By Jordy Yager - 05/05/10 10:00 AM EDT
House officials are reviewing a plan to place a clear shield around the public viewing galleries above the chamber floor to protect lawmakers from terrorist attacks.
The House sergeant at arms is reviewing the proposal, which Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has put forth every year for more than 20 years. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)has directed the House Administartion to review Burton’s plan to determine the feasibility of a protective barrier and other measures to ensure the safety of lawmakers, their staffs and the public, her office said.
“If I was a terrorist and I wanted to get this place, I wouldn’t need a nuclear weapon,” said Burton. “All I would have to do is put on plastic explosives and come out here when we had a major vote and jump down on the floor and blow myself up.”
The review of Burton’s idea has been in the works for weeks, but it could gain momentum after an alleged terrorist left a crude bomb in an unattended vehicle in New York City’s heavily populated Times Square over the weekend.
Burton’s push for the shield was shot down last year after he tried to attach an amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill that would have authorized it. At the time, several members said that even a transparent barrier would obstruct the public’s viewing experience.
Although Capitol Hill has not been the target of any major reported attacks since 2001, it has remained at the top of authorities’ watch lists as a likely one for terrorists.
“I think, unfortunately, New York and Washington, D.C., remain targets of people who would do this nation harm,” Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday in a news conference on the failed weekend attack.
Many believe the fourth hijacked airplane that was downed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, was headed either for the White House or the Capitol.
The anthrax attacks targeting several lawmakers shortly thereafter killed five people and infected scores of others.
In 2008, Michael Gorbey was arrested after driving to Capitol Hill with a loaded shotgun, a sword and a makeshift explosive device. He was found guilty of more than a dozen charges, including making and possessing a weapon of mass destruction.
The U.S. Capitol Police sweep the House floor and galleries every morning the chamber is in session, looking for explosive materials that could have been smuggled through the metal detectors in stages.
Burton said he has confidence in the Capitol Police but is concerned with the detection of plastic explosives and inconspicuous watch-like detonators like the one used in an attack in Afghanistan earlier this year that killed several CIA agents.
Burton said that the transparent shield wouldn’t infringe upon the public’s access; visitors still would be able to see and hear everything going on on the House floor.
“It wouldn’t obstruct the view of anybody,” he said. “You’d just have to put something up so somebody couldn’t throw themselves or something down there. And it would help with the sound. People could talk a little bit more up there.”
Burton said that, many years ago, he and former Rep. Andrew Jacobs (D-Ind.) were in touch with a company that would have installed the shield for free because of the publicity it would have gotten in return. Now, he said, House rules prohibit him from holding such discussions.
Jacobs was the first to propose a clear shield to protect House members from attacks, doing so in 1967 after a number of protests in the galleries over the Vietnam War left many lawmakers concerned for their safety.
Bombs have been set off in the Capitol in the past.
In 1983, the Armed Resistance Unit detonated a powerful explosive about 30 feet from the Senate chamber. The blast caused considerable damage to the building but didn’t seriously injure anyone. A month before that, a visitor to the House gallery was arrested with a homemade bomb he had concealed under his clothing.
The incidents prompted Capitol Police to tighten security-screening measures at Capitol entrances with metal detectors, though they had been in place at the gallery entrances since 1971, when the Weather Underground group set off a bomb on the building’s Senate side.
The Capitol Police did not respond to a request for comment by press time.