An explosive squad

It was enough to set the Capitol’s 17-member bomb unit on edge. 

Bomb Squad commander Lt. Eric Keenan sped from the unit’s headquarters at 67 K St. SW toward Rayburn in his SUV to respond to the call just as approximately 80 freshman lawmakers began to board three giant tour buses for a weekend retreat in Williamsburg, Va.

It was a touchy situation. Keenan recognizes the inconvenience of restricting areas of the Capitol campus to investigate suspicious packages, but he’s not willing to take a chance.

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“If you shut down a hallway of Congress, you’re costing productivity,” he later acknowledges from his office. “You still have to have security.”

Keenan and his colleagues will likely need to heighten their senses even more in the coming weeks. In the wake of the Arizona mass shooting that claimed one congressional staffer and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in critical condition, security has become a renewed focus on Capitol Hill. Keenan’s bomb squad is sure to undergo close scrutiny as lawmakers begin to question where more resources are needed and what security practices need to be reformed. 

After an hour, the investigation Friday turned up a harmless backpack filled with notebooks, once the squad X-rayed the bag and a bomb technician cut it open. Shortly thereafter, the buses of freshman lawmakers got the all-clear to leave. 

It was a successful response for Keenan’s team, but the bomb squad’s recent past hasn’t been as smooth. Two members of the squad were kicked off after the unit mishandled a 2008 bomb-related incident. Some members also quit during that time to protest their colleagues’ dismissal, and others left for different jobs — like the Pentagon’s new and better-funded bomb unit — cutting the squad’s roster nearly in half.

In 2008, bomb-squad members had overlooked a canister of black powder in the truck of a man who had been arrested earlier in the day in connection with carrying a shotgun, ammunition and a sword while attempting to meet with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. It wasn’t until several weeks later that the black powder was found. At the time, bomb-squad members said their superiors had pressured them to get traffic moving in the area again as quickly as possible. 

Keenan, 44, a member of the National Guard, was serving in Iraq at the time, but took over the squad’s command soon after.

“It was a hard lesson for the bomb squad,” he says. “I came in, and the morale of the guys had been affected, because when you have a smear like that happen, it’s a shot to the ego. My job was to get them refocused on how to make it better and make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Several months later, Keenan responded to his first major threat: a truck parked near the Library of Congress’s Madison building had a grenade in it. The bomb unit safely extracted the grenade and made sure there was nothing else in the truck before it was cleared.

“It was a really good resurgence for the squad,” Keenan says. 

Since then, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse has bolstered the unit with funding and manpower. Last year the unit sent eight people to the only bomb-disposal training school in the U.S., and also played a role in one of the area’s major crises, the Discovery Communications hostage situation in September. The assailant had carried two boxes and two bags into the building, and it took the efforts of approximately 20 bomb technicians from all parts of the tri-state area working for nearly eight hours straight to neutralize them. 

“I’m proud that we have brave men and women who step forward for this dangerous assignment, and I will continue to ensure that they have everything necessary to execute their mission,” Morse said.

The unit now seems to be on a roll. It is planning to undertake a series of collaborative training sessions with the Containment Emergency Response Team (CERT), the Capitol Police version of SWAT. 

“It used to be that you either had a shooter or a suicide bomber, and then Mumbai turned all of that on its head,” says Keenan, referring to the 2008 terrorist attacks in India. 

“So CERT can do all of the shooting, and we’ll do all of the blowing up stuff, but if we can’t move and communicate with them, then we’re stuck,” he says. “We have to make the tactical guys aware of what the different components of a bomb are and how to look for booby traps.

“And I have to know what the snipers are thinking so that I don’t put my head in front of his shot,” he says.

The vast majority of the abandoned backpacks and camera bags on Capitol Hill turn out to be nothing — it’s the risk of the one that ends up containing an explosive device that keeps the bomb squad on its toes, training every day, researching new explosive tactics and making sure nothing gets overlooked.

Later Friday, a third incendiary package detonated at a Washington postal facility. It was addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The threats to public officials are very real, every Capitol Police officer will tell you. And Giffords’s shooting emphasizes their point. But that’s why they do it, they say — they enjoy being the people responsible for the safety of some of the most important men and women in the country. 

“We don’t do the job because we’re crazy,” Keenan says. “We do it because we love the outside-of-the-box thinking. It’s a challenge. You’re playing chess with someone who’s not here and not in any jeopardy, and the stakes are your life.”