Giffords shooting prompts security concerns from lawmakers, on Hill and at home

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 4:21 AM

In the wake of the shooting that critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed one of her aides, a federal judge and four others, U.S. Capitol Police spent the weekend fielding calls from lawmakers with concerns over potential threats and questions about what more should be done to protect staffers and family members at home.

The law enforcement agency is chiefly responsible for protecting members of Congress on Capitol Hill and across the country. The force of about 1,800 officers guards Capitol Hill entrances, parking lots and park grounds, as well as the 535 lawmakers.

Members of the congressional leadership - the speaker of the House, and the House and Senate majority and minority leaders and whips - are assigned at least one plain-clothed Capitol Police officer at all times. Otherwise, officers are assigned as needed to lawmakers facing legitimate threats, such as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who received letters tainted with anthrax in 2001.

Now some legislators are wondering whether more should be done.

With so many lawmakers and congressional offices to protect, Capitol Police are ill-equipped to account for security outside Washington, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), adding that the U.S. Marshals Service should be responsible for it.

"They are already doing this for federal judges. It wouldn't take much more for them to also work with members of Congress," he said.

In an extraordinary conference call convened Sunday by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other top leaders, the House sergeant at arms and the FBI briefed about 600 aides, members of both parties and their spouses about Giffords's condition and reminded them to report any suspicious activity to Capitol Police and local law enforcement agencies.

Members are expected to be given additional recommendations on security measures during a meeting Wednesday.

The FBI also contacted several lawmakers to ask for details about their schedules, according to a senior Democratic aide. The calls appeared designed to help law enforcement officials keep track of how many public events are scheduled in the coming days, said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

On the Senate side, Sergeant at Arms Terrance W. Gainer said that aides are asking about security for upcoming events but that there's been no uptick in reported threats.

"I believe we have a good sense of what's going on in Tucson and we have a collective judgment on how to proceed from here," said Gainer, former chief of the Capitol Police.

Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the force remains on high alert.

"The security posture hasn't changed, and people will still notice the robust Capitol Police presence on the Capitol grounds," she said. She declined to comment on the review of new threats and concerns reported by lawmakers.

Several reported new threats over the weekend, Chaffetz said. He forwarded to authorities the threatening messages he received on Twitter after the shooting.

"Obviously, I want them to look into that," he said. "People just need to calm down and relax. The anger seems to flow both ways, in both directions."

Chaffetz, who carries a gun when he's home in Utah, has ordered an immediate security review at his district offices and worries about the safety of his family. Potential attackers "know you're in D.C. and your wife and kids are here, and that's something, unfortunately, that warrants looking at," he said.

To ease such fears, lawmakers may ask Capitol Police officials to visit district offices to assess security and determine what additional steps should be taken, including installing silent alarms that would instantly alert local police when activated, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

"There will be a heightened, renewed sense" of threats from constituents, the sort of things that in the past might have been dismissed by lawmakers and staff, he said.

Chaffetz says U.S. Marshals could help.

About 4,000 deputy marshals provide security for federal judges, prosecutors and Supreme Court justices when they travel, according to spokesman Jeff Carter. The agency isn't planning significant changes to federal courthouse security, because U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, who was killed in Saturday's melee, wasn't the target of an assassination plot, Carter said.

A November watchdog report raised concerns about security at federal court facilities, detailing the poor training, questionable contracts and broken security equipment used by many contract security guards employed by the Marshals service.

Watchdogs are also concerned with security at buildings housing executive branch agencies. Contract guards with the Federal Protective Service - which handle about 9,000 federal facilities - failed to detect bombmaking materials smuggled into 10 high-security federal buildings in 2009, according to the Government Accountability Office. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) is expected to introduce legislation next month to bolster the agency's budget and staff, a spokeswoman said Sunday.

Obama administration officials contacted Sunday did not anticipate stepped-up security at federal buildings in the coming days.

Staff writers Paul Kane, Ben Pershing, Lois Romano and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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