Internal documents:Capitol ill-prepared for bomb attack

By Jordy Yager
Posted: 06/23/08 07:46 PM [ET]

A future terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol is highly probable, and Congress’s specialized bomb squad is unlikely to be able to deal with it, according to internal U.S. Capitol Police documents obtained by The Hill.

The unclassified internal letters and memos, written by Capitol Police captains, lieutenants, and sergeants between 2005 and 2007, detail more than three years of complaints to their superiors about the Hazardous Devices Unit’s lack of vehicles, its desire for more frequent training and the inadequate level of experience of bomb technicians within the specialty unit.

A suicide bombing or a car bomb are “the two major threats to the United States Capitol complex and the Congressional community,” according to a memo from mid-2006. While Washington, D.C., has not experienced the effects of such attacks, “the possibility that one of these two techniques may be used remains quite high and could become a reality.”

The 2006 document cited “intelligencce reports.”

Capitol Hill’s bomb squad, tasked with protecting lawmakers, their staffs and visiting dignitaries, is considered one of the premier hazardous device units in the country, and it responds to several hundred possible threats each year.

But morale in the unit has fallen because of several key issues raised in the internal letters, according to Capitol Police sources. They said the issues remain unresolved and could hamper the bomb squad’s ability to respond to an attack.

Nearly half of the unit’s 14 members are seeking jobs elsewhere, according to Capitol Police sources.

Members could find opportunities at the Pentagon, which is forming a bomb squad, sources said.

Capitol Police is “fully prepared to carry out our daily mission to protect the legislative process, in addition to responding to critical incidents on a daily basis,” said Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, Capitol Police spokeswoman. “We remain at a constant state of readiness.”

At the top of the elite unit’s concerns is its need for additional vehicles, particularly for off-duty members of the bomb squad who might be needed in the aftermath of an attack. For example, in the event of a coordinated simultaneous attack, a strategy that terrorist groups have used in recent years, bomb squad members returning to Capitol Hill could get stuck in traffic.

Off-duty bomb squad members must report to Capitol Hill in their own personal vehicles, which have no sirens and are impossible for other drivers to distinguish, according to the letters. Once on Capitol Hill, the returning squad members would have to park their own cars and then drive a departmental vehicle to the scene of the threat.

“To carry out its mission to protect the Congress, staff and public on the Capitol Campus and to remain in the forefront of bomb disposal technology, the Hazardous Devices Section [HDS] must have the vehicles that are appropriate and necessary to deploy its equipment,” said one document written in late 2006.

The memos say the unit’s fleet of vehicles cannot meet the needs of its new equipment, a problem Capitol Police sources said remains unresolved. The documents call for Capitol Police to buy more large vehicles to keep up with updated bomb squad equipment.

Schneider disagreed with that conclusion. She said the unit is adequately supplied, but would not cite specifics for security reasons. “They have vehicles that meet their needs,” Schneider said of the bomb squad.

The documents show bomb squad officials have also repeatedly requested more frequent training to stay abreast of the ever-evolving tactics used by terrorists.

“Specialized training and proficiency are of the utmost concern as HDS strives to perform its assigned mission under the department’s Strategic Plan,” said one document from last year, which cited eight training programs that had been postponed or canceled because there was no money to pay for them.

Capitol Police bomb technicians are required to complete a refresher course at the Hazardous Devices School in Redstone, Ala., every three years. But Capitol Police sources say this is not enough to keep up with techniques and devices employed by attackers.

The average Capitol Police bomb technician has three or four years of experience, with the most senior technician serving for more than 12 years, according to Capitol Police sources.

Schneider said bomb squad members receive adequate training, and that the squad includes members with extensive experience. The squad also includes younger members, who are mentored by senior members they are expected to succeed.

“The combination and the mix of experience levels is critical to a good unit, and we do have that,” she said.

The documents, however, make repeated requests to increase the unit’s numbers and experience.

Another problem in the squad highlighted by Capitol Police sources is that the department does not promote bomb squad administrators from within the unit. Bomb squad administrators organize the unit’s response to threats, but rarely have bomb-related experience.

The reason for this policy is that the department wants to have individuals who are good at organizing and administrative duties in those positions, while those most familiar with bomb threats are on hand to deal with actual bombs.

Current and former police officials, however, defended this policy.

“When I was chief, the captain of the bomb unit was an outstanding technician and a very good captain, but that was relatively unique,” said Terrance Gainer, former Capitol Police chief and current Senate sergeant at arms. “In my experience, I think finding both combinations is rare. So what you try to do is have great technicians, sergeants who have stronger technical skills than they are managers, and then lieutenants and captains who have great leadership skills who aren’t making technical decisions.”

Schneider further explained the department’s policy. “It’s an administrative choice,” she said. “The assignment of personnel overall and assignment of supervisory personnel is standardized across the department and it’s based on the needs of the department. If it’s going to support the mission, then the department’s going to move in that direction, move people and assign them appropriately.”

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