Capitol Raises Threat Level

Posted March 18, 2003 at 6:50pm

With war in Iraq imminent, security officials raised the threat assessment for Congress to the second highest of five alert levels and urged the Capitol community to “remain vigilant.”

An e-mail went out informing all House staff that security for the Hill had been increased, although it emphasized that “there is no information indicating a specific threat to the Capitol complex.” The message came from the Capitol Police via the House Emergency Communications Center, which is under the jurisdiction of the Chief Administrative Officer.

The message to Hill offices stated that the force’s heightened security posture is “purely precautionary.” It informed staffers that they will “notice an increased police presence and heightened security measures. Intelligence information and security measures are evaluated on an ongoing basis. Security measures will be adjusted as necessary in the coming days to respond to the threat level.”

Additionally, two “Dear Colleague” letters will be sent to House offices today from Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood. The first reminds offices that gallery passes must be signed by the issuing office in order for constituents to enter the House chamber. Passes without a stamped signature with the Member’s name and the signature of the bearer will no longer be honored. This change doesn’t reflect a new rule but rather the stricter enforcement of existing procedure. Gallery visitors will also be more closely screened.

The second memo informs offices that the Annunciator system installed over the past two months has been activated. Many of the units, which would serve as a campus-wide communications network in an emergency, were in the “off” position during set up. Offices were reminded to turn them on with the volume control on the base unit and the pager to maximum. An installation team is scheduled to ensure each office has set the devices properly in the “near future,” according to the letter.

The Annunciator system was officially live on March 15, according to outgoing Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Alfonso Lenhardt.

The raised threat assessment for the Capitol follows a corresponding increase in the National Threat Level from yellow to orange, the second highest, by the Department of Homeland Security after President Bush’s speech Monday night.

Capitol Police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel emphasized, however, that security decisions about the complex are made independently from the executive branch. As for how those decisions are made and the Capitol’s current level of alert, Gissubel said: “We don’t discuss that. There are certain things we don’t want [to become] common knowledge.”

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said, “We have a pretty robust intelligence operation and work with federal authorities, and we have some sense of what the threat was for the U.S. and the Capitol. We are not in lockstep [with other authorities] … but we are pretty close.” He cited as an example the fact that the Capitol Police lowered their own threat level before the Department of Homeland Security decreased the national level from orange to yellow last month. “We had begun to scale back, but even in that lower Dome level we still change our tactics on a day-to-day basis, or even each shift change.”

As for what the Capitol Police will be doing differently, Gissubel said that the force has made efforts to make officers more high-profile and has begun randomly deployments of the Containment Emergency Response Team, the police’s HAZMAT unit. Additionally, Gissubel said first heavily-armed personnel will become more visible.

In an interview last week about changes to the Capitol’s security posture in the event the country goes to war with Iraq, Gainer said one of the most important elements to the force’s plans is that of surprise. Gainer said the police alter their plans continuously to ensure that anyone potentially surveying the Capitol would have to deal with constantly changing preventive measures. He cited the examples of using bomb dogs to randomly sweep an open area or officers beginning to search every vehicle instead of every third car entering the complex. The officers even have what he called “randomness charts,” so they can just say, “We’re going to plan X-Y-Z.”

“Beyond what we have very publicly discussed before — increasing and changing our visibility and the use of heavier weapons — I think if and when war begins, that will be evaluated along with what the current threat intelligence is for the United States,” he said.

Gissubel also emphasized that there are no plans to halt Capitol tours. “That is something that is taken very seriously. It would have to be a direct threat to the Capitol for us to do that. There’s no plan to close the Capitol for tours.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called on the Capitol Police Board and other Congressional officials to maintain regular operations to the greatest extent possible. “We must do a far better job of showing that we can function on a global terrorism and war- time footing or we will lose the economy and the ambiance of the nation’s capital to global terrorism,” she said in a statement. “Closing the city down during war and terrorism implies inadequate security and is contradictory to better judgment.”

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) emphasized that a large team is in place to ensure the complex is secure. “As Speaker [Dennis] Hastert [R-Ill.] said some time ago, all of us need to remain calm, but cautious. We have made tremendous strides in security here at the Capitol, but this does not diminish our alert level or our commitment to safety,” he said in a statement.

In the Senate, talk of the budget debate overwhelmed any conversation about increased security in the Capitol. But GOP Senators discussed security concerns at their weekly luncheon meeting, with President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) advising Senators to frequently alter their daily regimen, such as the route they travel to work.

The conversation prompted Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to ask his colleagues how many knew what to do and where to go in the event of a biological or chemical attack. Lott said only about 50 percent of his colleagues knew what to do in such an emergency, an issue he said should be rectified quickly.

“I am not sure how prepared Senators are,” said Lott, although he added that he believes the security measures now in place are much better than they were prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

At the Senate Democrat’s weekly lunches, Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said there was no discussion about security in the Capitol, and the South Dakotan added he thinks the Sergeant-at-Arms office has done a good job of informing Senators about security risks and procedures.

While most Senators brushed off talk about security concerns, many acknowledged some worry.

“It is very much in our minds and we are looking into it,” Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said of Capitol security.