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After 9/11, Safety Became Focus for Bob Ney

This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day’s events changed — and didn’t change — life in Washington.

Then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) was chairman of the House Administration Committee on Sept. 11, 2001, and from that post played a central role in dealing with Members’ concerns and overseeing the security upgrades around the Capitol complex in the years following 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks. Below are portions of an interview with Ney conducted by Roll Call’s Lauren W. Whittington regarding his recollections of that day and the events that followed:

“It’s like the Kennedy assassination. I was in third grade and I remember exactly when I heard it. This is the same thing. I was in my Longworth personal office. Brett Palmer, who had worked for me at the time … he came running in and he turned the TV on and he said a plane’s hit the tower. My first reaction was air traffic controller mistake or something. The second plane, when it crashed in, I said to Brett, ‘This is a terrorist attack.’

I immediately went three floors up to House Administration. We oversaw the security of the Capitol with [Bill] Livingood, the Sergeant-at-Arms. So I went upstairs and [House Administration Staff Director] Neil Volz and [Deputy Staff Director] Channing Nuss were there.

A strange thing happened. Fred Hay, who worked for House Administration, was at a dental appointment and he was late and he was always very conscientious about calling in. I was on the phone with the Sergeant-at-Arms office … we were talking about going to the high alert of the Capitol. Sara [Salupo] came running in and she was crying and she had a cellphone and she said ‘take this.’ … It was Fred Hay on the other line and he was coming back from the dental appointment and he was calling in because he was going to be late. And he said to me … ‘I think this plane is crashing into the Pentagon.’ He could see it.

I immediately said to the Sergeant-at-Arms office, ‘I think a plane is crashing into the Pentagon,’ and they said, ‘It might be a hoax.’ And Fred was yelling, ‘It’s coming in!’ It flew above his car I believe. … We actually talked about the evacuation [of the Capitol] there on the phone before the plane hit the Pentagon and then it instantly crashed in. … They said we’re going to evacuate.”

* * * * *

“I will never forget the Capitol Police and one policeman was yelling, ‘Leave, there’s a plane inbound in 14 minutes.’ I can remember him saying that. … But what I’ll never forget about that was the Capitol Police who stayed, in their minds knowing that a plane was headed there. … The remarkable bravery. Also people helping each other. It was — for a chaotic, horrible situation — it was very orderly and the police were just fantastic.”

* * * * *

“We had about 200 BlackBerrys [deployed to Members and staff as part of a pilot program at the time]. I was actually testing one. I didn’t want to. … Every single thing went out in Washington. You couldn’t make a call if somebody had a gun to your head. That BlackBerry worked. Because eventually Neil Volz said there’s an undisclosed location, come up here. That’s how I found out about where everybody that could be communicated with was going. … Eventually it was like a street corner thing. … Members got the word to come to the location, which was the Capitol Police building, as we know. After that [then-House Administration ranking member] Steny Hoyer [D-Md.] and I through the House budget paid for a BlackBerry for every single Member that wanted one.”

* * * * *

“When I got there, [then-House Minority Leader Dick] Gephardt [D-Mo.] was there [at Capitol Police headquarters]. [Then-House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay [R-Texas], Hoyer, myself. If I recall correctly maybe 40 to 50-some Members, House and Senate. Then eventually more Members started coming.

The full body never did get there at that time. … Steny Hoyer and I addressed the House Members [at about 4 p.m.]. There had to be about 150-some Members there by that time. … Members were beginning to say, and rightfully so, to say we should go to the Capitol or we should do something. Some Members wanted to have [a] session. There was a lot of different ideas. I remember Hoyer and I talked to them to some extent … about the fact that, look, we don’t know what all that is out there. We don’t know what all can happen. So the decision was made by them to go sing ‘God Bless America’ on the [Capitol] steps.”

* * * * *

“There was this working group formed who immediately began to talk about what we needed to do. And life changed. And then anthrax came and then life changed again. A lot of decisions had to be made. … That was the beginning of a six-month saga. In the sense that we had to immediately sit down as a working group. … I can tell you within that week immediately hundreds of ideas — some very thoughtful, most very thoughtful, some not — started pouring in from Members and staff. And we appreciated that. But we had to do a series of security changes because we didn’t ever face anything like that.

[Then-Chief Administrative Officer] Jay Eagen came up with the idea to put this working group together to get the immediate urgent emergency changes. The second part would be the urgent ones. The third part the short-term, and the fourth part the long-term. … That’s how we proceeded from then on. Now thank goodness we had that working group because then we had anthrax on the heels of that.”

* * * * *

“Steny Hoyer to this day I admire his 100 percent integrity, cooperation. He put the institution and the safety of Members and staff first. There were decisions immediately that had to be made that really were frankly sensitive that could have caused a huge stir. Steny Hoyer never played one single minute of politics on any of those decisions. He made decisions based on what was best for the institution. He was amazing. There were Members who wanted to shut stuff down, Members who wanted to keep stuff open. The tours weren’t up and running. I could go on and on with a list of 200 things [that Members proposed]. … They were delicate decisions and Steny Hoyer just really rose to the occasion. … He was just an institutionalist and cared about their safety.”

* * * * *

“I remember one thing about this. Speaker [Dennis] Hastert [R-Ill.] said to me, if not once, 10 times, ‘I want security and I want safety, but I want this to be the people’s House, I want it to be open.’ That was his mandate. … I think overall it’s a very balanced approached [to security] that we have done. … It’s a moment we hope never happens again. I do think it’s better security for the employees and the Members of Congress and the press — you’ve got to go into that building, too. I think it’s a better system and it’s not foolproof, but I think it’s much better than it was the day before 9/11.”

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