Security restrictions around US Capitol to be eased

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Security officials say they will soon scale back fencing that has circled the US Capitol and cut off the entire area to pedestrian and vehicular traffic since a mob attacked the building on January 6.

Timothy Blodgett, the acting House sergeant-at-arms, said in a memo to members of Congress that the fencing will be scaled back in two phases in response to guidance from the US Capitol Police that “there does not exist a known, credible threat” that warrants keeping the temporary barrier in place.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues after Mr Blodgett’s announcement that the Capitol Police “will continue to monitor the threat posture, and plans will be adjusted if and as needed”.

How to protect politicians, while keeping the Capitol grounds open to visitors, has emerged as one of the more daunting questions from the deadly insurrection.

Politicians from both parties have decried the fencing as unsightly, expensive and beyond what is necessary, even though security fears remain high.

Members of Congress have described their unease at arriving for work each day in what can feel like a war zone, with checkpoints and National Guard troops lining the perimeter fence.

The absence of tourists snapping photos of the Capitol dome or constituents meeting with representatives is an emotional loss on top of coronavirus restrictions, they said.

The security perimeter extends far beyond the Capitol itself through neighbouring parks and office buildings.

Politicians are also debating whether to launch a bipartisan commission to study the massive security failures that occurred on January 6 and how to respond to them long-term.

Ms Pelosi on Monday released a draft proposal for a commission that Republicans rejected last month, writing in a letter to colleagues that “we must get to the truth of how the January 6 assault happened, and we must ensure that it cannot happen again”.

National Guard members walk near the Capitol (jacquelyn Martin/AP)
National Guard members walk near the Capitol (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Mr Trump was impeached by the House for inciting the mob, then acquitted by the Senate.

Mr Blodgett said the outer perimeter fencing will be removed in the latter part of March and Independence and Constitution avenues, the two major thoroughfares that flank the Capitol, will be opened for traffic.

An inner perimeter will be moved closer to the Capitol building this week, providing reopened access to nearby streets and some pavements.

Strings of razor wire atop the fence will also be removed.

The political pressure to remove the security fencing has been building.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has compared it to a combat zone in Afghanistan, saying that “we are way overreacting”.

The second-ranked Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, called it “ghastly”.

On Monday, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, praised the decision to scale back the fencing.

National Guard keep watch (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
National Guard keep watch (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

“I think our next problem is highly unlikely to be a carbon copy of the last problem.”

Mr Blunt said the fencing is costing taxpayers 1.9 million US dollars a week, and National Guard troops protecting the Capitol have cost more than 500 million US dollars since January 6.

Last week, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin approved a Capitol Police request to extend the deployment of nearly 2,300 guard members for about two more months because possible threats of violence remain.

The troops will remain in place, for now, but Mr Blodgett said it is anticipated that the guard will “begin to reduce its posture at the Capitol in the coming weeks”.

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