Congress’ Security Needs Still Evolving

Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:09pm

Two months after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), lawmakers have embraced some tangible security changes. But law enforcement officials in both chambers are still combating Member complacency.

In the House, a majority of offices have registered a staffer as their law enforcement coordinator, signaling that in general, they have become more vigilant of security at district events.

The most recent security-related move in the Senate was the hiring of the former No. 3 man in the Secret Service to oversee dignitary protection, intelligence operations and interaction with local and state law enforcement.

Michael Stenger has been hired as assistant Sergeant-at-Arms for intelligence and protective services, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said Monday. The position is a new one, created to increase the agency’s focus on dignitary protection, and Stenger is the first former Secret Service agent to join Gainer’s staff.

The 36-year agency veteran retired in February as the assistant director of the Secret Service Office of Investigations. Before that, he held positions running the agency’s Office of Congressional Affairs and the Washington, D.C., field office.

“I got what we could call a two-fer out of this: He understands Congress and he knows the Secret Service and threat assessment inside out,” Gainer said.

In his first two weeks on the job, Stenger has met with Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse and Assistant Chief Dan Nichols about six times, Gainer said. He also has a good relationship with House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, another Secret Service veteran, and has met with House-side security personnel.

Gainer, chairman of the Capitol Police Board, said the long-term security goal is to be more strategic in how to defend against threats, and the Capitol Police have detailed more people to the threat assessment section. But the strategy is still in flux, he added.

“I believe we’re all still in the monitoring phase to see what the long-term effect of this could be to see how many more people we could need or how your reprioritize your people,” he said.

Among the duties that will be in Stenger’s bailiwick but for which a plan of action is still in the works is monitoring social media, Gainer said.

After the Giffords shooting, press reports mused that accused shooter Jared Loughner left evidence of his depravity in odd YouTube videos. Gainer said he would like to explore a way to pre-emptively connect those dots.

“I’d like to know more about what extremists, hateful people, are yakking about. We’re looking at how to do that so it’s cost-effective and doesn’t violate anybody’s rights,” he said.

But the challenge, he added, is making sense of the voluminous, and often bizarre, online material.

“It’s complicated, there’s a lot of it, and it might be like a dog chasing a car: What will it do if it catches one?” he said. “But it needs to be done.”

Gainer has asked that Senators appoint one person in each of the 454 nationwide offices to be in charge of security at events. His approach is more laissez faire than in the House, where more than 300 offices have complied with Livingood’s recommendation not just to appoint a law enforcement coordinator, but to register that staffer with the Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms.

The Sergeant-at-Arms’ website has a section with information for the designated staffers, including a template letter to send to local law enforcement. 

Members can spend a portion of their representational allowances to train the staffer in CPR, mental health or other necessary information. House Administration Committee aides have said that a training webinar might be in the works, too.

But that leaves more than 100 offices that have yet to register a staffer.

House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and ranking member Robert Brady (D-Pa.) co-signed a “Dear Colleague” letter March 10 reminding offices to do so.

In an interview, Lungren said he’ll keep sending letters and talking to offices, but the security issue becomes more removed from the forefront as time passes.

“Members of Congress are no different from anyone else. They have busy lives and they get distracted by other things,” he said. “One of my obligations is to remind them, so I’ll keep doing it.”

In a PowerPoint presentation posted on the agency’s website, the House Sergeant-at-Arms Office warned against that very attitude.

“Complacency is the foremost enemy of good security,” the presentation reads. “The more time that passes without incident, the more likely you are to let your guard down.”

Jennifer Riggs said juggling the district director and law enforcement coordinator roles for Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger is not difficult. It basically just involves a phone call to inform police when the Maryland Democrat schedules a district event, she said.

“It doesn’t take up a whole lot of time,” Riggs said. “I think it’s a good position and it’s something we absolutely should be doing in light of what happened out in Arizona.”

She said the district office underwent a threat assessment and she will oversee the implementation of any added security recommendations. 

Still, several Congressmen approached on Tuesday said they were unsure whether they had appointed a law enforcement coordinator, indicating that in many offices the issue is being handled at the staff level.

But freshman Rep. Michael Grimm, a former undercover FBI agent, suggested Members take more ownership over their security. 

“I know that I assigned one,” the New York Republican said. “It’s all rational, reasonable, very simple approaches to everyone being more aware of their surroundings and understanding these protocols in place in case of any type of tragedy.”