The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) has raised the issue of congressional security to the front page of every newspaper in America.
While we must not raise a wall between Members of Congress and their constituents, we should do everything reasonable and appropriate to close obvious security loopholes. I believe today, as I believed more than 20 years ago when my old colleague Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.) and I originally introduced legislation on the subject, the vulnerability of the House of Representative Visitors’ Gallery is an obvious loophole we must close.
Outgoing Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle in a 2007 interview in The Hill newspaper warned about the potential of a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol. Specifically, Mr. Pickle warned: “Nothing has changed since 9/11. The Capitol is the symbol of America all over the world, and it’s clearly the No. 1 or No. 2 target of terrorists, as it was on 9/11. I truly believe at some point in the future, and I don’t know in what shape or form, we will be victimized again.”
One of the Capitol’s most vulnerable locations is the House of Representatives’ Visitors’ Gallery, an open balcony overlooking the House Floor where the public and press are able to sit and observe the day’s proceedings. The House Floor for all its grandeur as seen on television is a smaller, more intimate setting serving as both the location of the House’s daily workspace and ceremonial official functions.
I have the utmost respect for the members of the Capitol Police and the House Sergeant at Arms personnel who ensure the safety of the Members of the U.S. House and Senate, members of the media and the visiting public. However, despite the dedication of the Capitol Police, when deadly diseases like anthrax and poisons like ricin can be secreted in ordinary envelopes, and powerful explosives can be concealed in underwear, it is not difficult to imagine how the visitors’ galleries could be used to launch an attack upon the Representatives of the American people.
On December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device concealed in his underwear while onboard a Detroit-bound commercial flight from Amsterdam. If Abdulmutallab could pass through the airport metal detectors with his explosive underwear undetected, is it that difficult to imagine he might have been able to get past the metal detectors guarding the doors to the House Visitors’ Gallery?
Picture the scene: A team of terrorists – perhaps foreign-born, perhaps radicalized Americans – visit the United States Capitol and take seats in the gallery. One of them under his clothing wears a plastic bomb undetected by metal detectors. They sit there patiently watching the debate until a vote is called and all 435 Members of the House are on the Floor. Several of the terrorists create a disturbance to distract the Capitol Police.
While the Capitol Police are distracted dealing with the protesters, the terrorist wearing the bomb either throws the bomb or throws him or herself from the gallery onto the House Floor, exploding into martyrdom.
This example of a possible attack would involve catastrophic in loss of life and an acute psychological blow. The importance of the House Chamber to our government’s identity is profound. This is the only place in the world where our entire government comes together (imagine the carnage if a bomb went off during a State of the Union address).
Critics of my idea say the visitor’s gallery cannot be enclosed. They say the House of Representatives is the People’s House and should remain open, there should be no walls between Representatives and the public, and enclosing the House Visitors’ Gallery will compromise the integrity of the building. Others say it is highly improbable that a terrorist could sneak a device, be it a bomb, a vial of chemicals or a radioactive substance, into the House galleries. I respectfully disagree.
First, it seemed improbable to many prior to 9/11 that terrorists would use commercial airliners as missiles. The terrorist attacks on the fateful day proved that assumption painfully wrong. Our enemies are patient and constantly study our security procedures looking for weaknesses. The recent successful attempt to smuggle explosives onto U.S.-bound cargo planes disguised as toner cartridges (fortunately the bombs did not go off) proves that al Qaeda and its affiliates groups are acquiring sophisticated explosives our current security screening procedures have difficulty detecting. And they are becoming more skilled at concealing these explosives. I pray it will not take someone tossing something into a crowd of Congressmen and -women during a vote to finally awaken people to this danger.
Second, enclosing the Visitors’ Gallery will not hinder in any way the public’s access to Members of the House of Representatives. Members will continue to be accessible to their constituents in their offices both in Washington, D.C., and in their districts and at town hall meetings or other public forums
This proposal is not about protecting an individual Member of Congress. If the House gallery were enclosed in bomb-proof glass today, it would not have stopped Jared Loughner from stalking and shooting Rep. Giffords. This proposal is about protecting the institution of the House of Representatives as embodied by the 435 representatives of the people collectively assembled.
The U.S. Capitol Building is simultaneously a national shrine, a tourist attraction and a working office building, and as such, it poses unique challenges for those trying to balance the competing needs of safety and openness. But Bill Pickle was correct, the Capitol Building – and more specifically the Members of Congress who work in that building – are constant targets.
We do not know what shape or form a future attack will take. But we must assume that any attack will attempt to exploit any perceived weakness in our security; and the wide-open access between the House Floor and the House Gallery is an inviting potential weakness. We must take immediate action and close this loophole.