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Capitol Security Task Force Member On Recommendations In Wake Of Latest Attack

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yesterday's deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol came nearly three months after the same building was besieged by a mob of pro-Trump supporters and right-wing extremists. This latest attack was very different, one man ramming his vehicle into police officers and getting out with a knife. He killed one police officer, William Evans, who went by Billy, an 18-year veteran of the force. Both incidents bring up a critical question. How do you protect the seat of government from domestic threats? That was the central question of a task force that reviewed security protocol following the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was convened by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One member of that committee is retired Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, and he joins me now. General Buchanan, welcome.

JEFFREY BUCHANAN: Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: So the fences around the Capitol - they only recently came down. What was your initial reaction when you heard about the attack yesterday?

BUCHANAN: Well, of course, I was saddened for Officer Evans and his family. And our condolences go out to the family and to all the members of the U.S. Capitol Police, you know? They lost one of their own. But I think it highlights that the Capitol has been and will continue to be a target, if you will, of those who want to send a message. And so, you know, what we hope is that the recommendations that we brought forth to Congress will be enacted upon.

FADEL: So those recommendations - among them were bringing in an increased number of officers, almost a thousand, improving the emergency response infrastructure. Would any of what you recommended have prevented what we saw yesterday?

BUCHANAN: I think that it's really hard to prevent the initiation of what one might call a lone wolf or an independent sort of attack because, sometimes, the intelligence is hard to glean from somebody who's so motivated. But I think the investigation into this incident will yield some clues as to the motivations of the person who conducted the attack. We did recommend a significant increase in intelligence capability for the Capitol Police, including better connections with other agencies. To answer your question, I can't say - I can't, you know, guess whether or not it would have prevented it. But better intelligence will certainly yield better results.

FADEL: You know, how do you improve security when the issue itself has really become so politicized? And that includes questions around civil liberties issues, around things like enhanced background checks?

BUCHANAN: You know, I think there is a balance to be had. And the members of Congress - you know, we had great cooperation from members of both parties, from congressional representatives from the House as well as senators, lots of input. But throughout all was a relatively consistent message to our team that we need to balance security with access to the Capitol, you know? The members want to retain access. They strongly believe that this is the people's house, and the people need to continue to have access to their duly elected representatives there.

And so, you know, key to our recommendations was to enable those responsible for security to be able to rapidly lock down a situation or prevent an attack with increased intelligence but at the same time be able to change the security conditions rapidly based on the conditions, to take the security up or down to try to retain that balance. I think that balance is tough, but I think background checks and things like that certainly are warranted. But I also think that the people need to be able to continue to access the United States Capitol.

FADEL: In a Washington Post op-ed from last month, retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore, who led the review of U.S. Capitol security that you're involved in, wrote, quote, "we've been slow to accept the reality that a danger to our democracy also lies within our borders. We've been unwilling to invest in the personnel and resources to address those dangers. The Capitol security apparatus is long past due for an overhaul." Could you expand on this? What does that overhaul look like?

BUCHANAN: You know, the key thing is we've got to recognize that domestic terrorists are, in fact, terrorists. If there are people who are trying to impose their will through violence or even just fear of violence, you know, that really meets the definition of terrorism. And so I believe that our law enforcement agencies are all taking those threats seriously and working hard to better understand the threat and, you know, try to work to prevent those groups from getting radicalized to the point to where they represent a threat to others.

FADEL: So when you reference domestic terrorism and the concern around that, are you referencing yesterday's attack?

BUCHANAN: No, Leila. I don't think we know enough about the attacker or the motivations that he had at the time. So I would - I think the investigation will tell us what happened and what it was really about. I was really referring back to what happened on the 6 of January.

FADEL: Your task force, as you mentioned, made a number of draft recommendations during that review of the security of the Capitol. And right now, lawmakers are considering a $2 billion funding package for improving that security in part that's based on those recommendations. But what do you say to lawmakers who are critical of the findings of the report and who reject spending this much money on security?

BUCHANAN: One thing that I got an appreciation for is that over the years, Congress has been very reluctant to spend money on Congress. They're much more engaged and willing to - you know, to fund projects around the United States. But when it comes to things like their own security, whether it's security at the Capitol or security of congressional members as they travel to and from, you know, the Capitol to their homes or to their district offices in, you know, Montana or Alaska or Mississippi or wherever they happen to live, they've been reluctant to fund those.

And I certainly understand that reluctance. But I think it's - you know, the nature of the threats that are out there have changed. The nature of access to information have changed so that congressional members are really much more vulnerable than they were at any point in time in the past. And our task force recommended some changes and funding to be able to better provide for their security, either while in D.C. or at home.

FADEL: That's retired Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan. He served on the task force that looked into security at the U.S. Capitol in the weeks following the January 6 attack. Lieutenant General Buchanan, thank you so much for your time.

BUCHANAN: Thank you, Leila. It's always good talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.