Too Lax

Posted March 11, 2003 at 4:44pm

Too Lax Practically everybody hates airport security — especially after a third or fourth experience of being pulled out of line to be frisked. But if the Transportation Security Administration is too uptight, the Capitol Police Department may be too lax, as demonstrated by last week’s entry into the Capitol of a man and woman with suspicious objects duct-taped to their bodies.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer expressed pride that his subordinates arrested the couple within 10 or 15 minutes of their entrance. “This is an example of where the system worked,” he said. “The Capitol Police officers did their job.” Well, yes, they did so in arresting the couple — but not in letting them get past security in the first place.

It turned out that the interlopers were carrying harmless substances — variously described as plastic tubing or hockey puck-sized objects evidently made of clay, plus a jar containing an unidentified liquid.

At first, police feared the objects were plastic explosives, possibly a “weapon of mass destruction” or “devices that might be used for suicide,” Gainer said. The police closed a number of entrances to the Capitol and routed traffic around the Crypt, where the pair were apprehended. After the FBI confirmed the objects were not dangerous, Gainer said that “It appears this was a hoax.”

Indeed, but suppose it had not been? Had the man and woman actually been carrying plastic explosives, they could have perpetrated a catastrophe. When apprehended, the two were chanting and dancing in the Crypt and had attracted a crowd of students around them, some of whom were taking pictures. They could have been casualties.

The chief could well argue: What more could the Capitol Police have done? These two had gallery passes obtained from a Member’s office. They passed through metal detectors. Congress doesn’t want to be closed to the public. The police can’t body-search visitors, certainly not every one of them.

We’re not exactly sure what the answers are to these points, but we are sure that they need to be addressed in light of last week’s experience — and in light of an increased terrorism threat during the possible war with Iraq.

Simply stated, for the moment, security in the Capitol is not tight enough. For the duration of any potential military conflict, it’s possible that Capitol security will have to resemble that at an airport or the White House. We’d certainly regret it, but it surely beats a successful intrusion by suicide bombers. Last week’s “hoax” should be taken as a warning.