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Eye on Boise: Idahoan who once was in charge of U.S. Capitol security points to systemic problems

UPDATED: Sat., June 19, 2021

U.S. Capitol Police officers hold off rioters loyal to President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 in Washington.  (Julio Cortez)
U.S. Capitol Police officers hold off rioters loyal to President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 in Washington. (Julio Cortez)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

Since the violent overrun of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that left seven people dead, Greg Casey has been thinking a lot about what went wrong.

Casey, now retired and living in Star, Idaho, was the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and chair of the three-member Capitol Police Board overseeing security at the U.S. Capitol the last time someone was killed there in 1998. In that case, two Capitol police officers were shot to death by “a crazy guy with a 38-caliber pistol who came into the House library door,” Casey said. The shooter, though charged with murder, was committed to a mental institution and never stood trial.

At the time, Casey had been warning for months about his concerns about the security situation at the nation’s Capitol. “In April 1998, I appeared before a closed Senate Rules Committee hearing about the security of the Capitol,” he said. “I called it ‘a sieve and an anthill.’”

There were far too many points of entry, Casey said, and no way to keep tabs on all of them. “Four months later, two of the officers were shot and killed because of that situation,” he said.

At the hearing, Casey had proposed limiting entry points and establishing a visitor center where people entering the Capitol would go through security. “A senator came up to me after the hearing and said, ‘All this cloak-and-dagger stuff is too much for us,’” Casey recalled.

Lawmakers all had their favorite doors and liked being able to duck in and out of the building, he said.

After the shootings of Capitol Police officers J.J. Chestnut and John Gibson in July 1998, Casey’s recommended changes were made and the visitor center was built; it can accommodate up to 4,000 people, including tourists awaiting Capitol tours. The legislation approving its construction was titled in honor of Chestnut and Gibson.

The three-member Capitol Police Board that oversees security at the U.S. Capitol consists of the sergeants-at-arms of the House and Senate and the Capitol architect. The House and Senate officials alternate each year as chair.

But Casey said both sergeant-at-arms positions are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of House and Senate leaders, and that’s a problem. The architect is appointed by the president and serves a fixed term.

“Nobody wants to give up that legislative prerogative, the ability to hire and fire,” Casey said. “I understand that. But it just doesn’t fit any more.” Both sergeant-at-arms positions are supposed to be “officers” of the House and Senate, he said, “not staff.”

Casey held the Senate role for three years, after being appointed by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Casey had previously served as Lott’s deputy chief of staff, after serving as chief of staff for then-Idaho Sen. Larry Craig. A fifth-generation Idahoan, he’s also the former president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, and served as transition chief for newly elected Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. After his service as Senate sergeant-at-arms, he headed a business political action group, BIPAC, in Washington, D.C., for 16 years before returning home to Idaho.

His concern about the political nature of the sergeant-at-arms position has to do with the need to stand up to the politicians, and their preferences, when needed. “It has to be someone with gravitas, so they wouldn’t get run over,” he said.

He said that was clearly a major problem in the response to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Earlier this month, two Senate committees released a bipartisan 128-page report entitled “Examining the U.S. Capitol Attack: A Review of the Security, Planning and Response Failures on January 6.” It found that officials had specific intelligence about the coming attack at least two weeks before the event, but a series of omissions and miscommunications kept that information from reaching front-line Capitol Police officers targeted by the violence. Among the failures: The National Guard didn’t arrive until 5:20 p.m., more than four hours after the Capitol was breached.

“I read the report,” Casey said. “It was a fair recitation of the obvious. Obviously the intelligence was bad, and that belonged to the FBI and DHS (Department of Homeland Security). Obviously the communication was bad. Obviously the command staff at that time hadn’t communicated to the field staff.”

“I think the officers did a tremendous job, they did extremely well, considering that they didn’t have command and control,” Casey said. “They were making this up while they were in the field, which should never have happened.”

“I don’t think the police failed,” Casey said. “I think the command staff and the political leadership failed.”

The sergeants-at-arms “did not adequately prepare,” Casey said. “And there’s no excuse for that. There is a reason for that.”

It goes back to the political nature of the positions, he said; political appointees by nature have a disincentive to stand up to their bosses.

“The chairman of the police board had the authority, the power to do what he had to do – he just had to do it,” Casey said. “Somebody had to be in charge. You can’t have security run by committee.”

The Senate committee report described what Casey calls “a paralysis in the decision-making tree” that led to deadly results.

“What this report tells us are the symptoms, but it doesn’t tell you the root cause,” Casey said.

The Capitol Police is an 1,800-person police force that Casey called “a very fine law enforcement agency. We had some of the best snipers in the world. We had some of the best dogs. We had some of the best dignitary protection.”

But it’s answerable to the chair of the police board, and with that chair answerable to political leaders, there’s no clear line of authority, he said.

He thinks a new structure for the sergeants-at-arms positions and police board chair is in order, perhaps with a bipartisan commission reviewing the “size and scope of the job” and vetting nominees, and involvement of both the majority and minority leaders in selections. Then, he said, the sergeants could serve a fixed term, “with the ability of the Rules Committee to remove them for cause.”

The reason Casey left the post after three years was because “I got crossways with Senate leadership,” he said. Senate leaders didn’t want the bodies of the two slain officers to lie in repose in the Capitol rotunda, though House leaders supported the move. Casey approved it anyway. After that, he left the post.

His replacement was a college buddy of Lott’s, he said.

“The thing I want to emphasize is this idea of political influence … can sometimes have negative effects.”

Casey says a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack and how to prevent any such occurrence in the future is crucial. However, Congress failed to approve establishing the commission, after the proposal passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Casey, long a conservative Republican, said, “For those who would say that it wasn’t an insurrection, these people went through various envelopes of Capitol security. This is exactly what it looked like: An insurrection.”

A full investigation by a bipartisan commission, he said, is “the right thing to do.”

He noted that no rioters entered the House floor – though one woman was shot attempting to – but they did enter the Senate. “Somebody screwed up on the Senate side,” he said.

The very desks on the Senate floor are “priceless pieces of art,” Casey said, all more than 100 years old, all filled with the history of the senators who used them before. “And you had these nutballs, slamming things and rifling through those desks,” he said.

The House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, he said, are in charge of everything from computers and cybersecurity to day-to-day matters to where and how to relocate Congress in case the Capitol is destroyed. The Senate committee report, he said, “doesn’t go far enough to describe what we have to do in order to address the systemic failures and to bring it into the 21st century.”

He noted that some are “politically concerned that a commission will lay this at the feet of Donald Trump. I don’t care.”

Beyond blame, the need, he said, is to determine how to ensure nothing like what happened on Jan. 6 can ever happen again.

“What are we afraid of?” Casey asked. “We’re letting our own partisan positions get in the way of the safety of the people who work on Capitol Hill and the Capitol Police.”

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