Barney Fifes of Capitol Hill


An incident occurred here the other day that reveals just how illusory true security can be even in an age of paranoia where every precaution, no matter how expensive, is taken to ward off the terrorist who lurks around every corner.

A wild eyed, drug impaired man in an SUV crashed through a police barricade, dashed up the East Front steps of the U.S. Capitol and led police on a three-story chase that ended when a civilian employee corralled him and handed him over to a small army of Capitol policemen. It turned out the man had a loaded handgun stuck in the waist of his trousers, but thankfully had made no effort to use it.

Now anyone outside the Beltway might consider this a minor affair that ended without injury or loss of life, a result that seems increasingly rare at a time when firearms are nearly as common as pocketknives used to be and even the tiniest fracas can end in death. The system worked here. Right? Wrong. That opinion fails to take into account the fact that just since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, U.S. taxpayers have been billed a cool $2 billion to secure the well being of those who represent them in Congress.

That money has been spent to boost the Capitol police force to a whopping 1,600 officers, more than Cleveland and other major American cities, and armed them with the most modern weapons and surveillance and security equipment available_ all to protect some 535 members of the House and Senate and their staffs in a 20-block area, including the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

Yet someone addled by narcotics can drive brazenly through a guarded construction site entrance _ Congress has been building an underground visitors center seemingly forever _ rush unimpeded up the Capitol steps and into the hallowed halls of the national legislature with the alacrity of the most accomplished lobbyist, trailing Lord only knows how many police officers until finally subdued by an office worker. Does the name Mack Sennett come to mind? Perhaps Keystone Kops would be more familiar.

By the way, the police officers omitted in their initial report that an untrained civilian had literally picked up the culprit and shoved him into their hands. Who can blame them? When that news emerged, the already furious _ and probably somewhat frightened _ senators and representatives became almost apoplectic. After all, it hadn’t been that long since a crazed man led police on a similar but more deadly chase through the Capitol, killing two police officers.

The most notoriety the force has had in the previous year or so has come from its altercations, not with those who threaten security, but those who it is supposed to protect. A guard failed to recognize a longtime member of Congress who had forgotten her identity badge, and then skirted security anyway, setting off a scuffle for which she later apologized. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, son of Sen. Edward Kennedy, was taken into custody briefly for impairment after he drove his car into a barrier. Older officers drove him home, infuriating some of the force’s younger members who seemed to believe their integrity had been compromised.

In this latest incident it turns out that the culprit entered a Capitol door that had been left unguarded despite warnings and that the police SUV that was supposed to be preventing access to the grounds through the construction site was turned the wrong way. It was not positioned across the entrance but perpendicular to it so that the man’s truck just sideswiped it out of the way.

Well, so much for professionalism. Where’s Barney Fife when we need him?

In the old days, the Capitol force was a patronage haven whose officers were supposed to be as inconspicuous as possible. Their first responsibility was not to offend the hundreds of thousands of constituents who tour the Capitol every year. Security in the legislative chambers and offices in the Capitol proper was augmented by District of Columbia police. All that changed, however, long before 9/11. Enhanced security began developing during the civil unrest of the Vietnam era and a fortune has been spent since just on limiting vehicle access.

But the old adage about the more things change seems to apply here. If any true terrorists were watching, they might not need much encouragement. The incident is likely to bring even tighter restrictions and more expenditure. There’s nothing like standing guard after the door already has been breached. But then no security is perfect, even the best money can buy.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)