One year after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, senior lawmakers are still looking for the appropriate security posture for the seat of American government.
The process of assessing the complex and then hardening it against attacks while retaining its architectural character requires the work of many agencies. It’s not just about fixing physical buildings, but also about improving intelligence-gathering and other facets of law enforcement.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the big question was how to steel the Capitol against bombs or terrorist attacks with planes. While some of the answers remain secret, physical changes are easy to spot on the campus. Vehicle-stopping bollards were planted in sidewalks, and crews spent years building the Capitol Visitor Center to be not only a welcoming tourist space but also an underground fortress — although rioters were able to fight their way into it on Jan. 6.
“We failed, I failed, my team failed, to anticipate that there could be a U.S. citizen-inspired insurrection,” said Terrance Gainer, who retired as the Senate sergeant-at-arms in 2014 and was also at one time the chief of Capitol Police. “We did not practice for hundreds or thousands of people rushing those steps.”
During his time as chief and SAA, most training exercises focused on terrorist bombings or small-scale attacks. Now there are different challenges, Gainer said, though one thing will likely remain the same — permanent changes to the building could move at a glacial speed as decision-makers work around its historical features.
A shortage of police could also make fully reopening to the public more difficult, Gainer said. President Joe Biden signed a security supplemental bill in July that provided $70.7 million to the Capitol Police and $300 million for increased Capitol security measures. In December, lawmakers gave the police chief the ability to unilaterally ask for National Guard assistance without seeking approval from the Capitol Police Board.
Still, personnel shortages bedevil the police department.
“The biggest challenge I have is the staffing problem,” current Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger told the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday. “You can’t do training if you’re so short of staffing that you can’t pull people off of posts and send them to training.”
The department is 447 officers short of “where we need to be,” the chief said, adding that he plans to hire 280 officers this year.
The police department is just one agency responsible for keeping the facility secure, though.
The Architect of the Capitol said in an August statement that it was working on a “facility needs assessment” and would “identify necessary security upgrades.” The agency did not respond to a recent request for comment on the status of the assessment.
More to do
Gainer said he advocated for permanent fencing around the building in his time, but lawmakers always drew a red line, arguing it would be an ugly and unwelcome symbol. That was the case again in 2021, when lawmakers and groups invested in keeping the Capitol open to the public vocally opposed the idea.
Instead of just reacting to recent events, people should plan ahead for the next test of Capitol security, Gainer said. But that can get complicated, he acknowledged. “The decision has to be made, how do we want the place to look?” he said. “And that gets into that, what’s sometimes a dirty term: optics.”
Late last year, Rep. Rodney Davis, the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, repeated concerns that he has expressed before, saying security vulnerabilities remain unaddressed.
“We know massive changes to intel, perimeter protection, training, leadership structure, decision-making process, and many, many more are needed,” he said on the House floor, before suggesting that the Democratic-led leadership was not “interested” in making sure the changes were completed.
House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan pushed back, saying he believes progress has been made, but he acknowledged there is still a long way to go.
Ryan said in December that he anticipated hearings in the coming weeks to evaluate what improvements have been made to not only intelligence-gathering capabilities and the building itself but also the infrastructure to address the trauma and lasting impacts to officers and staff.
Manger’s Wednesday appearance before the Senate Rules panel would certainly qualify. One thing working against long-term planning is a perpetual congressional Achilles heel: the legislative branch’s inability to plan long term by passing full-year appropriations bills on time, instead relying on short-term continuing resolutions that maintain status quo spending levels.
A February deadline is approaching for Congress to pass the fiscal 2022 appropriations bills, including the Legislative Branch measure that funds the Capitol Police.
When Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., asked the chief what would happen if the spending bills were not passed, Manger did not mince words.
“Senator, it would impact just about everything that we’re trying to do in terms of making and sustaining improvements, especially in the areas of intelligence, threat analysis, dignitary protection and security infrastructure,” he said.
Ryan also noted that some provisions House Democrats have pushed for but not secured, like a quick-response force of more officers, are still needed.
“For us to think that this is somehow done … is a wrong view,” Ryan said. “We’re going to get an evaluation of what exactly has been done, and then we’ll go from there. But there’s been a lot of money allocated, and we’ve got to do a lot more.”
Assessing how the allocated money has been spent is one important task, he said, but another is understanding exactly what happened on Jan. 6, a task being left up to a select committee led by Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
“We could figure out how to do the physical barricades and all that,” Ryan said. “But we’ve got to understand, how did this coup attempt almost happen here? If we can figure that out, I think we can prevent other things from happening.”
Chris Marquette contributed to this report.