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Congressional Security and the Tucson Shooting

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By Fred Burton and Sean Noonan

Following the Jan. 8 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Federal District Judge John McCarthy Roll and 17 others in Tucson, Arizona, discussion has focused on the motivations and ideology of the accused shooter, Jared Loughner. While it was important to make a quick assessment of Loughner's profile in order to evaluate the possibility of an organized threat, all the available evidence (though not conclusive) indicates that he acted alone.

For the most part, discussion of the event has not touched on a re-evaluation of security for members of Congress. STRATFOR has previously analyzed the issues surrounding presidential security, and while there are common concerns in protecting all branches of government, Congress and the judiciary involve much larger numbers of people — 535 representatives and senators and more than 3,000 federal judges. And members of Congress put a high priority on public accessibility, which makes them more vulnerable.

A common mindset of politicians and their staffers is that better security will limit their accessibility and thus hinder their ability to do their job (and win elections). In fact, there are a number of measures that members of Congress and other public officials can institute for better security without limiting accessibility. While staying in a secure facility would be the safest, it isn't a realistic option. What is realistic — and effective — is the prudent employment of protective intelligence as well as some measure of physical protection on the move.

A Look at the Threat

While there have been approximately 20 assassination attempts against U.S. presidents, four of which were successful, attacks on members of Congress and local judges are much more rare. There have been only five recorded attempts against members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including the attack on Gabrielle Giffords. And two of those five attacks resulted from disputes between representatives (one of which was a duel in 1838). But there are also many more threats voiced against public officials, which should never be ignored. The majority are issued by what we call lone wolves — individuals acting on their own rather than with a group.

Communication and preparation among a group of people increases the chance of security services discovering and even infiltrating a terrorist plot, but the one-man wolf pack is much less penetrable. Their plans are made alone, they train themselves and they provide their own resources, all of which means they carry out the phases of the terrorist attack cycle with very minimal exposure to outsiders — including authorities trying to prevent such plots from maturing.

The other side to lone wolves is that they often have more intent than capability. Loughner did not have the proper training or experience, for example, to carry out a major bombing or to breach a well-defended perimeter (what we call a hard target). Instead, he relied on a tactic that STRATFOR believes U.S. targets are most vulnerable to: the armed assault. Guns, and the training to use them, are readily available in the United States. The last successful armed attack carried out with political motivations occurred at Fort Hood, proving the devastating effect one man armed with a pistol can have, particularly when armed first responders are not at the scene. Many VIPs will travel in armored cars, avoid or carefully control public appearances and hire security in order to minimize the risk posed by gunmen. Members of Congress, on the other hand, are readily recognizable and often publicly available. No public official can be completely guaranteed personal security, but a great deal can be done to manage and mitigate threats, whether they are posed by lone wolves or organized groups.

Protecting Public Officials

While individual attackers may be able to do much of their preparation in private, their attacks — like all attacks — are most vulnerable during pre-operational surveillance. This makes countersurveillance the first step in a protective intelligence program. Most victims of a street crime, whether it's pick-pocketing or attempted murder, report that they notice their attackers before the attack occurs. Indeed, individual situational awareness can do a lot to identify threats before they become immediately dangerous.

In the case of the Giffords attack, Jared Loughner was already known by the congresswoman's campaign staff. He had come to a previous "Congress on Your Corner" event in 2007 and asked an odd question about semantics. Loughner's presence at one of Giffords' public appearances before, and possibly others, left him vulnerable to identification by anyone practicing protective intelligence. The problem here was that Loughner, as far as we know, was not acting illegally, only suspiciously. However, trained countersurveillance personnel can recognize suspicious behavior that may become a direct and immediate threat. They can also disguise themselves within a crowd rather than appear as overt security, which can bring them much closer to potential perpetrators.

Analysis is the second part of protective intelligence, and anyone analyzing Giffords' security would note that serious threats were present over the last two years. In August 2009, an unknown person dropped a gun that had been concealed in his pants pocket during a town hall meeting Giffords was holding with constituents. It is unclear who the man was and whether he represented a real threat or just accidentally dropped a gun he was legally carrying, but the incident raised concern about her security. Then on March 22, her congressional office in Tucson was vandalized after a heated debate over the U.S. health care bill, which Giffords voted to support. Giffords was not the only member of Congress to confront violence last year. At least nine other lawmakers faced death threats or vandalism the week after the health care bill passed, including Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia. An unknown individual cut a gas line for a propane tank, presumably to cause an explosion, at Perriello's brother's house believing it was the congressman's residence. All 10 of the lawmakers were offered increased protection by U.S. Capitol Police, but it was not maintained. The multitude of these threats in the 2010 campaign warranted a re-evaluation of Congressional security, specifically for Giffords and the nine others who experienced violence or faced potential violence.

