How to Protect Members of Congress

On Wednesday, the FBI and the U.S. Capitol Police will brief members of Congress on basic security precautions they can take when they're interacting with constituents. Also on the agenda: an explanation of how Capitol Police officers conduct threat assessments. What the members are likely to hear may be as simple as surrounding themselves with aides wearing suits or setting up a thin rope line to create a slight barrier between them and possible danger.

They will also hear about threats beyond the shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrence Gainer told WTOP Radio on Monday that he had referred 49 threats against senators alone to the FBI within the past year. But the rarity of actual assassination attempts against members of Congress underscores the challenge for investigators.

"A lot of people will talk, but a tiny few will act; and most who act tend not to talk beforehand," is how one current federal agent describes people who threaten public officials.

Killing the president or vice president might significantly jeopardize national security, which is why merely threatening to kill the commander-in-chief and his deputy are Class De felonies. It's much tougher, however, for prosecutors to build cases against people who threaten members of Congress.

No central database exists of every e-mail sent to a congressional office, and most members of Congress would be horrified if it did. If an assault occurs, the FBI takes over, as it would for an incident involving any federal government employee, from letter carriers to lawmakers.

Still, according to former Secret Service agents and current physical-protection specialists, members can take commonsense steps to reduce the likelihood of an incident, steps that only mildly compromise their access to the public, if at all.

According to a federal official who is preparing the advice, the Capitol Police will recommend that when members hold well-publicized outside events with uncontrolled access, they should request the presence of a police officer from the local jurisdiction. In most cases, the police will know about the event anyway, because congressional staffers would have obtained permits.

In a conference call with members yesterday, Capitol Police officials emphasized that local police agencies will rarely refuse a request from a member of Congress to provide an officer for such events - and that if those agencies do, members should ask the Capitol Police to intercede.

Local police officers tend to be less intimidating than private bodyguards and often are seen as members of the community, so their presence isn't likely to deter anyone who is friendly from attending an event. They can watch members of the crowd for suspicious behavior or for people who just seem particularly nervous, as several witnesses described Giffords's alleged assailant, Jared Loughner, moments before the shooting.  

The mere presence of an armed police officer, even 20 feet away from the principal, can deter an attacker - a technique that personal-security teams use to great effect.

The 40,000-member New York City Police Department routinely assigns an officer to senators when they are in the city.  But it's not reasonable to expect, say, the California Highway Patrol to provide officers for every congressional event held by all 54 members of the state's congressional delegation during a recess. Nor are small-town police departments always able to spare officers. Moreover, the willingness of local enforcement to help out will probably diminish as this most recent incident recedes into the past.

So, aides who set up the events must assume some responsibility. "When these staffers go out and do these advance visits, [the events] are mostly scheduled and looked at from the perspective of what the VIP wants," said Bruce Bowen, a former deputy director of the Secret Service. "They have to go into a new mode, if you will": Start taking a look at from a quasi-security perspective."  That is, look at an event the way a Secret Service agent might.   

If the member is sitting at a table, make sure the table is positioned near some sort of concrete pillar that could provide cover.  Make sure that the member can quickly move to a vehicle if something happens.  A bit of training can help staffers detect unusual behavior in a crowd, said Bowen, who also ran the government's federal law-enforcement training program and is now a principal at the Command Consulting Group.

"On the day of the event, you get there early, and you watch for early arrivals; you watch for outlandish behavior and clothing; you see if someone is sweating but it's 45 degrees out; if someone has unusual clothing on which could hide a weapon; or if someone keeps moving to a different part of the crowd."

(Bowen doesn't recommend that the staffers intervene - simply notifying a police officer or their boss might be sufficient, he says.)

Indeed,  having an emergency plan - briefing the member on what to do in the event of an emergency - increases the likelihood that he or she will react quickly.  

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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