U.S. House of Representatives leaders plan to create a task force of federal and local officials to coordinate anti-terrorism measures in the District, including street closures and security checkpoints.
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the U.S. Capitol Police, faulted the department's managers for closing streets and creating checkpoints last month, abruptly restricting public movement near the U.S. Senate. The closings came two days after the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror alert level to "orange" around the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Those security measures also prompted the Federal Reserve and the White House to impose additional restrictions.
Ney said in an interview that the panel will include representatives from the House and Senate, the administration of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and regional agencies, as well as urban planning and security experts. Ney said other agencies, such as Homeland Security, might join.
Ney said House leaders were alarmed at being "caught off-guard" by street closures prompted by the Senate. The task force idea was endorsed by House Governmental Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds legislative branch operations.
"From our perspective, we want management of the Capitol Hill police to communicate with us . . . more," Ney said. "I'm not saying I disagree with the decision, but we had very little notice. We want more interaction, and I think they learned that lesson."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who worked with Ney to create the task force, called the August closures "frightening."
Norton said: "There was no coordination even among federal actors, much less . . . with the D.C. government, which has all of the police. . . . Even all the police in the world won't save you if the major actors don't even talk to one another, don't consult and don't have a plan for what to do."
The ad hoc group marks the latest effort by the federal government to untangle the web of competing authorities with jurisdiction in the nation's capital.
The city's power centers -- which include the White House complex, the Capitol Hill campus run by House and Senate leaders, more than 30 independent federal executive branch agencies and the District government -- have bedeviled homeland security planners since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Federal police agencies shut roads, bridges and freeways that day, and more than 100,000 federal workers were released without consultation, creating gridlock. During the 2002 Washington area sniper attacks, local and federal law enforcement officials took several days to sort through the confusion and coordinate their responses. Similar problems arose during the 2003 standoff on the Mall between police and a tractor-driving tobacco farmer who claimed to have explosives and during last month's terror warning.
The task force would add to the list of initiatives launched after September 2001 to bridge gaps in the emergency responses of the region's local, state and federal agencies.
Last year, Congress created Homeland Security's Office for National Capital Region Coordination. The federal National Capital Planning Commission reactivated its interagency security task force this summer. Other agreements -- aimed at coordinating transportation planning or sharing emergency supplies or personnel -- are in various stages of development.
"I do think there is room for" the task force, said Lisa MacSpadden, spokeswoman for the planning commission, which regulates security-related construction and zoning for executive branch agencies. "From our perspective, it would be great to have the support of Congress, in particular, overseeing a task force bringing all important stakeholders to the table. It could make a great difference."
Ney said he will hold a hearing next week with U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer to review the effectiveness of the street closures. Norton called Gainer's actions "the epitome of overreaction." She said uncoordinated security improvements around single federal buildings will only shift potential terrorism risks to softer targets.
Ney said he expects the task force to review security, planning and space needs for Congress in coming years and noted the importance of District involvement.
"Delegate Norton should have been involved. We would have seen to it that they coordinate with the mayor more," Ney said. "I'm not saying we would change anything we did, but we definitely would have given them more notice."