While the vandalism and dropped gun have not been attributed to Loughner, and the Jan. 8 shooting appears to have been his first violent action, further investigation of his past could have provided clues to his intentions. After the shooting, his friends said they had noticed his hatred for Giffords, his classmates said they had observed his increasingly odd behavior and police and campus security said they had been called to deal with him on numerous occasions (for reasons that are currently unclear). Prior to the shooting, disparate bits of information from different people would not likely have been analyzed as a whole, but any one of these observed activities could have warranted further investigation by law enforcement and security agencies. Indeed, some were brought to their attention. On Dec. 13, Loughner wrote on his MySpace page "I'm ready to kill a police officer!" Tucson police or the Pima County Sheriff's office may have investigated this threat as well as others. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said there had already been law enforcement contacts with Loughner in which "he made threats to kill."

Protection Responsibilities

The underlying story here is that threats to public officials are often apparent before an attack is made, and proactive protective intelligence can identify and address these threats. But what agency is currently responsible for protecting U.S. public officials?

A little known fact is that the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) is the agency in charge of safeguarding congressional officials not only inside the perimeter of the Capitol grounds, which includes the House and Senate office buildings and the Library of Congress, but also when those officials are traveling. The USCP has its own protection division to do just what we describe above — analyze and investigate threats against members of Congress. Based on threat assessments, this division can assign teams for countersurveillance and security whenever and wherever a representative or senator travels. The USCP is also responsible for liaison with local law enforcement in order to ensure some level of security even when there is no identifiable threat.

In the case of any scheduled public appearance, protocol should require congressional staff members to notify the USCP, whose liaison unit will then alert local law enforcement, including city, county and state police, depending on the event. At this point, we don't know why there was no police presence at Giffords' event on Jan. 8. It appears that the event was announced the day before, according to a press release on her website. The Pima County Sheriff's office has said it was not given prior notification of the event.

In the case of federal judges like John McCarthy Roll, the U.S. Marshals Service has responsibilities similar to those of the USCP. In fact, federal marshals were assigned to Judge Roll for a month in 2010 after he received death threats. It appears that his presence at the Congress on Your Corner was not scheduled, and thus we assume he was not targeted by Loughner. Had both Giffords and Roll planned to be at the same event, the participation of two recently threatened public officials would also have warranted a security presence at the event.

Security and Democracy

While the U.S. president has a large, well-resourced and highly capable security service and private sector VIPs have the option of limiting contact with the public, members of Congress are somewhere in the middle. Like a presidential candidate, they want to have as much public contact as possible in order to garner support. They are also representing small, and thus very personal, districts where a local presence is seen as a cornerstone of representative democracy. Historically, in fact, the U.S. president actually received very little protection until the threat became evident in successful assassinations. Those traumatic events led the public to accept that the president should be less accessible to the public, protected by the U.S. Secret Service (which was created in 1865 originally to deal with counterfeit currency).

Still, American democratic tradition dictates that members of Congress must maintain a sincere trust in the people they represent. Thus the current reaction of many in the U.S. Congress who say they will not change their activities, not add protective details and not reassess their security precautions.

The concerns of becoming less accessible to the public are not unreasonable, but accessibility is not incompatible with security. We need not think of a security detail being a scrum of uniformed police officers surrounding a public official. Instead, plainclothes protective intelligence teams assigned to countersurveillance as well as physical protection can be interspersed within crowds and positioned at key vantage points, looking for threatening individuals. They are invisible to the untrained eye and do not hinder a politician's contact with the public. Moreover, a minimal police presence can deter attackers or make them more identifiable as they become nervous and they can stop individual attackers after the first shots are fired.

The assumed tradeoff between accessibility and security is in some ways a false dichotomy. There will always be inherent dangers for public officials in an uncontrolled environment, but instituting a protective intelligence program, with the aid of the USCP or other law enforcement agencies, can seriously mitigate those dangers.

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