Lenhardt Sees Progress on Hill Security Since 9/11

Posted March 18, 2003 at 4:41pm

On Monday morning, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Alfonso Lenhardt officially vacated his post and Bill Pickle was sworn in as the chamber’s top law enforcement officer.

The transition comes at a crucial time for emergency preparedness — one of the many, but perhaps the single most important, institutional functions overseen by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

And it’s a change Lenhardt didn’t seek. The Sergeant-at-Arms is a patronage position, and it was Sen. Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) to fill when he took over as Majority Leader in January.

Although Lenhardt, a former Army general, leaves the Senate with some resignation, he expressed satisfaction with what he was able to accomplish and optimism about his successor.

“One thing I say about Bill Pickle is my initial impression: I think he’s going to be a superb Sergeant-at-Arms. He’s got great people skills; he’s very intelligent and has a wonderful professional reputation,” Lenhardt said. “He’s excited about the job, and that to me is probably 90 percent of it.”

As for his own next move, Lenhardt said he doesn’t have anything definite in mind at this point.

“The first thing I am going to do is decompress a little bit,” he said in an interview last week. His immediate plans include spending time with his new granddaughter, “and then I am going to spend time looking for a job. I have to do that.”

“I’ve been very satisfied,” he continued. “I’d like to think we’ve done something to protect [and] to try to prepare the Senate and the rest of the Congressional community to deal with this new threat environment.”

Even before Frist selected Pickle — a former Secret Service officer with a lengthy resume of government security work — Lenhardt expressed to the Senate leadership his commitment to a “smooth and orderly transition.”

Although it has been only two weeks since Pickle was asked to take the job, Lenhardt said he will continue to help his successor settle into the post in a more informal capacity.

“I will be around, so that if Bill Pickle wants to call me or wants to meet for lunch and get some background information, just in general get a better feel for it, I will be available to him,” Lenhardt said. “It’s up to him. I’ve made that offer to him. It’s completely up to him if he wants to pick my brain about various and sundry projects.”

Lenhardt said the two spent about a day and a half together just after Pickle was appointed. The outgoing Sergeant-at-Arms is also leaving what he calls a “continuity file, that will address all of the projects that are under way as well as give him a good thumbnail sketch of the entire organization and all of its departments, and the significant projects that they have under way, budget issues and, in general, give him a sense of some of the organizational challenges that he will be facing in the first 30, 60, 90 days.”

Lenhardt also said the significance of a transition had changed since he took over the post a year and a half ago. “I had an excellent opportunity to talk to Jim Ziglar about the duties and functions of the Sergeant-at-Arms, but it’s a different environment.” Sept. 11, 2001, he said, “was a transforming event.”

As to what has changed since then on Capitol Hill, Lenhardt listed both physical changes and less tangible alterations.

“Our people are much better prepared in terms of their plans, in terms of their procedures, in terms of their rehearsing for … some emergency that might befall us,” he said, citing the 5,400 Senators and staff who have undergone escape hood training. The Quick Mask 2000 Escape Hoods, of which 25,000 were purchased, are designed to provide up to 45 minutes of safe air in the event of a chemical or biological attack.

“Looking at it from the standpoint of physical plans, we have a far more secure perimeter,” Lenhardt continued. “And the one thing that we are working very quickly to do is replace all of this ugly concrete and maintaining what I consider to be the balance between free and open access to see representative democracy at work and security.”

He also cited the Capitol Police, who he said are significantly better trained and more professional than they were two years ago. And he said those qualifications extend to the new recruits.

Asked whether the return of the National Guard was a possibility if the Capitol’s threat level increased, Lenhardt said: “At this point, let’s put it this way: Nothing is off the table.”

But he quickly added that the effectiveness of the Capitol Police has been increased to such a degree that the complex is in a much better position to fully staff its own security than it was when the National Guard was called in after Sept. 11.

“And I think they understand their critical missions. These men and women of the Capitol Police are superb,” he said.

Lenhardt also cited a much closer working relationship with other federal agencies than in the past. Perhaps the most significant way that’s manifested itself is in the form of the Capitol Police intelligence unit, which works with the intelligence agencies as well as staffs its own office to give the Capitol its own daily threat assessment.

The unit existed very loosely before as an ad hoc group. “Today it’s well organized, well established, well connected,” Lenhardt said.

An example of its efficiency came last month when the Capitol lowered its own threat posture a day before the Department of Homeland Security reduced the nation’s terror alert from “high” to “elevated.”

Even though security issues have dominated Lenhardt’s tenure, another large chunk of the job is acting as the Senate’s chief administrative officer, overseeing everything from telecommunications to information technology to postal services to the TV and radio recording studios, to the press galleries and printing and graphics.

“It really is a large undertaking, a major effort,” he said. “But I say this in the next breath: I thoroughly enjoy it. I like leading large, complex organizations with a mission as important as this one is.

“I am going to miss it a great deal. When I retired from the military, I thought I would never meet another group of people who were as passionate, who were as dedicated, who were as caring, who were as patriotic about their jobs as those in the military. I found them here.”