Pickle says terrorist attack on the Capitol is inevitable

Senate Sergeant at Arms Bill Pickle ended four years in office yesterday with a plea to lawmakers and law enforcement officials to keep their guard up against what he called an inevitable terrorist attack on the Capitol.

“Nothing has changed since 9/11,” warned Pickle. “The Capitol is the symbol of America all over the world, and it’s clearly the No. 1 or 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.

“Terrorists don’t have to hit a home run by knocking down the Capitol Dome. All they have to do is attack the Capitol complex [with an airplane or chemical or biological agents] and cause damage and loss of life, and it would produce shock waves around the country.”

Pickle, a 26-year veteran of the Secret Service who was chosen by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), criticized the outgoing Republican House leadership for resisting his efforts to develop a unified security strategy for the entire 233-acre Capitol complex.

He predicted that incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the House Democratic leadership “are going to be more responsive” to his successor, former Capitol Police Chief Terrence Gainer, in beefing up Capitol security.

“My biggest regret is that I wish I had been able to overcome some resistance from the House leadership in the area of security,” said Pickle, who emphasized he was “not finding fault” with the House sergeant at arms or the Capitol Police. “I haven’t been successful in developing a unified strategy with the House, mainly for political reasons.”

Asked what concrete steps he would take to improve security, Pickle, 56, said he would like “an aesthetically pleasing and historically accurate fence” around the 233-acre Capitol complex, even though “a number of senators are opposed to it.”

It “would not take away from the grandeur and beauty of the Capitol but it would provide chokepoints and would control access to the Capitol campus,” he said.

The new $584 million Capitol Visitors Center would not improve security, said Pickle, conceding that balancing the needs for access to the Capitol complex and security of the area may be an impossible goal.

“We have upwards of 100,000 people a day visiting and working in the Capitol complex, and there is a demand to keep it secure from attack, and also a demand to keep it open, and you can’t reconcile the two,” he said.

“The … fact that we are such an open branch of government gives me great pause. While we might be doing a good job of protecting the Capitol, we have another 18 to 20 buildings with up to 15,000 employees to protect as well.”

Pickle said some members and staff are defensive about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to protect the complex. “My answer is that it’s not about you, it’s about the Constitution demanding that this body continue to meet and function.”

Pickle, who described the last four years as “wonderful,” said Frist asked him if he really wanted the job.

“When I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ he said, ‘Because it’s the worst job on the Hill. You have 100 bosses, all of whom think they’re going to be the next president.’

“What I found was just the opposite of what many people outside the Beltway think. Everyone who comes here is so well-intentioned and nobody works harder than these senators.”

Pickle, who plans to form a government-affairs firm specializing in homeland security, transportation and healthcare, displays portraits of his 36 predecessors on his office wall, going back to the first one in 1789.

One, who served from 1919 to 1933, wrote a tell-all book about his experience and was censured by the Senate for doing so.

Asked if he plans to write such a book, Pickle said, “I don’t have enough to say.”