No Complacency for Capitol Security

Posted April 27, 2004 at 6:58pm

Congressional officials are augmenting security procedures as both the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms undertake a range of initiatives, from continual work on the perimeter security program to more stringent controls on international travel.

“Despite the substantial advances in security and emergency preparedness since September 2001, and particularly this past year, we cannot become complacent,” Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in late March.

Similarly, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood told appropriators in his chamber Thursday that his office has “renewed our focus on planing and preparation.”

Among the new proposals sought by his office, Livingood noted the House Security Office, which would handle the distribution and verification of security clearances for House staff.

“In addition, the House Security Office will serve as a central repository for offices and committees that receive classified material and do not have a classified storage facility,” Livingood stated in his written testimony.

The House Sergeant-at-Arms is seeking $220,000 in its fiscal 2005 budget request to fund staff in the newly created office.

The new office isn’t the result of a policy change, according to a Livingood aide, but an attempt to create a “more customer service-friendly” structure.

Current House staffers who need security clearances must undergo a complex process involving the Sergeant-at-Arms, Capitol Police and Defense Department. The new center, based on the Senate’s Security Office, will eliminate the involvement of Capitol Police.

“We’re basically trying to mirror the Senate side,” the aide said, later adding: “We feel the Senate Security Office is a good model.”

In recent months, House officials have also sought to improve security measures away from Capitol Hill, specifically monitoring Congressional delegations traveling to Iraq.

“I have accompanied CODELs to Iraq to verify and ensure that all security measures are in place for Member travel,” Livingood said at the hearing. “I, along with my staff, have devoted extensive time to working with the United States Army, intelligence agencies, and various security departments to coordinate the safe travel of Members of Congress into any hostile threat environment.”

The Sergeant-at-Arms, who typically travels with the Speaker and other high-ranking Members, does so in part because the Capitol Police are not authorized to travel overseas, a Livingood aide noted.

House and Senate officials are also looking to shore up security screening procedures on Capitol Hill.

“The Capitol Police Board is working to establish more comprehensive and visible identification protocols to manage visitors better, particularly in the Capitol,” said Pickle, the board’s chairman. (The Police Board includes the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms and the Architect of the Capitol, as well as the Capitol Police chief, who serves as an ex-officio member.)

Pickle also suggested the scheduled opening of the Capitol Visitor Center in 2006 may allow House and Senate officials to reduce the number of public entrances to the Capitol.

“Once the visitor center is completed, the public will have just as much access to the Capitol, only through fewer access points,” Pickle stated. “There will be enhanced screening and control of everyone and everything that enters the building.”

In the meantime, however, members of the public may regain some access to areas of the Capitol now restricted to credentialed staff and visitors.

During the last week’s House Appropriations hearing, Livingood suggested tunnels connecting the House office buildings to the Capitol may be reopened to the public.

While many of the projects are intended to shore up physical security of the Capitol grounds or allow for smoother evacuation in emergencies, a significant number are also focused on continuity of Congressional operations during a national crisis.

In addition to two alternate chambers constructed for use by the Senate in the event it must evacuate the Capitol, Pickle noted that two “briefing centers” have been completed during the past year, and a third is in progress.

“The centers provide temporary, protected locations where the Senate can account for membership; where Leadership, Senate Officers, and the U.S. Capitol Police can communicate with Senators; and where communications capabilities are available to Senators,” Pickle stated in his written testimony.

Senate officials also continue to pursue a second alternate chamber site, located away from Capitol Hill. In 2002, Pickle’s predecessor, Alfonso Lenhardt, suggested a third alternate chamber could be located up to 1,000 miles from the Senate’s permanent home.

House officials are seeking $100,000 in funds for their alternate chamber, part of a larger $13.1 million budget that will be required to pay for continuity and disaster recovery programs in fiscal 2005, according to House Chief Administrative Officer Jay Eagen.

The Sergeant-at-Arms also continues to focus on improvements to “physical security” at the Senate’s 430 state offices. Chamber officials will consult with Senate offices regarding the results of an 18-month study, and will likely begin by focusing on those offices in commercial areas, Pickle said.

“This state office security project involves physical modifications to offices, installation of physical security systems in offices, and staff training,” Pickle added.