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Wake Up!

The Capitol complex security system has been tested not once, but twice, in the past year, and it failed both times. The first incident occurred March 6, when two “performance artists” with suspicious objects duct-taped to their bodies brushed past guards at a Capitol entrance and wandered around for 10 to 15 minutes before being apprehended in the Crypt while dancing in front of a group of tourists.

The second, of course, occurred Thursday, when a staffer to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) sent her backpack through a Cannon House Office Building X-ray machine with a toy gun inside, setting off a 90-minute emergency situation. So far as we know, the March incident led to no significant changes in the security system. And while the Halloween uproar apparently has awakened Congressional leaders to the need for security improvements, it’s not enough.

We’re glad to hear that Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer has a plan to test security checkpoints by sending people through with fake identification documents and illegal objects. The Halloween incident occurred because the police officer on duty at the X-ray machine was distracted by an inquiry from a visitor and only noticed a minute later that a gun-shaped object had made its way into the building. Let’s face it: Looking at X-ray screens all day long is tedious work. The officers who do it probably welcome a distraction. So, to keep them alert, it’s important that they know they’ll be tested on an unannounced basis.

The second lesson learned from last week’s incident is that emergency communications in the Capitol still don’t work. The Cannon officer notified her supervisor about the gun’s entry a few minutes after it occurred, around 12:50 p.m. Several minutes later, the word was out on television that police were hunting a gun-toting intruder in Cannon. But an e-mail message didn’t go out to Cannon offices until approximately1:30 p.m. and a Housewide e-mail didn’t go out until 2:13 p.m., about the same time that a message made it through the annunciator voice-alert system. Gainer said it took 13 minutes to compose the initial message to Cannon officers and get it cleared through various channels.

Gainer has decided to create a position under his command to handle emergency communications, but there’s still a question: What’s the message in such a situation? At first, officers told Cannon staffers to stay in their offices (which seems sensible if a gun- toter is prowling), then to go to the Cannon Rotunda, then back to their offices. Now there was a spat between Gainer and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) about the police chief’s decision to require people to wait before going through magnetometers until their packages and briefcases have cleared X-ray machines. This has produced minor delays.

The police and Congressional leaders have got to get all this right before history repeats itself. One of these days, as happened that tragic day in July 1998, the intruder won’t be a “performance artist” and the weapon won’t be a toy.

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