When I first came to Washington in 1995 as a CBS News correspondent, the U.S. Capitol building was truly “The People’s House.” Anybody could walk in and browse around, walk the historic marble floors, look at the historic statues. No metal detectors. No police or security guards removing perfume from your purse in case it’s a plot to build an explosive device from liquid.
The same sort of access was available to the public and press at most federal buildings at the time.
Even the White House, more secure than the other buildings back then, was less like a command bunker. Anybody could drive right along the public street adjacent to the back of the White House and take a look.
Of course everything, understandably, changed with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most any building occupied by the federal government became a fortress. Concrete barriers were erected all over the city to make it harder for a car bomber to drive into a building. Police are routinely stationed on streets, at places they rarely were seen before. Metal detectors, police and security guards, sweeps with mirrors under your car as you enter a parking garage, all became the norm.
A complete web of rules and restrictions was adopted, dictating who could enter what building and when. It involved various combinations of: Call ahead. Get clearance. Submit your Social Security number. Show your driver’s license. Have an escort.
And that street by the White House was closed to ordinary vehicle traffic. It’s been treated to an expanding array of fencing, guard shacks and Secret Service presence.
Shortly after 9/11, many of us wondered if the changes to our nation’s capital would be permanent — and hoped it would not have to be. Since then, security measures have expanded further. And with each new restriction, there’s opportunity for abuse. Federal officials sometimes use supposed security concerns as an excuse to control access and information; the public becomes further distanced from the elected and hired officials who are supposed to work for them.
Years ago, when I was breaking news about the Obama administration’s “Fast and Furious” scandal, it was nearly impossible for me to get access to then-Attorney General Eric Holder to ask any questions. One day, the Department of Justice (DOJ) hastily announced a briefing about Fast and Furious to be held at its offices. CBS sent me out the door to attend.
As I rushed out the door, Holder’s right-hand press aide, Tracy Schmaler, called to tell me I would not be admitted. Only the friendly beat reporters regularly assigned to DOJ would be allowed in through security.
Clearly, I wasn’t a security concern. They knew me and, besides, I had undergone FBI background checks to get White House hard passes; I was no threat. This was a seminal moment. At the time, I told CBS managers we should challenge the administration’s use of “security concerns” to exert politically motivated control over who enters a public building. I argued that it would only get worse if we allowed federal officials to use a security posture as a way to determine who covers them and who does not. Although the managers agreed, we didn’t pursue the challenge.
Some years ago, after a set of budget cuts, the main public entrance to the Russell Senate Office Building across from the Capitol was temporarily shut down. I wondered if it was part of an effort by sequestration opponents to make it visibly look as if important, tangible things were being cut. After all, the closing of the entrance inconvenienced thousands of people daily visiting and working at the Capitol. Years later? The grand entrance never reopened, as far as I know.
This week, upon my most recent visit to Capitol Hill for work, security was tighter than I’ve ever seen before. Tighter than after 9/11, and tighter than during the presidential inaugurations I’ve covered. Unspecified fears over some sort of upcoming security threat have led to what looks like a militarized zone, with police, National Guard troops, blocked roads and new fencing sporting circles of barbed concertina wire atop. They call the circle around the fortification “The Perimeter.”
“Are you trying to get into The Perimeter?” a military officer asked as my Uber driver pulled up to find out if we could get anywhere close to the congressional offices surrounding the Capitol.
Then, on Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) demanded more funding for more security, blaming COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot conducted by what she called “all the president’s men.” And the Pentagon said it is reviewing a Capitol Police request to extend the National Guard’s presence for two months beyond the deployment’s scheduled end on March 12. All this on a day when Capitol Hill security was tightened even further because of reports that some members of an unnamed militia group chatted online about trying to breach the Capitol again.
Admittedly, I don’t have access to the intelligence to which they’re responding, and the measures could well be appropriate. But I’ve been to war-torn and third-world nations that didn’t look anything like this. The security measures, to me, looked like enough to fight a large army.