The shooting of Democratic Congressman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway supermarket in Tucson, Arizona highlights a little-noticed aspect of life in today's Congress: despite record numbers of threats and a toxic political environment, most lawmakers are almost completely unprotected when they venture outside the secure bubble of Capitol Hill
Giffords, who was shot in the head, remained in critical condition Saturday, and doctors said it was too soon to know if she'd pull through. Either way, the attack was the most serious act of violence against a member of Congress since the assassination of Rep. Leo Ryan in Guyana in 1978 and is certain to prompt a far-reaching reexamination of security protections for lawmakers.
The sprawling Capitol Hill complex is guarded by the 1,800 members of the U.S. Capitol Police, an independent police force whose uniformed personnel are stationed in and around all the office buildings there. Plain-clothes members of that force also provide round-the-clock protection to top elected officials like Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. A small number of lawmakers who have served on panels like the Intelligence Committees - and thus have access to classified information - also receive personal security details.
When large numbers of members of Congress plan to congregate publicly in a location outside the Capitol, the Capitol Police generally sends a team to scout the location in advance and provide security, in concert with local police agencies. Upon request, the force provides guidance to Congressional offices about holding events in public. And in practice, municipal police agencies tend to station an officer or two at events, generally to provide a deterrent and to mark the event as public or official.
But the vast majority of lawmakers receive no government-provided protection unless there are reliable indications of possible threats against them. There were no reported threats against Giffords in advance of today's shooting, according to a federal law enforcement official. That meant she was entirely unguarded in the run-up to the attack.
Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police, declined to comment on the specific security measures which are afforded to lawmakers like Giffords. In an emailed statement, she said the police were "directly involved in the ongoing investigation" into the Giffords shooting.
She added, without offering any details, "that the Capitol Police had communicated with House Members of Congress, advising them to take reasonable and prudent precautions regarding their personal safety and security."
It's a difficult time for the Capitol Police, who are confronting record levels of threats against congressmen and senators. Making things even more difficult for the police, the vast majority of the threats rarely rise above the level of verbal abuse or emailed threats, which leaves them struggling to determine which threats to refer to the FBI for further investigation and which to lawmakers to protect. It is a federal crime to harm an elected U.S. representative or senator, but it is not a crime to threaten one. That stands in sharp contrast to the president, for whom any kind of threat can be a crime.
Last year, for instance, Rep. Heath Shuler told FBI investigators that he got a phone message which said: "If you vote for that stimulus package, I’m gonna kill you. Simple as that."
An analysis by POLITICO in December found that the FBI had investigated 236 threats to members of Congress over the past ten years, resulting in a small number of arrests. Those numbers are almost certainly an understatement: Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer said that threats against members of Congress had soared 300 percent in the opening months of 2010.
Relying on information gathered by Freedom of Information Request, Politico reported that Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin were both threatened with assassination, as was then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
During the acrimonious health care debate, the FBI investigated several instances of vandalism at Congressional offices. The Secret Service quietly increased the size of the security package around the First Family at certain points. They took notice when New Hampshire residents openly brandished guns outside an Obama event.
Privately, White House officials worried that the heated rhetoric of the debate, the language that put representatives like Giffords in the crosshairs of targets, the talk of "revolution," might catalyze violence against politicians. But in public they would not do so.
From the perspective of federal law enforcement agencies, any pubic acknowledgment that the political climate can lead to a higher threat level runs the risk of politicizing the threat itself, something a-political federal agencies don't want to do. A Department of Homeland Security analysis warning about right-wing rhetoric drew condemnation for painting with too broad a brush when it was leaked, even though other federal agencies, none of whom are particularly sympathetic to left-wing political causes, had come to similar conclusions.