- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2002

The U.S. Capitol remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and leaders must move quickly to establish emergency plans, according to a congressional report.

Fire alarms cannot be heard in some areas, police radios don't work in some spots and emergency workers are not protected from a biological or chemical attack, said the Office of Compliance, a congressional oversight agency.

The agency is responsible for issuing a safety report every two years as part of the Congressional Accountability Act passed in 1995, which requires Congress to follow the same workplace laws and regulations as private industry.

The study has angered Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican, who called it inaccurate and misleading.

"For many months now, literally thousands of individuals, from the brave men and women of the Capitol Police to the congressional staff and officers, have been working day and night to ensure the safety and security of the Capitol complex," said Mr. Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee.

"Their efforts should not be undermined by a single misleading report that is based on incomplete information and the intention of which appears to be to grab newspaper headlines, rather than the advancement of what should be a shared goal the safety and security of the Capitol complex," Mr. Ney said.

Tremendous progress has been made to improve safety on Capitol Hill, but much information is not made public for security reasons, Mr. Ney said.

"It would be patently irresponsible to telegraph to those who might threaten the Congress every security procedure, every emergency response plan and every safety upgrade that have been put in place," Mr. Ney said.

"Public safety should never be sacrificed for press releases," he said.

The report did find some improvements since the September 11 evacuation of the Capitol and the anthrax attacks a month later, in which spores from letters made their way into 16 Senate and House offices. Evacuation plans were put in place and worker injuries reduced.

The anthrax letters "dramatically altered attitudes and safety margins in the legislative branch," the report said.

However, police officers were exposed to the harmful effects of anthrax because no emergency response plan existed.

"We concluded that the actions of the Capitol Police during these incidents were the predictable result of the lack of an appropriate emergency response plan governing training, equipment and procedures," the study said.

The exposure of more than 30 congressional staffers and police to anthrax Oct. 17 prompted leaders to close most of the Capitol complex and touched off an angry debate between the Senate and the House over shutting down Congress.

The spores contaminated the staff of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, after an envelope containing the lethal powder was opened. Three employees in the adjacent office of Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, were contaminated as well. Investigators also found anthrax in a Senate mailroom.

Congressional staff have complained that handling irradiated mail is causing nosebleeds, rashes, headaches and nausea, and the report recommended further studies to determine health risks.

Mr. Ney concedes that work still needs to be done but said Capitol Hill is much safer than it was 14 months ago.

"Efforts to undermine this progress are not only a disservice to the brave men and women who guard the Capitol complex, but unjustly mischaracterize the state of our emergency preparedness," Mr. Ney said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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