WASHINGTON – The head of the House panel that oversees Capitol Hill operations said Tuesday that a report suggesting Congress is unprepared for a terrorism attack does not include enough information for such a conclusion to be made.
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, said Congress has taken many steps to defend itself should terrorists target it.
"The bottom line is that tremendous progress has been made to improve safety and security on Capitol Hill, and it is far and away our top priority," Ney said in a written statement. "Yet, while some of the steps taken in this regard are public, many more, because of obvious public safety concerns, are not. It would be patently irresponsible to telegraph to those who might threaten the Congress, every security procedure, every emergency response plan and every safety upgrade that have been put in place. Public safety should never be sacrificed for press releases."
The Office of Congressional Compliance, the health and safety agency that answers to Congress, released a report Monday that suggested that if Congress were to be attacked, the emergency system would not be prepared to respond.
The report, filed in response to a request from Congress, suggested that some of the potential problems include emergency radios and fire alarms not working in all areas, and first responders not having the protections they need from chemical and biological agents.
The report, which included the nine months before the Sept. 11 attacks, did say that dramatic improvements have occurred, including in non-emergency areas such as worker injury rates.
That number, once the worst in the federal government, has gone down nearly 80 percent since Congress began putting into place anti-terrorism security procedures.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and release of anthrax spores in 16 congressional offices the following month "dramatically altered attitudes and safety margins in the legislative branch," the report says.
However, it also said that emergency responders in the Capitol Police responded poorly to the anthrax scare by exposing officers to the spores.
"We concluded that the actions of the Capitol Police during these incidents were the predictable result of the lack of an appropriate emergency response plan governing training, equipment and procedures,'' the report said.
Robert R. Howe, assistant chief of police, wrote the compliance agency that the finding was inaccurate, but said he could not provide details on the anthrax response because it involved sensitive security information.
Ney too said that it is an unfair characterization of the police.
"I am very proud of the efforts of our Capitol Police, our emergency personnel and our fellow congressional offices. Certainly, there is still work to be done, but Capitol Hill is a much safer place than it was fourteen months ago. Efforts to undermine this progress are not only a disservice to the brave men and women who guard the Capitol complex, but unjustly mischaracterize the state of our emergency preparedness," Ney said.
Still, the report said the Library of Congress, the congressional research arm and largest library in the world, still has troubles with its public address and alarm systems, and the effects of irradiated mail — introduced after the anthrax mailings and cited as causing headaches, nausea, nose bleeds, rashes and skin and eye irritations — still needs to be studied.
The compliance office reported in July that handling the mail for substantial periods of time may have caused the symptoms. One federal study released in April said there was no evidence of potential long-term health effects from handling irradiated mail, but two other reports have agreed with the compliance office that the radiation could be a problem.
Fox News' Jim Mills and the Associated Press contributed to this report.