The U.S. Capitol is not safe.
It’s safer than it was Wednesday, when a mob stormed it shortly after 1 p.m. The Capitol complex was declared secured by the police by 5:40 p.m.
And it’s safer after U.S. Capitol Police discovered a red GMC Sierra 1500 pickup parked near the Capitol and, according to an affidavit filed by a U.S. Capitol policeman, contained a handgun, an M4 carbine assault rifle, magazines of ammunition and 11 mason jars filled with a gasoline-Styrofoam mix, that, when detonated, would act like napalm, sticking to and ferociously burning any surface or human body where it landed.
At 6:30 p.m. January 6, after the rioters had dispersed, the truck’s registered owner, Lonnie Leroy Coffman of Falkland, Alabama, showed up, packing a 9 mm Smith & Wesson and a .22 caliber derringer. He told the officers he was trying to leave the area and asked if they “had located the bombs.”
(He later amended his statement to say that by “bombs,” he meant “perimeter.” Go figure.) He was arrested and charged with firearms violations.
But others swarming around the Capitol and bent on violence may have been smarter—and far stealthier.
Which is why, when members of Congress reconvened in the House chamber at 8 p.m. to finish counting Electoral College votes and declare Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the winners of the 2020 election, they did so at some risk. Those who have come and gone from the Capitol complex since Wednesday night could well have encountered a cleverly disguised IED (improvised explosive device) or booby-trapped firearm.
Fact is, until Capitol Hill is swept far more thoroughly, no one can credibly guarantee that one or two rampaging rioters—or committed terrorists or enemy agents hiding among them—haven’t stashed a few destructive devices in nooks and crannies. According to law enforcement veterans, five to seven hours is simply not enough time to search the main Capitol, much less the vast warren of Senate and House buildings connected by tunnels in the complex.
There are innumerable potential hiding places for lethal devices that can be activated later, by a remote trigger such as a cell phone, or by a vibration-sensitive device like the one that sets off a car alarm when a vehicle rumbles by or honks. Or somebody could have stuck a handgun inside a vase or hollow lamp or behind a toilet, à la Michael Corleone’s first hit, intending to return later as a tourist, reclaim the gun and assassinate some lawmaker.
“To clear a 15-by-15 foot office, would take four bomb techs all day,” Dave Williams, a former FBI bomb tech who investigated the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center bombing and other attacks, told SpyTalk. “They’d have to look under carpets, at all the fire alarms, light switches, lamps, even light bulbs. A light bulb can be modified so when you turn it on, it explodes. If you have a five-drawer file cabinet, each drawer should be opened remotely.”
In courses for police bomb techs, Williams routinely demonstrates how bombers can hide explosives and small detonators most anywhere—for example, behind the plate of a standard electric outlet. That small space can be crammed with half of a standard block of C-4 military plastic explosive, measuring one inch by 2.5 inches by five inches and weighing three-quarters of a pound, enough kill anybody in the room.
It took 10 days to two weeks to clear Capitol Hill when, in September and October 2001, envelopes containing deadly anthrax spores were mailed to the Capitol offices of Senators Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., as well as to NBC headquarters in New York, the offices of the New York Post and American Media Inc. (then-publisher of the National Enquirer) in Florida. According to a former senior FBI official involved in the so-called Amerithrax case, the search mobilized dozens, perhaps hundreds of trained officers, including a U.S. Coast Guard remediation squad, military personnel and HAZMAT teams from the D.C. and Arlington, Virginia fire departments.
“We had to go through every square inch, crawl into places, take covers off air vents,” the former FBI man says.
Looking for standard explosives doesn’t take as much effort as microscopic biological material, but it is still labor-intensive. According to the bomb techs, dogs trained to sniff explosives are still the gold standards. No technology can match their noses.
Officials of the Capitol Police have not said what they intend to do to further investigate the possibility of booby traps left by the rioters. SpyTalk’s request to the Capitol Police for comment has gone unanswered.
On Tuesday, two pipe bombs were found near the offices of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. The FBI is now offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the person who planted them. The photo of the suspect on the FBI Wanted poster shows a slender masked person in a hoodie, gloves and running shoes.
To bomb experts’ eyes, the devices look old-fashioned and basic, resembling instructions from decades-old how-to books like “The Poor Man’s James Bond” and “The Anarchist Cookbook.”
But did they have a more sinister purpose?
“Anybody could make them,” says a former FBI counter-terror agent. “The issue is, were they live devices meant to hurt somebody, or were the devices put there to watch and see the police reaction?”
“There’s a huge Iranian presence in the U.S.,” says an ex-FBI agent. “What perfect cover—10,000 people milling around. You’re invisible.”
“There are serious national security implications regarding the ease with which the Capitol was breached,” former CIA chief of staff Larry Pfeiffer tweeted as the chaos unfolded on Wednesday. “Terrorist groups, foreign and domestic, are taking notes.”
It’s equally possible that the Capitol building is safe and secure because none of those who got inside possessed a device that was to be planted.
Whatever the case, the pros don’t believe the danger is over. Other plots could already be in the works. Some Trump loyalist could watch TV or read an incendiary message from Trump and make a decision to spin up a new strike on Washington. That won’t change with the inauguration of Joe Biden. Or Trump’s banishment from Twitter.
“In any other circumstances, I’d say no, but with this President, I don’t think anything is off the table,” says the ex-FBI agent. “It’s like the man’s lost his mind.”
Then again, he adds, “I was paid to be paranoid.”