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Security on Capitol Hill Is Put to the Test

A toy gun prompts a lockdown -- and fresh concerns -- at a House office building.

October 31, 2003|Nick Anderson and Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Police locked down a House office building Thursday in search of an armed intruder and a possible accomplice after a guard reported seeing a gun in an X-ray image at a security checkpoint. But the gun turned out to be a plastic toy revolver stashed in a bag with a Halloween costume, and the suspects turned out to be apologetic congressional aides who authorities said were neither criminals nor pranksters.

The incident, though harmless in the end, rattled Capitol Hill for about two hours on a busy October afternoon and reinforced concerns about security, which had been bolstered in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the discovery of deadly anthrax spores in letters to legislators the following month.

The House abruptly recessed for an hour and 20 minutes, and a number of meetings, including one of the Homeland Security Committee, were disrupted. Many lawmakers and hundreds of aides and visitors were locked in the Cannon House Office Building while police on high alert conducted a floor-by-floor search and heavily armed SWAT teams stood by.

Although the focus was on the Cannon Building, where the breach was reported shortly after 1 p.m., security was also tightened at the neighboring Longworth and Rayburn House office buildings and the Capitol.

Despite visible signs of intense police activity, some lawmakers accused Capitol authorities of failing to follow well-drilled protocols. The alarm system, lockdown and evacuation of the Cannon Building did not operate as they should have, the critics said.

"If this had been a real incident, we would all be dead," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who was with her staff in Room 102 of the Cannon Building. "The procedures put in place were not apparently used."

Lofgren and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose office is also in the building, said their staffs were not notified of a security problem until at least half an hour after the incident began. McCarthy said she learned about the lockdown from her New York staff, which saw reports about it on television.

"I'm mad," McCarthy said. "This is a system that is supposed to be working, and it failed."

Other House members, though, praised the police response.

"Our Capitol Police are doing an outstanding job," said Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, speaking with reporters outside the Cannon Building. "We have full confidence in their capabilities."

The disturbance began when an officer posted at the building's southeastern entrance noticed an image of a gun in a knapsack that had passed through an X-ray machine. But the officer, according to Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, was momentarily distracted in conversation and did not see who picked up the bag upon leaving the checkpoint.

At first, police searched for a man the officer thought might have taken the bag. Then they looked for a woman who had come through about the same time. As they were searching, they shut down tunnels and other access points, leaving open only one doorway, facing Independence Avenue, to accommodate a slow trickle of lawmakers, staff members and visitors leaving the building.

Then a lawmaker, whom Gainer declined to identify, ended the suspense by calling police to say two female aides had the bag they were seeking and its harmless contents. Gainer said the two unidentified women, who were interviewed by police, apologized for any misunderstanding over a plastic toy gun that was part of a Halloween get-up.

"I don't think they had any ill intent," Gainer said. "They're very sorry this has all happened." He said police did not intend to pursue any charges.

The women's employer was later identified as Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). He told WTOP Radio in Washington that the two young women, whom he described as "good kids," were "pretty embarrassed."

Police tightened security at entries after a fatal July 1998 Capitol shooting and installed additional screening measures after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A visitors center is under construction on the Capitol grounds enable police to check visitors at a distance from lawmakers and the House and Senate chambers.

Gainer, who reviewed videotape of activity at the security checkpoint, said the officer involved did not appear negligent. But he acknowledged that his force needs to reexamine procedures at X-ray machines.

"To that extent, it's another lesson learned," Gainer said.

There was, perhaps, another lesson: Lawmakers said they should consider barring all toy guns from the Capitol grounds. Said one Republican aide, Yier Shi, who works for Rep. Doug Ose of Sacramento: "I think congressional staffers could be smarter than to bring a fake gun through an X-ray."

Times staff writers Shweta Govindarajan and Ken Silverstein contributed to this report.

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