Gallery Visitors to Undergo Background Checks

Posted March 25, 2003 at 7:03pm

Visitors to the House and Senate galleries must now undergo an additional security screening process: instant background checks. Failure to pass the check could lead to arrest by the Capitol Police.

Anyone not associated with a staff-led or scheduled tour will be screened through the National Criminal Information Center, which is maintained by the FBI. Visitors are already required to obtain a gallery pass signed by a Member.

“Our interest is along the lines of confirming an individual’s identity,” said Capitol Police spokeswoman Jessica Gissubel.

Officers will be able to screen visitors for information contained in NCIC, including outstanding federal felony or misdemeanor warrants; warrants issued in another country with which the United States has an extradition treaty; probation and parole violations; delinquent juvenile status; fingerprint and criminal history records; and missing person reports.

Additionally, the system lists names of individuals with three or more convictions for a violent felony or serious drug offense; those designated by the Secret Service as posing a potential danger to the president; confirmed members of criminal gangs or terrorist organizations; and participants in the witness protection program.

NCIC data is provided by FBI, federal, state, local and foreign law-enforcement agencies, as well as courts, according to the NCIC’s Web site.

The process, similar to a license check done by police officers during traffic stops, will be conducted in the Capitol’s visitor screening facilities.

An officer will screen visitors waiting to pass through the metal-detector and X-ray portion of the security process.

Gissubel said the instant background checks, which can take only a matter of minutes, are not expected to add additional time to the security screening process.

While all visitors — with the exception of escorted minors — will be asked to provide photo identification, some may also be asked to provide a Social Security number, Gissubel said. Officers will decide on a case-by-case basis whether they need that additional information to complete the background check.

Officers will be watching for any information that would assist in the security of the Capitol complex, Gissubel said. When necessary — if for instance, a visitor is listed with an outstanding warrant — officers will make arrests.

“This is a way that we can confirm the security of people entering into the galleries,” Gissubel said. “We know that we have conducted a security check of their person physically and through the computer.”

The Capitol Police Board, along with House and Senate leadership, announced the suspension of nonscheduled tours of the Capitol on Friday and began the instant background checks the same day.

Like the background checks, the suspension does not apply to staff-led tours or reserved tours (such as student groups).

Plans for implementing the background checks had been in progress for some time, Gissubel said, and are not a result of a March 6 bomb scare caused by two Michigan residents arrested in the Crypt. The pair, who duct-taped glass jars and gobs of newspaper tapped to themselves, had obtained gallery passes from Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who has discussed the background check program with House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, said she is supportive of the program as a temporary necessity.

“They assured me that these so-called background checks — really criminal checks — would take only two or three minutes. I don’t consider that intrusive if temporary during the start-up of this war,” Norton said.

Norton added that she does not believe checks will discourage potential visitors, and she is more concerned with maintaining access to the Capitol.

“I think in a time of global terrorism it’s fair to say to people there’s going to be some inconvenience. What is unfair and what is intolerable is to shut down access to the Capitol of the United States,” Norton said. “I am more concerned that we get up to where we were [in terms of tours], than I am about these background checks, unless they prove to be intrusive.”

Norton said she will monitor the process by asking aides to talk with constituents who undergo the screening.

In a written statement, Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington national office noted, “Of course, our federal lawmakers should take every reasonable and effective step to ensure their safety, but, as with all security measures, they need to equally ensure that these background checks not become a backdoor for unconstitutional profiling based on race, religion or ethnicity.”