If an event similar to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place on Capitol Hill today, who would be in charge of the response?
According to one person with intimate knowledge of Congressional security, too many people, who run too many emergency plans.
While praising individual officers, former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle argued in a recent interview that by allowing non-security officials to take part in emergency operations, Congress is potentially weakening its response capabilities.
“You have many different players on the House side who believe they all should have a say,” he said. “These people want a role, but they have no experience.”
Don Kellaher, the assistant House Sergeant-at-Arms, disagreed with Pickle, arguing that his boss, Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, is fully confident in the chamber’s current emergency response plan.
“He does feel very strongly that he’s in charge of the response of any attack,” said Kellaher, pointing out that Livingood was praised for his response after Sept. 11.
“We do have a team here,” Kellaher added. “We’re proud of the the team that Mr. Livingood leads.”
But Pickle’s concern is in the team structure.
In the House, responsibility is divided between Livingood and other officers. Then there’s the Office of Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Operations, which handles certain aspects of emergency plans.
Meanwhile, all emergency operations in the Senate are managed by that chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms, a position currently filled by former Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer.
Differences in Structures
The centralized Senate and the decentralized House are different institutions and thus differences are necessary in their response plans, a Democratic leadership aide noted.
“The Senate only has a Secretary of the Senate and a Sergeant-at-Arms,” the aide said. “We have a CAO, a Clerk, a Sergeant-at-Arms and an Office of Emergency Planning and Preparedness. Just by the way the institutions are set up, there are differences.”
It is important to mimic day-to-day functions as much as possible during an emergency, argued Rob Noll, the director of business continuity and disaster recovery for the Chief Administrative Officer. If things are changed during a disaster, the response could be ineffective, Noll said.
But Pickle argued that civilian officers, who are not specifically trained in security issues to begin with, should have minimal responsibilities when it comes to security issues.
“I don’t deny that the officers in the House shouldn’t meet with the House Sergeant-at-Arms,” Pickle said. “They should meet … but there has to be one boss.”
Pickle praised Livingood’s capabilities, noting he served in the Secret Service for more than 30 years. Pickle’s concern is that players on the House side who want a say in security matters are getting one — even if they are not qualified.
“Personalities in the House are very strong,” Pickle said. “If a personality is strong enough, he may assume the mantle of leadership.”
When former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) served as Majority Leader, he twice brought forth proposals that would create more unified emergency plans across Capitol Hill, Pickle recalled.
Neither proposal ever went anywhere.
“The reality is, as your get further away post-9/11, complacency sets in,” Pickle said.
Even if there was a desire to reorganize things, handing over some of the CAO’s responsibilities to the Sergeant-at-Arms would be complicated. About 70 percent of the things the Senate security chief is tasked with fall to the CAO in the House, current CAO Dan Beard noted.
And logistically, the House also is a far more complex institution than the Senate, Beard argued. There are 10,000 employees in the House — 7,000 who work on Capitol Hill — and there are far more Members.
Beard also noted that House officers and other important officials meet regularly to discuss security issues, hold regular drills and have an array of contingency plans.
“To me, it doesn’t matter whether there’s one person in charge or 10 people,” Beard said. “The question is — are you prepared?”
For obvious reasons, the Capitol Police would be the first agency on Capitol Hill to respond to any terrorist attack or other major emergency.
It would then be up to Capitol Hill officials to handle the complicated next steps.
The Capitol Police Board, consisting of the Sergeants-at-Arms and the Architect of the Capitol, serves as the link between police and the respective chambers’ leadership, Gainer said.
Continuous communication would be set up through telephone, video or some combination, allowing officials to inform the necessary people what’s going on, Gainer said.
In the immediate term, the No. 1 priority would be to move everyone to a safe environment, Gainer said.
That requires immediate and likely complicated decision-making: Do you abandon the buildings? Keep people inside? Shut down Congress indefinitely?
“A lot of it is situation-dependent, and depends if Congress is in session,” Gainer noted.
The ideal situation on the Senate side would be to have a unified command, Gainer said.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen can make cooking very difficult,” Gainer noted. “But not impossible.”
On the House side, Livingood would stand alongside Gainer and the Architect to deal with security response, Kellaher said.
The Clerk and CAO would oversee other matters, from chamber operations to legislative services to helping relocating offices, if needed.
“You have the attack, and you have the response to the attack from a security perspective,” Kellaher said. “Then you have the branching out into the continuity of operations.”
Leadership in both chambers also would play a role in directing the continuity response.
Ted Van Der Meid, who served as counsel to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), noted that most of the House response would fall to the Capitol Police.
Afterward, leadership would make decisions on briefings, the House schedule — even relocating if necessary, said Van Der Meid, who now works for the international law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.
For example, following the 2001 anthrax attacks, many Member offices were moved to the Government Accountability Office, an effort coordinated by the House Administration Committee. While the offices were small, consisting of a Member and minimal staff, it worked.
House officers also planned for a relocation in case the chamber became unusable, Van Der Meid said.
Van Der Meid also noted the importance of bipartisanship, recalling how Hastert worked very closely with then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) following both the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks.
“I felt very confident,” Van Der Meid said. “I think the police are light years ahead of where they were on Sept. 11, and I think both the House and Senate are able to relocate and function. It isn’t easy but it is doable.”