How might security be tightened for 535 lawmakers?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 11, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill lawmakers, still reeling from the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., will get detailed security briefings Wednesday, but experts and lawmakers themselves concede that not a lot more can be done to protect them.

Providing tight presidential-level security for 535 members of Congress, virtually all of whom scatter across the country every weekend and for extended recesses, is "nothing short of impossible," said Ralph Basham, a 28-year Secret Service veteran who directed the service in 2003-06.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., stressed a point that many of his colleagues share: "What has to be protected is the citizen's right to unfiltered access to us, and vice versa."

At the Capitol, he said, lawmakers interact with witnesses whose testimony has been carefully written or lobbyists with sophisticated pitches. But back home, "we've got to be able to get out on the streets and talk to people. They can't talk to the president or the IRS or immigration officials. We are their link to the government."

That makes it hard to put lawmakers in the kind of security "bubble" the president gets from the Secret Service.

Even if someone could devise a workable plan to protect everyone in Congress, "It's tremendously expensive, and it's unclear it's even warranted," said Chris Falkenberg, a former Secret Service agent and the president of New York-based Insite Security, whose clients include corporations and rich people.

Still, there's a general sense on Capitol Hill that more needs to be done in the wake of Saturday's shooting of Giffords at a Tucson shopping center. The gunman killed six people and wounded 13 others.

About 800 members of Congress, their staffs and spouses tuned in to a conference call Sunday with Capitol Police, FBI and other security officials.

Newly elected lawmakers and their spouses were particularly worried about security threats, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, D-Conn.

The 1,800-member U.S. Capitol Police force secures the Capitol complex, which includes the grounds and office buildings. Those entering office buildings pass through a metal detector, then go through a second checkpoint before they can get into the Capitol building itself.

Once inside, they go through another metal detector before being allowed to enter the chambers of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Violent incidents are rare. The last was in 1998, when a gunman burst into an east front entrance open only to members of Congress and their staffs, and killed two police officers.

Capitol police won't discuss security tactics, and this week there's been no visible change in procedure for entering the buildings. There's a more visible police presence outside, however.

Back in congressional districts, lawmakers are advised to coordinate security efforts with local law enforcers, and many do. Kingston and others have suggested that in the wake of the Giffords shooting, Capitol Police should coordinate more closely with local law enforcement officials if there appear to be threats.

The way that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., handles security at events in her southeastern Florida district is typical.

"We work with law enforcement to make sure they understand some people will be expressing an opposing viewpoint or frustration, and that is fine," said Jonathan Beeton, Wasserman Schultz's communications director.

"We want, and the police want, security to be there to deal with a problem that may arise," he said, "but not have it be such a heavy show of force that people would feel intimidated to show up.

"If someone becomes a threat or is intentionally disruptive, then we ask law enforcement personnel to escort them out of the event."

Such incidents are rare, however. Monday, Wasserman Schultz joined two other South Florida House members for a ceremonial swearing-in on the steps of the Fort Lauderdale courthouse. About 100 people attended the outdoor event, and there were no incidents.

Since the Giffords shooting, lawmakers have sought other ways to enhance security. Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, wants to make it a federal crime to threaten a member of Congress or staff. Others are discussing whether to give the Capitol Police more resources.

But security consultant Falkenberg cautioned that change probably needs to be nuanced. Increasing the size of the police force or giving it more duties at some point becomes impractical, and could require creating a virtually new agency.

Instead, he said, police should focus on threat assessment.

"That's a mechanism Capitol Police have already," Falkenberg said, "and I suspect it will dramatically increase."

Former Secret Service chief Basham suggested that instead of adding another layer of security between politicians and the people, Congress should consider dedicating resources to training lawmakers and staff on "recovery and response": how to react to an attack.

"Cover, evacuate, get them out," Basham said. "As long as there are weapons out there and people have access to politicians, there are going to be possibilities."

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