Capitol Security Is Battle Tested

Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C. 
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
National Journal Staff
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National Journal Staff
Oct. 3, 2013, 11:21 a.m.

Se­cur­ity at the U.S. Cap­it­ol was tested on Thursday, but it was cer­tainly not the first time.

As re­cently as three weeks ago, when 13 people were killed in shoot­ings at the Navy Yard just blocks away, Con­gress was put in lock­down and the cham­bers re­cessed as a pre­cau­tion­ary meas­ure.

In­deed, the Cap­it­ol has been sub­stan­tially hardened against at­tacks and oth­er emer­gency situ­ations since a 1998 shoot­ing in­side the build­ing and the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Se­cur­ity sys­tems and pro­cesses — such as mag­ne­to­met­ers to de­tect met­al ob­jects — are now in place at build­ing en­trances, and emer­gency evac­u­ation meas­ures are in place for the com­plex. Sys­tems are also in place to safe­guard elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions for Con­gress, and re­lo­ca­tion drills are held reg­u­larly. Mail-screen­ing pro­cesses have been moved to off-site loc­a­tions to thwart the use of reg­u­lar mail to de­liv­er deadly chem­ic­als.

Se­cur­ity per­son­nel have also been in­creased. At the time of the 1998 shoot­ing, there were about 1,200 Cap­it­ol Po­lice of­ficers. At the time of the Navy Yard shoot­ing last month, the force in­cluded 1,724 sworn of­ficers (plus 353 ci­vil­ian staffers), some equipped with more-power­ful high-caliber weapons, night-vis­ion cap­ab­il­it­ies, and bet­ter gear to pro­tect them­selves from bul­lets.

In the 1998 at­tack, a lone gun­man with a his­tory of men­tal ill­ness entered a first-floor en­trance of the Cap­it­ol with tour­ists, then burst through a se­cur­ity check­point, shot and killed two of­ficers, and bolted in­to nearby of­fices of then-House Re­pub­lic­an Whip Tom DeLay. The ram­page by Rus­sell We­st­on Jr. jarred Con­gress to tight­en se­cur­ity for the Cap­it­ol and sur­round­ing areas.

As late as the 1990s, the area in and around the Cap­it­ol re­sembled a col­lege cam­pus or park, with much of that feel­ing owed to the re­design by renowned ar­chi­tect Fre­d­er­ick Law Olms­ted in the 1870s. But today, the Cap­it­ol com­plex that in­cludes the House and Sen­ate of­fice build­ings, and the nearby Su­preme Court and Lib­rary of Con­gress, has be­come a labyrinth of jer­sey bar­ri­ers, blocked-off streets and build­ing en­trances, and traffic check­points. The se­cur­ity even ex­tends un­der­ground. The Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter, con­struc­ted and of­fi­cially opened in Decem­ber 2008 un­der the East Front plaza, now serves as the se­cur­ity screen­ing fun­nel for vis­it­ors to the Cap­it­ol.

Of course, We­st­on’s at­tack — and the failed tar­get­ing of the Cap­it­ol on 9/11 — cer­tainly wer­en’t the only times in his­tory that vi­ol­ence has threatened the build­ing. In 1814, Brit­ish forces set fire to the Cap­it­ol. In 1835, Pres­id­ent Jack­son was al­most as­sas­sin­ated out­side the Cap­it­ol ro­tunda. And in 1954, four Pu­erto Ric­an na­tion­al­ists wounded five law­makers when they fired guns from the vis­it­ors’ gal­lery above the House floor.

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