Police Seek to Calm Terror Concerns

Posted February 7, 2003 at 6:21pm

House and Senate officials were actively reassessing the Capitol’s vulnerability and sought to calm nerves Friday after the nation’s terror-alert status was raised from “elevated” to “high.”

The Capitol Police Board assembled for most of Friday afternoon to discuss the increased threat environment. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer and the Police Board were at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, where they were attending the annual bicameral Republican retreat.

The Capitol Police have their own threat-assessment levels, which are revisited but not automatically altered when the Department of Homeland Security changes its determination of terrorism risk.

At press time Friday night, the Capitol’s own threat level had not yet been raised.

In a memo to Senate offices sent before Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge addressed the nation, the Sergeant-at-Arms office told Senators and their staffs that news reports indicating that the National Threat Level would be raised from yellow (elevated) to orange (high) did not reflect a specific threat to the Capitol complex.

“The heightened security measures you will observe are being taken out of an abundance of caution,” the memo said.

No other details were released, as Congressional officials declined to discuss readiness issues or procedures designed to protect Capitol Hill and its occupants.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), echoing the Sergeant-at-Arms memo, said there was no specific threat to the Capitol.

He did say, however, that the Capitol Police would increase their already high visibility on and around Capitol Hill, and access by visitors and staff would remain unchanged.

“We are obviously in very close and constant contact with officials at the highest levels of government with regard to ongoing threat assessments and security procedures, but our focus on strengthening security is never less than 100 percent at all times,” Ney said. “We have made tremendous progress since Sept. 11, and we will continue to move forward.”

Just last week the House Administration Committee approved the commencement of a comprehensive House perimeter security plan. Hydraulic vehicle barriers, bollards, planters and police shelters will be put in to bolster the perimeter security of House office buildings. Construction of this phase of the 14-month project will continue through June.

Part of the changes are cosmetic or unrelated to security, including landscape improvements, soil enrichment and installation of an automatic irrigation system. But the project’s overall goal is a perimeter infrastructure that both improves security and integrates it with the Capitol’s architecture and landscaping better than the network of Jersey barriers that currently decorates the complex.

The Senate has already put in place such a plan.

“The timing is somewhat coincidental,” a knowledgeable House aide said of the increased national threat assessment and the House’s perimeter security improvements both happening in the same week.

“But we’ve been operating for quite a while knowing that we knew that [raising the terror alert] was a possibility,” the House aide said. “Everything we’ve done to prepare and the redundancy that has been put in key systems has been along that track.”

The aide emphasized that the Capitol has previously dealt with a heightened threat assessment.

The last time the administration raised the National Threat Level was Sept. 10, 2002, in anticipation of the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The level remained at orange for two weeks before it was reduced back to yellow.

“We had already crossed that threshold before,” the aide said. “In light of new realities, we’ll certainly reassess what we’re doing and even [the possibility that] we were to move to a higher security posture.”

Last week, one highly visible change was made in the way the Capitol Police patrolled the complex and surrounding neighborhoods. On Tuesday squad cars began to keep their overhead flashing lights on at all times.

Gainer brought the idea back from his trip to Jerusalem last month, where he learned that the Israeli police use their squad car lights continually as a way to elevate their visibility while on routine patrols.

Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey has instituted the practice for his force as well.