On January 6, 2021, a mob of pro-Trump protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol building and were able to access not just the Senator floor, but also Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office. The riot continued on for hours and caused the deaths of five people. This devastating historical event raised multiple questions, one of them the question of just how secure these government facilities are supposed to be.
Politics aside, here are some interesting facts and trivia about how government buildings in Washington D.C. are usually protected and what the next government can do to improve security and learn from what happened.
Since the U.S. Capitol building houses the United States Congress, which is traditionally the branch of government that the people have the most access to, the building was designed to reflect that openness. As time went on, the institution (rightfully) found reasons to add additional security precautions and measures in response to threats and attacks. For example, after 9/11 happened, multiple anthrax spores were mailed to various congressional offices, which led to additional security precautions and measures being adopted to combat the threat of a biological attack. The D.C. National Guard was even called in to assist in protecting the Capitol in ensuing months.
Police and Guards
The Capitol building’s security is primarily manned by the U.S. Capitol Police. It’s a relatively small force: Roughly 2,000 uniformed officers are guarding 2,300 employees, including civilian ones. Four members of the Capitol Police Board are in charge of overseeing this police force, and there is Congressional oversight as well. Firearms are generally prohibited in the U.S. Capitol Grounds and only law enforcement officers who are performing their official duties are allowed to carry. Government facilities are generally protected by an armed property security guard, and the Capitol building is no exception.
The U.S. Capitol building welcomes visitors through its Capitol Visitor Center, but anyone who enters the building is prohibited from bringing the following:
- Liquid, including water
- Box cutters or razors
- Beverages or foods of any kind, including unopened packaged foods and fruit
- Pepper spray or mace
- Aerosol containers
- Knives of any kind or size
- Non-aerosol spray (it can be permitted if it’s prescriptions for medical needs)
- Any bag larger than 14″ high x 18″ wide x 8.5″ deep
- Any pointed object, e.g. knitting needles and letter openers (pencils and pens are allowed)
- Guns (even fake or replica ones), ammunition, and fireworks
- Electric stun guns
- Martial arts weapons, tools, or devices
When visiting the Senate and House Galleries, the following items are not allowed:
- Battery-operated electronic devices (medical devices are allowed)
- Recording devices or any other types of video recorders
- Bottles and cans
- Perfume, creams, and lotions
- Suitcases, packages, backpacks, or briefcases
As seen above, any item no matter how mundane, as long as it can cause harm, is prohibited from the Capitol building. This is in an effort to protect not just the Senate and the Congress, but also the public.
Underground Tunnels and Nuclear Fallout Shelter
Moving on to the White House, which is the seat of the U.S. president and vice president. Very little is known about the building’s secret tunnels and bunkers, but here are some of them:
- There is more than one underground bunker. One of them is beneath the East Wing, where the Presidential Emergency Operations Center is located. It was built during World War II as a protective and safety measure for president Franklin Roosevelt. Vice president Richard Cheney was also sheltered there during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
- The other, and newer, bunker was built as a response to the 9/11 attacks. It was built upon the realization that if there was indeed a radiological or biological attack, the president and his family and staff could not be evacuated immediately to a remote location. The government realized there was a need for in-house shelter within the White House where people could immediately be evacuated and protected.
The United States Secret Service is mandated to guard not just the White House but also the Treasure building, and foreign diplomatic missions that take place in Washington. They are also tasked to protect the First Family, the vice president and their family, the president-elect and the vice president-elect, and even former living presidents and their families. Not many know that the Secret Service is also tasked to protect presidential candidates, heads of states who are visiting the U.S., and U.S. representatives who are performing special missions abroad.
The Bottom Line
While government buildings are the people’s institutions, the recent riots prove the need for not just tighter security, but for hearts to change before true reconciliation can happen. Here’s to hoping.