Military police join patrols around Capitol

National Guard looks for terrorist threats beside regular officers

November 17, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Outfitted with combat boots, Army fatigues and 9 mm pistols, a new cadre of Capitol Hill inhabitants cut a startling silhouette yesterday against the marble landscape of Congress.

National Guard military police, with black-and-white "MP" bands on their left arms, had arrived to protect the House and Senate. The last time the Guard carried out a similar assignment was during the riots in Washington that broke out after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

This time, the menace is terrorism, a threat far harder to spot than fire and smoke.

The MPs went on duty last night, assisting Capitol police in stepped-up patrols that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sensitive to images of martial law, National Guard public relations officials insisted their mission was to support, not supplant, Capitol police.

Still, this was a military operation, and passers-by witnessed the unfamiliar sight of Guard MPs in black berets reporting to a makeshift command post in a building often used for congressional meetings.

Outside that headquarters, Staff Sgt. Anthony Baker said he realized some people might be alarmed by military forces around the Capitol, the emblem of American democracy and freedom. But he responded with a soldier's logic.

"The Guard is my duty," he said. "If they call me, I come."

The troops, who were sworn in and given arrest powers by Washington police, will serve for at least two weeks while the city determines whether the deployment is helpful and strikes the right balance between a military and civilian show of force. Officials estimate the Guard could remain at least another three months.

Three shifts of about 30 Guard members each are sharing patrols with Capitol police, many of whom have worked 12-hour days, six days a week, since the terrorist strikes. Guard troops have been instructed to work alongside a Capitol police officer, instead of on their own, and to stay on the outskirts of the congressional complex. Their duties are to be largely confined to keeping trucks off streets close to the Capitol.

They are not allowed to carry automatic rifles and are to travel in unmarked vans, not military vehicles.

"Having troops with M-16s on the Hill creates too much of a sense that there's a militia here - the people in the city don't want that and neither do we," said Guard Capt. Sheldon Smith, who left his job as a spokesman at the University of Maryland physics department to report for duty.

"We don't want this to look too much like a militarized camp," he said. "We work in a support role. We're not going to initiate any type of action."

Some Capitol police questioned whether the MPs would know how to react on a beat that demands delicacy.

"This is a job that requires you to react in a diplomatic way - things you'd stop everyone else for are brushed aside for members of Congress," said a Capitol police- man, who asked not to be named. "In the military they say, `These are our rules, and we stand by them.' But this is a political atmosphere, and you don't do that in a political atmosphere."

To that end, Baker said he had been memorizing some famous Hill faces: the majority whip and the speaker of the House. "I've been watching CNN," he said.

Though the National Guard regularly assists Capitol police during presidential inaugurations, military forces have been summoned by Congress for emergency purposes only a few times over the past century. In the 1930s, Marines reported to the Capitol grounds to control the "bonus marches" by working-class protesters.

Now the Capitol is living through a new kind of emergency.

Concerns about anthrax continue. Another envelope believed to contain the deadly powder surfaced yesterday, in a batch of old mail that had been quarantined after the initial attack.

The Environmental Protection Agency is deciding whether to fumigate the Hart Senate office building with chlorine dioxide gas after anthrax spores were found there. The agency is also decontaminating four House offices that tested positive for anthrax.

Life continues on Capitol Hill, but in a slightly altered state. Visitors notice the difference right away. They can enter the Capitol only by obtaining tickets from their representatives, so the halls are emptier than usual.

"I'm more disappointed that everything's closed than I am that there are Guardsmen here," said Marc Arnold, who brought his family from Rochester, N.Y., only to find that public tours of the White House and the FBI Building have yet to resume, for security reasons.

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