There’s a Security Gap on Capitol Hill. And It’s as Troublesome as the One at Navy Yard.

House staffers who park in the office garages do not need to go through metal detectors, nor are their bags checked. Could better Capitol Police funding close this gap?

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
June 5, 2014, 4:31 p.m.

On Sept. 16, as on most days, Aaron Alex­is ar­rived at work at the Wash­ing­ton Navy Yard. He drove up to the front gates, dis­play­ing his park­ing pass and cre­den­tials. Sit­ting next to him was a back­pack con­tain­ing a shot­gun and shells. The bag was nev­er searched. He walked in­to Build­ing 197, hav­ing nev­er gone through a met­al de­tect­or, and star­ted his ram­page, killing 12 people.

It was a fright­en­ing gap in se­cur­ity — a gap not un­like the one that ex­ists at the U.S. Cap­it­ol now.

Most people, vis­it­ors and staffers alike, enter con­gres­sion­al of­fice build­ings through side doors, where they are met by Cap­it­ol Po­lice and met­al de­tect­ors. They empty their pock­ets and their bags are searched. But some House staffers who drive in­to work don’t ex­per­i­ence this level of se­cur­ity.

To ex­per­i­ence this gap, I drove along this week with two seni­or staffers from a con­gres­sion­al of­fice, who asked not to be named for this story. We ap­proached the House side of Cap­it­ol Hill on New Jer­sey Av­en­ue South­east. A Cap­it­ol Po­lice of­ficer met us at the bar­ri­cades. He checked the driver’s park­ing stick­er and ID and told us to pop the trunk, which con­tained golf clubs, a box, and two travel bags. He looked in the trunk for less than a second, closed it, and let us in, hav­ing nev­er checked the bags or box or asked what was in them. I didn’t show him any cre­den­tials, nor did he have a met­al-de­tect­or wand in his hand.

We then drove in­to the Ray­burn House Of­fice Build­ing park­ing gar­age and found a spot a couple of levels down. We parked and walked right in­to the build­ing, one staffer car­ry­ing a bag. There was no met­al de­tect­or or ma­jor Cap­it­ol Po­lice pres­ence. We were now in one of the of­fice build­ings where law­makers and their staff work every day, hav­ing gone through prac­tic­ally zero se­cur­ity. As we walked over to the Long­worth House Of­fice Build­ing, one staffer told me that this day’s ar­rival was nor­mal.

“Driv­ing in is a breeze,” he said. “When I first star­ted, I ex­pec­ted high se­cur­ity. But I’ve al­ways thought that se­cur­ity here, in today’s world, is very lack­a­dais­ic­al.”

The staffer has nev­er taken his con­cern to the Cap­it­ol Po­lice, ex­plain­ing, “It was something I al­ways thought about it, but nev­er ac­ted on.” He has, however, talked to his con­gress­man, who has dis­cussed the lack of se­cur­ity in the park­ing gar­ages with oth­er mem­bers of Con­gress who share those con­cerns and want to add met­al de­tect­ors.

The force does what it can with the funds it has. The Cap­it­ol Po­lice staff of 1,775 sworn of­ficers and 370 ci­vil­ian work­ers con­duc­ted 150,000 vehicle sweeps, 27,000 off-site vehicle in­spec­tions, and 9.8 mil­lion screen­ings of people in fisc­al 2013, ac­cord­ing to testi­mony from Cap­it­ol Po­lice Chief Kim Dine. But they have their lim­its. Some gaps might re­main open.

When asked spe­cific­ally about the lack of se­cur­ity in park­ing gar­ages, Cap­it­ol Po­lice spokes­wo­man Kim­berly Schneider said she does not dis­cuss se­cur­ity op­er­a­tions, but said the force “con­stantly as­sesses and re­as­sesses our se­cur­ity pro­ced­ures” and has not ruled out chan­ging them. Fur­ther, in re­sponse to wheth­er more money would help, she said the Cap­it­ol Po­lice “util­izes the funds provided by the Con­gress to main­tain ro­bust se­cur­ity.”

