‘We all thought it was headed back for the Capitol dome.’
U.S. Capitol Police Officer Michael Hallas saw a passenger jet fly across the National Mall, heading directly toward the Capitol on 9/11. He thought the building was under attack.
“But then it flew out and never returned,” he said in an interview nearly 10 years later. “At the time, with planes taking off and hitting buildings so quickly, we thought that that plane was heading for the Capitol dome itself.”
While that plane wasn’t part of the attack, another true threat to Washington, D.C. — United Airlines Flight 93 — never reached its intended target. Instead it crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., after a passenger uprising against the hijackers. That near-miss not only changed how Hallas viewed his duties, but it also changed decision- making on post-9/11 protection of the U.S. Capitol.
AUDIO: Hear U.S. Capitol Police Officer Michael Hallas describe his experience on 9/11 (Running time: 51 seconds).
9/11 changed Capitol security forever
The U.S. Capitol Police had already begun bolstering security before the terrorist attack, but 9/11 put new emphasis on those measures, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer. The Senate sergeant-at-arms shares responsibility for the Capitol Police with other offices and officials.
“What we know from 9/11 and other threats is that the Capitol continues to be a place where our adversaries would like to strike,” Gainer said. “So given how representative it is of America, there have been a number of precautions taken.”
Dramatic improvements occurred in interaction and sharing communications between police forces and other agencies at the local, state and federal levels and that interaction between police forces in the D.C. area has “never been better,” Gainer said.
VIDEO: U.S. Capitol Police Officer Michael Hallas describes how 9/11 affects his performance today.
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A 2004 Congressional Research Service report says Congress released almost $377 million by December 2001 to fund additional security measures. The force has doubled in size in the past 10 years as a result of the security ramp up, said Kimberly Schneider, public information officer for the Capitol Police.
The funding increased security screening in the recently opened Capitol Visitor Center. Congress also approved new security plans that closed down a number of streets around the Capitol complex, improved high-tech security systems, positioned additional barriers and set up new emergency plans.
Security measures minimize the harm from attack, but “none of that is foolproof,” Gainer said. Capitol Police are trying to protect roughly 8 million visitors, about 30,000 employees and members of Congress.
The force’s primary mission is to “ensure the legislative process continues without interruption,” Schneider said.
Terrorists “will not be able to shut the government down,” Gainer said.
Necessary security or nuisance?
The Capitol’s visitor entry security appears similar to those at a commercial airport, but visitors to the complex continue to debate whether the security increases go too far.
“It’s just what I expect these days,” said Ohio resident Sally Noble. “Actually I think we’re too afraid everywhere we go of potential things, and I’m sick of being afraid.”
The Capitol’s level of security screening seems overly intrusive because most visitors to the building are harmless, said Veronica Cummings, another visitor.
“Most of the people who come to visit the Capitol are people who love their country and just love America and the history that’s there,” she said.
Still, the potential risk of terrorist attack outweighs Cummings’ concerns about personal privacy, she said.
Officer Hallas said he goes about his job a little differently than he did before 9/11.
“It makes you realize not everyone is good,” he said. “I look at everyone closer. I scan everyone, and a lot of my colleagues do the same as well.”
Disclosure: Michael Hallas is a distant relation to co-author Maria Hallas.