New Senate Sergeant-At-Arms Wants To Keep Capitol Secure And Open To The Public

Apr 15, 2021

Updated April 15, 2021 at 9:10 AM ET

"Aghast, appalled and very angry."

Those are the first words that come to mind when Karen Gibson, newly appointed sergeant-at-arms for the U.S. Senate, reaches to explain the feeling of watching a crowd of rioters storm the Capitol building.

"I've deployed to combat zones, I've studied unstable countries, monitored them closely, and I never thought I would see American citizens attacking — physically attacking — the center of our democracy," Gibson says in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

On Jan. 6, Gibson was a retired intelligence officer and retired Army lieutenant general, having served more than three decades with the U.S military. But she says watching the riot unfold, she felt called to help. She had the right experience and credentials, and in a pandemic that kept most experts at home, she was already in Washington, D.C.

Gibson volunteered to work with a task force led by retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré to review the events of Jan. 6. She was approached by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer about taking over the sergeant-at-arms job after her predecessor resigned in the wake of the Capitol attack.

Another critical review of the events of the 6th is scheduled to be presented to the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, further underscoring the need for meaningful change in security. Gibson says that security change is needed but must be balanced with access.

"We could lock down the building," she says. "We could keep the three-mile fence up with razor wire and National Guard. But that defeats the purpose of having the people's house that is available and open to constituents, to allowing school groups and tourists to come and, you know, frankly, marvel at the beauty and the history of this building."

Some of the Capitol's security secrets have been in place for a long time. Gibson points to what is essentially an anti-tank barrier around the Capitol that would prevent an attack from vehicles that has been in place since 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. But she recognizes that information security, and unpredictable "lone actors" present complex security risks that are harder to plan for.

"Lone actors are definitely harder to predict, potentially harder to identify — particularly if they haven't done anything to communicate their desires in advance," she says. "And it is easier for a single individual to defeat security measures than for a mob of thousands that you see walking towards the Capitol."

But the task of physical security at the Capitol is a shared burden. Gibson commands a staff of about 900 people who attend to all sorts of things that allow the Senate to run on a day-to-day basis: "Everything from custodial support and parking attendants to the press gallery ... doorkeepers, the appointments desk, the telephones, the IT infrastructure, cybersecurity."

Gibson says she will work closely with the Capitol police and with her counterparts in the House of Representatives to develop a comprehensive plan to keep the Capitol, the seat of American democracy, safe.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Capitol Police inspector general is telling Congress today that a new approach is needed to deal with threats. His comments respond to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Some responsibility for a new approach falls to Karen Gibson. She's the new sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. Senate.

KAREN GIBSON: And I thought, here I am trying to make things better in order to ensure this doesn't happen again. And I'm offered an opportunity to continue that work. How could I say no?

INSKEEP: General Karen Gibson was a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army. That's a three-star officer, just one below the top rank. She was retired at the time of the attack. But she says the news made it a simple choice to return to service.

GIBSON: I was aghast, appalled and very angry to see this happening. You know, 30-plus years in the military, I've deployed to combat zones. I've studied unstable countries, monitored them closely. And I never thought I would see American citizens attacking, physically attacking, the center of our democracy. And like I said, it just made me very, very angry to see this happening - and sad.

INSKEEP: So having been through that experience, how do you see your job in protecting the Capitol and the people in it?

GIBSON: Yes. Well, you know, my first priority is to restore faith and confidence in the Senate sergeant-at-arms and the office, the people, the processes, its partnership with the Capitol Police, with my House counterpart, the architect of the Capitol and others, to identify and mitigate security shortcomings so that this doesn't happen again in the future.

INSKEEP: What worries you?

GIBSON: Well, it's a tricky business. And I think one of the primary challenges, a unique challenge in defending government entities like this one, is the need to balance both security and access. We could lock down the building. We could keep the three-mile fence up with razor wire and National Guard. But that defeats the purpose of having the people's house that is available and open to constituents, to allowing school groups and tourists to come and, you know, frankly, marvel at the beauty and the history of this building. And so it will be a tricky balance to accomplish security in the current environment while still providing the access that's needed for constituents and voters.

INSKEEP: I'm really glad you mentioned this. I mean, I have worked in the Capitol as a journalist. I've always been proud of the fact that it's a public building, that it is in some way open to me, that it hasn't in the past felt excessively secured even though I assumed that it was. Can you give an idea of some of the tricks, if that's the right word, of being secure without seeming that oppressive?

GIBSON: Well, I don't want to give you too many tricks because I don't want to, you know...

INSKEEP: Of course.

GIBSON: ...Give something away to those who might seek to do harm here. I would say, you know, in the wake of 9/11, you probably can't see what is essentially an anti-tank barrier around the Capitol.

INSKEEP: Right.

GIBSON: And I think we need to look at how we employ modern technologies to unobtrusively protect the building from individuals, lone actors or organized groups that would seek to harm the Capitol complex.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned lone actors. The January 6 riot was, you know, plausibly, a predictable event just because there were so many people who were communicating. And many of them were even communicating in public. It seems to me the lone actor is harder to forecast because, typically, this is a disturbed individual who may not be, really, connected with a group, particularly. And they pick up an ideology along the way. And they also pick up a weapon. It would be hard to forecast where that person is going to strike.

GIBSON: Yes. I would say lone actors are definitely harder to predict, potentially harder to identify, particularly if they haven't done anything to communicate their desires in advance. And it is easier for a single individual to defeat security measures than for a mob of thousands that you see walking towards the Capitol. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: How much of your job is information security as opposed to physical security?

GIBSON: I am responsible for cybersecurity. The sergeant-at-arms staff of about 900 people take care of all kinds of things that allow the legislature to do its business, everything from custodial support and parking attendants to the press gallery that you've mentioned, doorkeepers, the appointments desks, the telephones, the IT infrastructure, cybersecurity. So yes, my responsibilities do extend beyond simple security.

INSKEEP: Does cybersecurity keep you up at night?

GIBSON: Well, I've been involved in cybersecurity in the Department of Defense for some time. And I would say that we all remain vulnerable to a variety of cyberattacks. And, of course, our legislative body is a lucrative target for a number of malign cyber actors. And like most elements of the government, there are intrusion attempts every day. But we have, I think, a pretty capable team here at the sergeant-at-arms that works to prevent and mitigate cybersecurity risk.

INSKEEP: Did you learn anything from the incident earlier this month in which an individual did ram a car into a checkpoint and a Capitol police officer was killed?

GIBSON: Yes. That was very tragic. And, in fact, you know, just this week, we had a memorial service for Officer Billy Evans, who gave his life...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GIBSON: ...Defending the Capitol. His remains lay in state within the rotunda. And it was a sobering reminder of the risks that the U.S. Capitol Police assume when they perform their duties every day.

INSKEEP: I recognize you do not command the Capitol Police, but you're working closely with the Capitol Police. How do you understand their morale to be?

GIBSON: Well, I think, certainly, any time you lose a member, as we did with Officer Billy Evans on the 2nd of April, that, you know, shakes your morale. January 6, hundreds of police officers very bravely defended this building. You know, I have great pride in the men and women of the U.S. Capitol Police. It may look innocuous to check your bags, to check your ID card. It's only innocuous until it isn't. And I have tremendous pride in them in their efforts. And it's an honor to work alongside them.

INSKEEP: Karen Gibson is the new Senate sergeant-at-arms. Thanks so much.

GIBSON: Thank you, Steve.

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