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How to Protect Members of Congress How to Protect Members of Congress

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White House / CONGRESS

How to Protect Members of Congress

It doesn't have to break the budget to provide the security they need.

Capitol Police K-9 officers conduct a security sweep of the Senate.(Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

photo of Marc Ambinder
January 11, 2011

On Wednesday, the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police will brief members of Congress on basic security precautions they can take when they’re interacting with constituents. Also on the agenda: an explanation of how Capitol Police officers conduct threat assessments. What the members are likely to hear may be as simple as surrounding themselves with aides wearing suits or setting up a thin rope line to create a slight barrier between them and possible danger.

They will also hear about threats beyond the shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrence Gainer told WTOP Radio on Monday that he had referred 49 threats against senators alone to the FBI within the past year. But the rarity of actual assassination attempts against members of Congress underscores the challenge for investigators. 

“A lot of people will talk, but a tiny few will act; and most who act tend not to talk beforehand,” is how one current federal agent describes people who threaten public officials. 

 

Killing the president or vice president might significantly jeopardize national security, which is why merely threatening to kill the commander-in-chief and his deputy are Class De felonies. It's much tougher, however, for prosecutors to build cases against people who threaten members of Congress.

No central database exists of every e-mail sent to a congressional office, and most members of Congress would be horrified if it did. If an assault occurs, the FBI takes over, as it would for an incident involving any federal government employee, from letter carriers to lawmakers. 

Still, according to former Secret Service agents and current physical-protection specialists, members can take commonsense steps to reduce the likelihood of an incident, steps that only mildly compromise their access to the public, if at all. 

According to a federal official who is preparing the advice, the Capitol Police will recommend that when members hold well-publicized outside events with uncontrolled access, they should request the presence of a police officer from the local jurisdiction. In most cases, the police will know about the event anyway, because congressional staffers would have obtained permits.

In a conference call with members yesterday, Capitol Police officials emphasized that local police agencies will rarely refuse a request from a member of Congress to provide an officer for such events – and that if those agencies do, members should ask the Capitol Police to intercede. 

Local police officers tend to be less intimidating than private bodyguards and often are seen as members of the community, so their presence isn’t likely to deter anyone who is friendly from attending an event. They can watch members of the crowd for suspicious behavior or for people who just seem particularly nervous, as several witnesses described Giffords’s alleged assailant, Jared Loughner, moments before the shooting.  

The mere presence of an armed police officer, even 20 feet away from the principal, can deter an attacker – a technique that personal-security teams use to great effect.

The 40,000-member New York City Police Department routinely assigns an officer to senators when they are in the city.  But it’s not reasonable to expect, say, the California Highway Patrol to provide officers for every congressional event held by all 54 members of the state’s congressional delegation during a recess. Nor are small-town police departments always able to spare officers. Moreover, the willingness of local enforcement to help out will probably diminish as this most recent incident recedes into the past.

So, aides who set up the events must assume some responsibility. "When these staffers go out and do these advance visits, [the events] are mostly scheduled and looked at from the perspective of what the VIP wants," said Bruce Bowen, a former deputy director of the Secret Service. "They have to go into a new mode, if you will": Start taking a look at from a quasi-security perspective."  That is, look at an event the way a Secret Service agent might.   

If the member is sitting at a table, make sure the table is positioned near some sort of concrete pillar that could provide cover.  Make sure that the member can quickly move to a vehicle if something happens.  A bit of training can help staffers detect unusual behavior in a crowd, said Bowen, who also ran the government's federal law-enforcement training program and is now a principal at the Command Consulting Group.

"On the day of the event, you get there early, and you watch for early arrivals; you watch for outlandish behavior and clothing; you see if someone is sweating but it's 45 degrees out; if someone has unusual clothing on which could hide a weapon; or if someone keeps moving to a different part of the crowd."

(Bowen doesn't recommend that the staffers intervene – simply notifying a police officer or their boss might be sufficient, he says.)

Indeed,  having an emergency plan – briefing the member on what to do in the event of an emergency – increases the likelihood that he or she will react quickly.  

