation with law enforcement and security experts, plus appropriate congressional committees.  

Capitol Police are authorized to protect members of Congress and their immediate family in any area of the United States, if the board determines such protection to be necessary. That includes the president pro tempore of the Senate, third in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president and speaker.  

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