Campus Remains on Alert
Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said Friday that enhanced security measures implemented in the wake of Thursday’s bombings in London would remain in place pending a Monday meeting of federal and local law enforcement officials.
“We don’t anticipate we’re going to be doing this forever,” Gainer said of the stepped-up procedures, which include increased patrols and screening of both vehicles and pedestrians on the Congressional campus. “But our future operations will be a function of what the British authorities learn and what is shared with us.”
Over the weekend, the British continued to investigate the four attacks, in which at least 50 people were killed when bombs exploded in three subway cars and a double-decker bus.
Despite the increased security, which included briefings for Congressional lawmakers, the department has not raised its own threat level.
“There really is not specific information that leads anybody to believe that we’re a direct target,” Gainer said of Capitol Hill, echoing similar statements by Metropolitan Police Department officials and Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams (D) with regard to Washington.
But Gainer acknowledged that the Capitol continues to be considered a prime target for possible terrorist attacks, prompting last week’s additional security measures.
“We know they want to get us, we know the Capitol is very attractive,” he said.
Among the new procedures put into place, Capitol Police are providing extra attention to anyone carrying a large item, such as a backpack or suitcase, anywhere on the Capitol grounds, and conducting “visual” inspections as well physical inspections if there is reasonable cause to do so.
Existing regulations already prohibit visitors from bringing large bags, as well as a variety of other items, into the Capitol, although Members and staff are not subject to the same restrictions.
Officers are also inspecting all large vehicles, including tour buses and limousines, entering the Congressional campus during morning and afternoon rush-hour periods.
In addition, Capitol Police officers have been reissued documents instructing them how to identify and respond to potential suicide bombers.
In the meantime, Gainer said, the department will continue to work with other local law enforcement agencies, including MPD, Metro Transit Police and the Amtrak Police, to secure the area surrounding the Capitol.
The Homeland Security Department raised the federal terror alert level to orange Thursday morning, the second highest level, but only with regard to mass transit, such as regional and intercity passenger rail, subway and metropolitan bus systems.
Specifically, Gainer said the Capitol Police Uniform Services Bureau and Containment and Emergency Response Team are working with Amtrak officials to monitor Union Station, performing periodic sweeps of the facility including the use of bomb-detection dogs.
“We are augmenting what they do,” Gainer said.
Additionally, Capitol Police are working with Metro Transit Police to monitor the Capitol South Metro station, located near the House office buildings.
On Friday, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority media relations spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said area trains and bus systems would most likely operate under an elevated alert status throughout the weekend.
According to Taubenkibel, WMATA was able to elevate its alert status at about 5 a.m. Thursday, well before the national terror alert status was moved to orange or “high,” because the plan put into action was the same one WMATA used in the wake of the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain.
While Taubenkibel stressed that there have been no specific threats toward area transit systems, he said Metro authorities and transit police are keeping up “a high visibility” on buses and trains.
“The visibility of our officers is key but for our customers, we also strongly encourage them to be the eyes and ears in keeping the system secure,” he said. “We really do encourage everyone, if they are reading a book or newspaper, to occasionally look up and be aware of what’s around them, that’s extremely critical.”
The Metropolitan Police Department has likewise heightened its security procedures, although unlike the Capitol Police, MPD officials elected to increase their internal alert level to its second highest degree.
“Raising our alert level just means that we institute certain procedures,” explained MPD Sgt. Joe Gentile, the department’s spokesman. Those procedures include increased patrols, as well as more scrutiny of Metro stops.
“There is not specific evidence to indicate that D.C. was a target. This is a strictly cautionary measure,” Gentile said.
Visitors to Capitol Hill on Friday seemed undeterred by the previous day’s attacks in London. The Capitol Guide Service reported no cancellations by tour groups, and several police officers stationed throughout the building said Friday’s visitor traffic seemed normal for the recess week.
“Of course we were concerned by the bombings,” said Lena Dexter, who was helping to chaperone a group of 41 high school students from Bay Minette, Ala. But “the heightened security is very evident. Right now we’re more nervous about the hurricane.”
Noting the presence of police officers with automatic weapons patrolling the Capitol grounds, Birmingham, Ala., resident Amy Felt, who was touring the Rotunda with her husband, said, “You kind of feel safer here than anywhere else. … The presence of our police is a good thing, not a frightening thing.”
But for Byron Gray, who was chaperoning a church youth group from Denver, Colo., through the Capitol, Thursday’s attacks brought some tough questions from nervous teenagers.
“We went over a few things with them, we tried to help them understand the need for the increased security and that it’s a different world than before” the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
One member of the youth group, Jewel Carney, 16, tried to explain her feelings as she sat on a bench in the Capitol Crypt.
“They have a lot more security now than they used to but [the attacks in London] still happened. … It’s kind of like a replay of 9/11 — those same scary feelings.”