For particularly large events, Bowen said, lawmakers should request a threat or risk analysis from the Capitol Police and FBI, which would then dictate whether they should request additional help from local police officers.

Another bit of advice: Indoor events tend to be safer than outdoor ones, and even the presence of a sign-in table – constituents can bypass it if they want – might increase the anxiety level of someone who intends to do harm.  

A simple rope line decorated with an American flag creates a safe zone. “Even though the cordon will be of something as fragile as a silken cord, it still creates a psychological barrier and slows anyone attempting to approach the platform from the crowd as they go over and under it,” Leroy Thompson, a professional bodyguard who has protected queens, kings, and celebrities, writes in an executive-protection manual.  

Presidential candidates quickly learn that  a small entourage provides a security benefit. When Mitt Romney first ran for president, he was often surrounded by young aides wearing lapel pins. To the uninitiated, they looked like Secret Service agents or bodyguards, and I often heard members of the public identifying them as such. 

Romney did not have Secret Service protection during his 2008 presidential bid, but the presence of a young man (or woman) in a suit, standing close to a famous person, marks them as a security officer, even though they are usually staffers who help the candidate wade through a crowd or write down requests from constituents or autograph seekers. In 2003, Howard Dean’s campaign team debated whether to hire private bodyguards to deal with the surging crowds he was attracting. They eventually settled for jersey barriers at large events. 

What security pros call "set-back" can also be built into the event.

Gavin de Becker’s firm, which has provided security for Arnold Schwarzenegger and heads of state, conducted a study simulating conditions that a would-be attacker might face at a public event. It found that bodyguards stationed 7 feet away from the crowd have a good chance of intercepting an assailant before he or she is able to pull the trigger.   

“Safety is nearly assured when the setup keeps the nearest members of the public more than 25 feet away from the protectee,” de Becker writes in “Just 2 Seconds,” a study of recent assassinations and protective methodology.

It is not clear that any of these methods would have prevent Saturday’s mass shooting. A police officer, for example, might have been reluctant to return fire if the assailant emerged from a crowd of innocents. 

Chris Falkenberg, a former Secret Secret agent who now runs a private-security firm that has protected politicians and celebrities (including Martha Stewart), said that proactive threat assessment is the “most efficient and cost-effective way of reducing this threat.”  It’s the Capitol Police’s responsibility, he said, to brief members and their Washington and district staffers on the type of communications from constituents that could be dangerous. The follow-up is just as important. 

The Secret Service, which is responsible for protecting about 20 executive-branch officials, former presidents, and members of their families – and also foreign heads of state and embassies in the U.S. – is able to devote significant resources to threat assessment because its agents are spread across the country and because of the relatively small number of people in their charge.  “You can’t do that for 535 members of Congress,” Falkenberg said.

When the Capitol Police receives a threat, officers regularly check it against databases kept by the Secret Service and other agencies, officials said, and information interoperability isn’t a problem.

“USCP maintains several liaison positions within the intelligence community (i.e.: FBI, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Homeland Security Department) enabling us to share and receive intelligence information,” said Kimberly Schneider, the Capitol Police spokesperson.

But counting threats, according to a veteran of protective threat assessments who is still in government, can’t take the place of a process that treats a threat “like a living document.”

“It takes into account a person’s visibility in the community, where they live, when they travel, whether the interests expressed are of a threatening nature. And it’s open and constantly being revised,” this official said.   The Secret Service, for example, has dozens of field offices across the country, and agents monitor threats dynamically.  It is not usual, for example, for an agent to take someone who is deemed to be a threat to the president to a movie the afternoon that the president visits.

A more efficient system for analyzing, processing, and diffusing threats requires personnel and training that the Capitol Police’s threat desk is unlikely to acquire – and, indeed, is at variance with protecting free expression.

After Capitol Police officers complete their basic law-enforcement training, they receive extensive training in executive protection at a specialized facility in Maryland near Andrews Air Force Base. Officers are often so well trained that they find themselves in demand by other agencies, who snap them up quickly, Bowen said. 

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