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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

Checking Under The Hood

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FEATURE ARTICLE

July/August 2004

Checking Under The Hood

By Lee J. Nelson

Too many times in the not-too-distant past, the United States and/or its citizens have been targets of terrorism. A few times, sad to say, terrorists succeeded in their attempts to thwart our combative efforts. Besides the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, two notable occurrences took place at the U.S. Capitol Building (Washington, DC):

  • A bomb went off in the cloak room adjacent to Senate chambers in 1983. Two left-wing radicals pled guilty to that attack.
  • A gunman (Russell Eugene Weston) fired inside the Rotunda on July 24, 1998. Shooting spilled into the offices of Representative Tom DeLay (Stafford, TX). Weston and a tourist (Angela Dickerson) were injured; two police officers (Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson) lost their lives.
police officer

In response to such actions, there have been manifold outcries for tighter security. But, despite authorities' assertions to the contrary, most of those appeals have gone unheeded.

Security for the 276-acre Capitol complex, which has 20,000 workers and more than a million visitors per year, is set by House and Senate leaders in consultation with police and safety officials.

On various occasions, Congress has reacted by closing streets, restricting tours and public access, beefing up entrance precautions, screening for explosives at doors and parking garages and adopting new electronic safety measures. At the behest of the U.S. Department of Transportation (John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, Cambridge, MA) and compelled further, perhaps, by the 9/11 experience, a multi-phase procurement was undertaken to develop an integrated security system for the Capitol Building and Congressional offices. The project includes a closed-circuit television network, enabling U.S. Capitol police to monitor activities throughout the complex from a central management facility. A primary objective, of course, is to help make better, safer surroundings for members of Congress, staff, legislative branch employees and -- most importantly -- for the American people and their Capitol.

To strengthen building security, a special access control and vehicle inspection system ties a license plate reader to a series of databases and recognition applications, giving Capitol police a new tool in identifying automobiles entering the complex. The program is intended to confirm those permitted to park in the underground garage, including congressmen and congresswomen, representatives, Supreme Court justices, support staff and Library of Congress employees. It's important to note the system is not designed to recognize cars which might be "flagged" by local law enforcement agencies. Rather, it expedites admission to previously registered, authorized vehicles and known denizens.

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