Capitol Copes With Threats
Officials Say Preparations Are in Place
In the wake of Justice Department and FBI warnings about the heightened threat of election-year terrorist attacks, Congressional officials acknowledged last week that the Capitol remains a likely target and said security measures have increased in recent months.
“We have more security measures in place today than we did six months ago, and than we did 12 months ago,” said Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer. “Given the fact that the summer and fall seem to be very attractive to the terrorists, we have geared up.”
Among the changes Gainer cited are increased drilling and planning by the law enforcement agency’s specialty units, such as its hazardous materials division. “We have been planning how we would respond to a suicide bomber” or vehicle-mounted bomb, the chief said.
“We are also doing some of our own police operational drilling that is much less obvious to staff and visitors,” including testing communications equipment, Gainer said.
Another major concern the department must address is subverting potential surveillance by terrorists, which officials would expect to precede any attack on the Capitol, Gainer said.
“One of the goals that we have is [to] never look the same to the people who are surveilling us,” Gainer said, noting that changes are both “covert and overt.”
“If we become complacent and it looks routine, that could leave us vulnerable,” he added.
While the force is continually testing its officers, however, Gainer said there are no plans to increase the number of emergency or evacuation drills regularly conducted in the Capitol and its office buildings.
“We have a pretty robust plan that has been in place,” Gainer noted.
In separate interviews, neither Gainer nor Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, who chairs the Capitol Police Board, expressed surprise over the Wednesday announcements by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, with Gainer noting Friday the warnings were “old news to us.”
“We are aware of all the chatter,” said Pickle, adding that Capitol Hill officials receive regular briefings from both the CIA and FBI. “What we heard the other day was not new to us.”
While the administration officials did not include the Capitol among their list of potential sites of interest to terrorists — focusing instead on large-scale events such as the Republican and Democratic national conventions, as well as the Group of Eight Summit in Sea Island, Ga. — both Pickle and Gainer said it clearly remains a target.
“Ever since 9/11, it’s been widely reported in the press that the U.S. Capitol, along with the White House, were targets. Nothing has changed since that time,” Pickle asserted. “Certain groups still view the U.S. Capitol, the White House and the Pentagon as targets. And we realize we are a target.”
Gainer echoed those thoughts, referencing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center which preceded the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“If we use history as a lesson for tomorrow, the terrorists like to get back to the targets they didn’t get before,” he said. It is widely acknowledged that an airliner that went down in Pennsylvania after being hijacked on 9/11 was targeting the Capitol.
“The symbolism of the Capitol is … obvious to everybody, a strike or a blow here could have real detrimental effects,” Gainer said.
Nevertheless, Gainer said there are no plans to step up the Capitol’s internal alert level, asserting that the agency is operating under a “high yellow” alert. Federal officials indicated there is no immediate need to raise the Homeland Security Department’s terror alert level to orange, denoting a “high risk” of attacks.
“I don’t see any reduction in our efforts until after those major events,” Gainer said, citing the November elections and other events noted by administration officials.
The Wednesday announcement will not, however, spark any additional increase in security around the Capitol campus, Pickle said.
In the meantime, Pickle acknowledged that ongoing concerns prompt constant evaluation of procedures and planning.
“We can’t remain static,” Pickle said. “We have to continue to exercise. We have to continue to train not only our security personnel and the police, but also the staff has to know how to respond.”
The Sergeant-at-Arms declined to discuss specific security programs, citing security concerns, but noted: “We’re very aggressive in our implementation of new security procedures. … We stay at a very high alert here.”