House office building shut down after apparent breach of security

Officer at checkpoint thought toy gun was real

October 31, 2003|By Nick Anderson and Faye Fiore | Nick Anderson and Faye Fiore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Police locked down a House office building yesterday in search of an armed intruder and a possible accomplice after a guard reported seeing a gun in an X-ray image at a security checkpoint. But the gun turned out to be a plastic toy revolver stashed in a bag with a Halloween costume, and the suspects turned out to be apologetic congressional aides who authorities said were neither criminals nor pranksters.

The incident, though harmless in the end, rattled Capitol Hill for about two hours on a busy October afternoon and reinforced concerns about security, which had been increased after the Sept. 11 attacks and the discovery of deadly anthrax spores in letters to legislators the next month.

The House abruptly recessed for an hour and 20 minutes, and a number of meetings, including one of the Homeland Security Committee, were disrupted. Many lawmakers and hundreds of aides and visitors were locked in the Cannon House Office Building while police on high alert conducted a floor-by-floor search and heavily armed SWAT teams stood by.

Although the focus was on the Cannon building, where the breach was reported shortly after 1 p.m., security was also tightened at the neighboring Longworth and Rayburn House office buildings and in the Capitol. Despite visible signs of intense police activity, some lawmakers accused Capitol authorities of failing to follow protocols. The alarm system, lockdown and evacuation of the Cannon building did not operate as they should have, the critics said.

"If this had been a real incident, we would all be dead," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who was with her staff in Room 102 of the Cannon building. "The procedures put in place were not apparently used."

Lofgren and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat whose office is also in the building, said their staffs were not notified of a security problem until at least a half-hour after the incident began. McCarthy said she learned about the lockdown from her New York staff, who saw reports about it on television.

"I'm mad," McCarthy said. "This is a system that is supposed to be working, and it failed."

Other House members, though, praised the police response.

"Our Capitol Police are doing an outstanding job," said Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee. "We have full confidence in their capabilities."

Police tightened security at entries after a fatal Capitol shooting in July 1998 and installed additional screening measures after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, who reviewed videotape of activity at the security checkpoint, said the actions of the officer involved did not appear to be negligent. But he acknowledged that his force needs to re-examine procedures at X-ray machines.

"To that extent, it's another lesson learned," Gainer said.

Times staff writers Shweta Govindarajan and Ken Silverstein contributed to this report. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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