Technology, barriers have made the Capitol safer, officials say

For the second time this week, outside mail was halted yesterday because of a power outage at the House off-site mail facility, but recent improvements to mail security allowed interoffice mail and newspapers to continue to circulate. This is just one small example of the numerous security upgrades that have occurred on Capitol Hill since the Sept. 11 attacks.

During the past four years, Congress has taken several steps to make the institution and its business less vulnerable to a terrorist attack. The steps include passing legislation providing for continued congressional operations should a significant number of members be killed or incapacitated in an attack. Congress also has established several off-site data centers that store important information should offices be destroyed and has implemented technology that immediately informs members of an emergency situation. Barriers such as bollards and concrete blocks also have been erected to enhance the security of the Capitol campus.

“Before 9-11, we were prepared for some type of bomb or a shooting,” said House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Ney (R-Ohio). “After airplanes were used as bombs and anthrax was introduced into the building, literally the next day we started to think outside the box.”

Ney credited Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for supporting and facilitating many of the dramatic changes in security but stressed that ensuring the safety of the campus has been a bipartisan effort.

The Alternate Computing Facility, designed to handle some of the House and Senate data and communications in the event of a catastrophe, is just one of the security centers built after Sept. 11.

In a House Administration Committee hearing June 9, James Eagan, Congress’s chief administration officer, described the facility as a “warm failover site for the House’s Ford Data Center” that handles a number of Congress’s administrative functions and provides redundant systems for e-mail and websites. The facility also backs up capabilities to support “member, committee and institutional-support offices.”

Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle told The Hill in June that the facility is a backup for some of the House and Senate entities.

“It protects against the loss of data and is similar to the alternative computing facilities of major corporations,” he said.

Eagen also provided an inventory of emergency-related steps. The House, he said, had e-mail, pagers and 6,000 BlackBerry communication devices in circulation with the capacity to receive notifications through the House Alert Capability system. Emergency notification devices have been placed in each congressional office to warn the staff and visitors about potential dangers when they occur.

A digital mail system, which allows first-class mail to be delivered in electronic form, was piloted in 2002 to reduce the House’s vulnerability through the mail in response to the anthrax attacks in 2001. The program began with 30 House offices and is expected to expand to 75 offices by the end of November, according to Ney.

Ney touted the Capitol Visitor Center, or CVC, which is estimated to be completed in the fall of 2006, as a “tremendous addition and enhancement to security.” The CVC received $38.5 million in additional funding to improve security inside the facility after Sept. 11.

The passage of the Continuity in Representation Act has been one of the most publicized security changes in the past few months. The provision, which was attached to the 2006 legislative-branch appropriations bill at the request of leadership, provides the House with a plan should 100 members die or be incapacitated during a catastrophic event. The bill stipulates that special elections for new members must occur within 49 days after the Speaker announces the vacancies.

Hurricane Katrina tested the operations of the House Recovery Operations Center (H-ROC), a 24-hour emergency communication center that aides in continuity of government. The system, which was created to ensure that congressional offices can remain running in the event of a disaster, helped Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) set up operations despite the destruction of his district office in the storm.

The Senate has implemented a similar program through the its sergeant at arms and the U.S. General Services Administration to replace temporarily offices lost by senators in Mississippi and Louisiana, according to Susan Irby, a spokeswoman for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.  

The Senate has also implemented a host of new procedures since Sept. 11.

In conjunction with the Senate sergeant at arms and the Rules and Administration Committee, the Office of Security and Emergency Preparedness was established, evacuation drills of all buildings have been conducted quarterly, quick masks (lightweight protective masks designed for people to don while they are evacuating buildings) have been distributed to all offices and continuity-of-operations plans have been established within each office.

“Disaster-assistance plans are constantly being discussed and improved,” Irby said. “This is always an ongoing operation.”

The Senate sergeant at arms declined to comment for this report.

The Capitol Police also have played a major role in testing the security procedures since Sept. 11. In addition to providing a more physical presence of safety on campus, the Capitol police have undergone additional training in order to effectively and safely evacuate staff and visitors in the event of an emergency.

“The Capitol Police Department is continually working with the Senate and House sergeant at arms on improving security for the Capitol complex,” said a Capitol Police spokesman. “Truck interdiction, mail screening, prohibited items, and other security measures are all integrated to maximize overall effectiveness. These security improvements are necessary so that Congress can continue to operate in an open and safe environment.”

Ney said technology is playing a vital part in improving security on the Hill.

“It is a constantly evolving process,” he said.