Any House staffer, spaces al­low­ing, can get a park­ing pass. Even low-level staff as­sist­ants and in­terns, many of whom have worked on the Hill for only a short time, get passes and come in­to work through loose se­cur­ity. The ser­geant-at-arms did not re­spond to ques­tions.

Hill staffers are gen­er­ally not per­ceived as threats to each oth­er or to the gen­er­al pub­lic. But the same might have been said about con­tract­ors at mil­it­ary fa­cil­it­ies. Most con­gres­sion­al work is done in those of­fice build­ings, where mem­bers meet, staff work, and com­mit­tee hear­ings are held. Se­cur­ing them is one of Cap­it­ol Po­lice’s top pri­or­it­ies.

There is, though, a se­cur­ity check­point go­ing from House of­fice build­ings in­to the Cap­it­ol Build­ing, where staffers and vis­it­ors must go through met­al de­tect­ors.

One of the solu­tions here is to add more se­cur­ity check­points in the House gar­ages. But that takes man­power and equip­ment, which re­quires fund­ing that the Cap­it­ol Po­lice says it does not have right now. It also means a longer wait to get in­to work for those who drive, which is one of the reas­ons staffers haven’t com­plained about this se­cur­ity gap in the past.

In May, the House passed the Le­gis­lat­ive Ap­pro­pri­ations Act for fisc­al 2015, which sets aside money for staff salar­ies, ar­chi­tec­ture pro­jects, and, among oth­er things, the Cap­it­ol Po­lice. The po­lice force saw a $9.4 mil­lion in­crease from the last fisc­al year, to $348 mil­lion. But that in­crease “does not provide for any new ini­ti­at­ives,” ac­cord­ing to re­port from ap­pro­pri­ations bill au­thor Tom Cole, an Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an. The bill is pending Sen­ate ap­prov­al.

Cap­it­ol Po­lice could shift some per­son­nel from cur­rent sta­tions to new ones in the gar­ages. But as se­quest­ra­tion showed, that comes with its own down­sides. Po­lice staff was sig­ni­fic­antly re­duced and 13 en­trances were shuttered due to re­duced, se­quester-level fund­ing, which led to longer lines. This is a se­cur­ity con­cern in its own right, con­sid­er­ing the bot­tle­neck of people in open places.

Lines wrap around the corner at the north­east en­trance of the Dirk­sen Sen­ate Of­fice Build­ing. (Chris Mad­daloni/CQ Roll Call)Even now, wait times for en­ter­ing Cap­it­ol of­fice build­ings gen­er­ally are deemed “un­ac­cept­able dur­ing cer­tain peri­ods of the day,” ac­cord­ing to the Cole re­port.

Todd Jasper, a home­land se­cur­ity and emer­gency man­age­ment con­sult­ant for North­ern Vir­gin­ia-based firm MSA, said the Cap­it­ol Po­lice ought to have more re­sources to prop­erly pro­tect the area.

“The U.S. Cap­it­ol Po­lice has an ex­traordin­ary mis­sion for such a small de­part­ment, where re­sources are al­ways go­ing to be scarce,” Jasper said. “They have a thank­less job.”

Asked about the of­ficer who let our car through, Jasper said he was do­ing his job and fol­low­ing dir­ec­tions. Sev­er­al signs can in­dic­ate a driver or items in the vehicle may be dan­ger­ous, in­clud­ing the per­son’s be­ha­vi­or and wheth­er the car is rid­ing low to the ground.

But the gap in se­cur­ity re­mains, and could al­low any dis­gruntled or dis­turbed House staffer with a park­ing pass to enter with a weapon and po­ten­tially harm vis­it­ors, staffers, or mem­bers of Con­gress. And it’s a thought that dis­turbs the seni­or staffer who drove me in that day.

“I’ve been say­ing this for a year now,” the staffer said. “And in­stead of just talk­ing about it, it’s time that some­body does something about it be­fore it’s too late.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5011) }}

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story had an in­cor­rect date for the 2013 shoot­ing at Navy Yard. It oc­curred on Septem­ber 16.

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