Protection vs. 'the People's House'
By Michael Grunwald and Juliet Eilperin
Before yesterday, no officer of the U.S. Capitol Police had ever been killed while standing watch over Congress. But debates over how secure Capitol Hill really is have been raging for years, and yesterday's shootout is sure to give them a renewed sense of urgency.
Security in the Capitol complex has tightened in recent years, in response to incidents including the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, but Congress has always struggled to balance its desire for public access with its need for protection. Even so, officials responsible for protecting the legislative branch have pleaded for more money and stricter precautions, warning that Congress is dangerously vulnerable to terrorists.
There have been occasional incidents of violence on the Hill in the past, from an attempted assassination of President Andrew Jackson in the Rotunda in 1835 to the shootings of five congressmen on the House floor by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1954 to bombings in the Senate in 1971 and 1983.
In fact, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released earlier this month found that Capitol security has improved mightily since columnist Jack Anderson's camera crew in 1989 filmed him breezing through congressional metal detectors with a pistol and a bullet. The report singled out the Capitol Police for praise, and lawmakers said the 170-year-old security force had done everything it could yesterday to prevent an even bloodier rampage.
"I think the worst thing we can do is to cower in fear," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee responsible for the Capitol Police. "We will not shut down the Capitol. Our initial assessment is that this is not the fault of security. This individual was determined to blast his way into the Capitol."
Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, agreed that nothing more could have been done to stop a gunman who approached the officers with his weapon blazing.
"You can have the finest security in the world, and there's no way you can prevent against someone who is willing to risk his own life to come in," he said. "It's not like someone snuck in a gun and surprised people."
That happened with Anderson in 1989, and it happened again in 1991 when Mark Alan Weissberger smuggled a concealed pistol into a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and was later found to have threatening letters about Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) in his briefcase.
But while there is always a trade-off between encouraging public access and providing security in any building, concerns about domestic terrorism in the 1990s have tilted the debate toward tighter restrictions, not only in Congress but throughout the federal government. After Oklahoma City, the Secret Service shut down Pennsylvania Avenue to all traffic near the White House. And on Capitol Hill, traffic was eliminated or restricted on streets around three Senate office buildings.
This April, Congress appropriated $20 million to develop a new overall security plan for the 19 buildings that make up the Capitol complex and grounds, which already are surrounded by Jersey barriers and a maze of metal detectors, motion detectors, security cameras and other electronic security devices. And everyone except members of Congress including all visitors as well as congressional aides is now required to pass through detectors and allow bags to be searched before entering the buildings.
A far more sweeping proposal for a new $125 million underground visitors center has been kicking around Congress since the Persian Gulf War. That debate may be revived after yesterday, since proponents say the center would help screen visitors before they reach the entrance to the Capitol. But in the past, many members of Congress have complained about the cost of the center. Some of them believe that if anything, security on Capitol Hill is too tight, sending the wrong message to visitors about government openness.
"The guests who spend time in this federal complex are ... not dangerous, and they certainly do not deserve the intense security measures they are subjected to," Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) said at a hearing in August 1995. "They are average Americans who come here, to the U.S. Capitol building, to see their government at work and visit us, their representatives in Congress. And look how we greet them not with signs of welcome, but with security measures that rival those of the Super Max, the most security-conscious prison in America."
Russell E. Weston Jr. allegedly shattered those safeguards yesterday, bursting through a visitor's entrance replete with metal detectors and entering a private door leading to the office of House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Tex.). But while Weston allegedly exacted a terrible human cost on the Capitol Police, the agency succeeded in its core mission: protecting members of Congress. None of them has ever been killed on the Capitol Police's watch, and none of them has been wounded since 1954, when three Puerto Rican nationalists smuggled guns into the House gallery and wounded five members on the House floor.
The Capitol Police nevertheless has not always been perceived in Washington as a law enforcement bastion, in large part because its 1,255 officers are usually seen monitoring metal detectors, X-raying packages and giving instructions to many of the 10 million tourists who visit the Capitol each year. But the CRS report said the agency has "enhanced its capabilities and professionalism" in recent years, strengthening its ties to intelligence agencies and developing plans to respond to chemical and biological attacks.
Some security specialists said the officers did everything they could yesterday in an unmanageable situation. Neil C. Livingstone, a former Senate aide who runs a crisis management firm, said the Capitol Police's leaders "have known for a long time that you could rush the building."
"The system worked pretty well today, given the tragic consequences," Livingstone said. "There's nothing more these officers could have done."
In fact, some experts pointed out that the tragedy could have been much worse if Weston had used an automatic weapon, or if plainclothes officer John Gibson had not been stationed outside DeLay's office. Gibson, who was killed in an exchange of gunfire while subduing the suspect, was part of the Capitol Police's beefed-up dignitary protection unit.
In other words, there is no such thing as perfect security in the 1990s. A recent inspector general's report found that the congressional mail system was badly vulnerable to potential terrorists. And security officials testified earlier this year that despite new restrictions on vehicle access, the Capitol is still vulnerable to a car bomber.
"The challenge of achieving a secure environment for the Capitol complex, while still maintaining an atmosphere of openness, has become increasingly difficult in this century," the CRS report said. "Both the potential threats to the Capitol and the number of people using the area every day have grown dramatically."
Capitol security may not be perfect, but it used to be practically nonexistent. Back in 1835, Vice President Martin Van Buren used to wear his pistols while presiding over the Senate; that year, a deranged man named Richard Lawrence took a potshot at President Jackson during funeral services in the Rotunda. In 1890, a reporter from a Louisville newspaper shot and mortally wounded a former representative from Kentucky on the east side of the House. In 1932, a department store clerk drew a loaded revolver in the House gallery and demanded time to address the floor. And in 1954, the nation was shocked when three Puerto Rican extremists fired 30 shots from a visitor's gallery, injuring three Democrats and two Republicans.
The last major incident in the Capitol was in November 1983, when a time bomb ripped the mahogany doors outside the Senate cloakroom. That led to the installation of an elaborate $725,000 security system that included hydraulic barriers and unsightly concrete flower pots in various roadways. But officials say there is only so much they can do.
"The problem is, members of Congress want the Capitol to be a symbol of freedom and an open, democratic society," said John Daniels, former deputy chief of the Capitol Police. "Trying to balance that and the security issue is difficult."
Staff writers George Lardner and John Mintz contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company