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After home assault on Paul Pelosi, lawmakers scramble to reassess security

"The attack on Paul does strongly suggest that the most visible spouses need some protection," a House Democratic lawmaker said.
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WASHINGTON — The violent assault on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in their San Francisco home has made members of Congress anxious about the safety of their own loved ones and spurred discussions on increased security measures and the protection of high-profile legislative leaders.

But some legislators who spoke with NBC News said they have yet to take advantage of a program rolled out in August by the House sergeant-at-arms' office, which covers up to $10,000 for each member to pay for the installation of security system equipment at their residences, including for cameras, locks, motion sensors and panic buttons. They can also receive $150 per month toward monitoring and maintenance fees.

The new benefit was announced in July in response to a spike in threats against lawmakers. Capitol Police said it investigated more than 9,500 threats to members in 2021, almost double from 2018. Just days before the benefit became available, Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor in New York, was attacked on stage during a campaign event by a man wielding a sharp object. Zeldin was not seriously hurt.

One House Democratic lawmaker said he has not used the program, although friends have been encouraging him to hire a private detail at his residence overnight through Election Day. He said the spouses of some high-profile lawmakers may need security details in the future, in addition to using home security systems.

"The attack on Paul does strongly suggest that the most visible spouses need some protection," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss security matters.

A House GOP lawmaker said he, too, does not make use of the $10,000 security allotment because his family lives in a condo complex with lots of neighbors. But, he said, extra security should be made available for "every member in leadership since they become lightning rods for the conference."

Capitol Police in riot gear at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Capitol Police in riot gear at the Capitol in Washington.Kevin Wolf / AP file

The GOP lawmaker also warned that rank-and-file members who "insist on saying things that are highly incendiary" should pay out of their own pockets for home security.

"Maybe if you incurred the costs of your security," he said in a text message, "you might think about what you are saying/doing more closely."

'There are not enough resources'

While it's unclear how many legislators have signed onto the security benefit, the attack on 82-year-old Paul Pelosi — who was seriously injured when a hammer-wielding intruder broke into the couple's home early last Friday — has some elected officials reassessing their security needs. Second in line to the presidency, Nancy Pelosi, along with the large security detail that always accompanies her, was in Washington at the time of the incident, U.S. Capitol Police said.

Court documents allege the suspect had been in search of the House speaker and was on a "suicide mission" with additional targets.

Pelosi's position as a senior legislative leader grants her a security team through the Capitol Police, but the vast majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill aren't afforded the same perk. Spouses of top lawmakers also aren't covered.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who says she is regularly targeted with violence, death threats and Islamophobic rhetoric, has received texts from family and friends urging her to boost her security. However, "there are not enough resources available to me to do that," she said on MSNBC following the attack on Paul Pelosi.

"If people are able to get to the speaker of the House, who has full detail with her and has access to the level of security that she does, and harm her husband to the point that he needs surgery, can you imagine how somebody like me who doesn't have Capitol security detail, that doesn't have the resources to be able to get 24-hour on-the-clock security detail for my four children, my husband and my relatives — I am mortified," said Omar, who is running for re-election.

In 2017, in the wake of the congressional baseball shooting that nearly claimed the life of then-Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., the Federal Election Commission changed its guidelines to allow campaign funds to be used for installing or upgrading a residential security system. The commission last year expanded the policy to include the hiring of bodyguards.

Omar's office declined to comment specifically about the security allocation for House members, but campaign finance records show she has spent more than $27,000 in "security services" in August and September.

She told NBC News on Wednesday that there should be a policy change in who receives protection, and said she's worried about what might happen if the GOP controls the House under current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

"Under Speaker Pelosi's leadership, I've had the privilege of being protected when I needed it," Omar said. "But I can't imagine if a Republican like McCarthy was solely in charge of who gets protection. As a country and as a Congress, we need to re-evaluate who gets security protection and how we make those determinations."

Capitol Police increase their ranks

To ramp up protection, Capitol Police said Monday they expect to meet their goal of hiring nearly 280 officers by the end of the year, though it will take close to another year before new recruits complete their academy training.

Security improvements have been a priority since the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, although the attack on Paul Pelosi is the latest incident to underscore the need for enhanced protections, the department said.

"The USCP has engaged in a review of Friday's incident," Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said in a statement. "We believe today's political climate calls for more resources to provide additional layers of physical security for Members of Congress. This plan would include an emphasis on adding redundancies to the measures that are already in place for Congressional leadership."

Manger declined to detail its security improvements, citing concerns it may help "potential bad actors," but any recommendations will almost certainly require a notable increase in funding for Capitol Police, which has an annual budget of more than $600 million.

A Capitol Police car parked at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
A Capitol Police car parked at the Capitol in Washington.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

On Wednesday, the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., sent a letter to Manger requesting information on whether Capitol Police has a "codified strategic plan" for officers and whether protocol was followed by the department and personnel in San Francisco in the wake of the assault on Paul Pelosi.

"This incident and related circumstances, including the manner in which the Speaker and her family were targeted, raise significant questions about security protections for Members of Congress, particularly those in the presidential line of succession," Lofgren wrote.

Sounding the alarm

Lawmakers have grown increasingly vocal about the threats of political violence they face.

In August, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a close Pelosi ally and vocal critic of former President Donald Trump, said a man called his staff and threatened to come to his office and shoot and kill the congressman.

“Bloodshed is coming," Swalwell tweeted at the time, foreshadowing the Pelosi attack. A 22-year-old man pleaded guilty last week to charges of making threats to kill Swalwell.

And last month, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told The New York Times that someone had smashed a storm window at her home, an escalation from the typical verbal threats she has been getting since 2018, when she announced her support of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a senator or House member were killed,” Collins told The Times.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told The Washington Post in September that a man had recently come to her home with a gun and yelled obscenities and said she should kill herself. She called Capitol Police and also wrote a letter to Pelosi on improving member security. 

"I think we have to be really clear about what this is and how it's affecting us individually and how it's affecting us as a country. So I think that's real and I think we have to keep calling it out," Jayapal later told reporters.

Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress, a progressive group that seeks government transparency and accountability, said it's not economically practical for every member of Congress to have a security detail supported by tax dollars.

But it's still important, he said, that the hundreds of millions of dollars going toward Capitol Police is being used in an effective manner and that the department is subject to oversight of how it's training its officers.

"The Jan. 6 attack was foreseeable. The Paul Pelosi attack was foreseeable," Schuman said. "A lot of this comes down to continual failures within the Capitol Police to properly assess these threats and protect members."

The cost of high-tech security and round-the-clock security can also be daunting for members of Congress. Security firms in Washington said it can cost upward of $50 an hour just to have one person watching the outside of a home, and even more than that for an armed multiperson team to escort around a lawmaker.

In the case of Capitol Police, the department has the ability to monitor live feeds from some 1,800-plus cameras in the Capitol complex and around the country. At the time of the attack on Paul Pelosi, an exterior camera of the home was on one of those feeds, but no one was actively monitoring it, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

Manger confirmed in a statement Wednesday that the cameras were not actively monitored because the House speaker was not home at the time, but that he was launching an internal security review.

Derrick Parks, the president of Metropolitan Protective Service, a D.C.-area based security firm, said whether a lawmaker's security system is a single camera on the front door or a bodyguard stationed at the home, they can't afford to not have anything if they believe lives are at risk.

"The price is worth the peace of mind," Parks said.

Scott Wong reported from Washington, and Erik Ortiz from New York.