Fortress on the Hill

Capitol Visitor Center Web site

Related Links

The U.S. Capitol is spending more than $500 million on a new underground visitor center, a high-tech fortress slated to open next year. Its location at the foot of the Capitol steps facing the Supreme Court makes it well-situated to serve visitors and, some say, to shelter lawmakers in the event of a terrorist attack.

The three-story underground structure houses hundreds of thousands of feet of fiber-optic cable for telecommunications services and additional equipment to provide wireless access, virtual screenings of House and Senate proceedings and 20 interactive kiosks for visitors to learn about the history of the Capitol and the legislative branch. The center will have a secure entryway for screening about 3 million visitors a year.

Although architects designed it before the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Capitol Visitor Center is rumored to be a haven for lawmakers, but no one will officially confirm that. The architects amended the floor plans many times to add security features after the 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax mail threats directed at Capitol Hill offices. The lowest level of the complex is off-limits to the public.

RTKL, the architecture firm handling the project, states on its Web site that strengthened security, with a respect for free public access, is a design priority.

“The building would have to be fitted with state-of-the-art technology in order to deliver adequate security measures, material protection and multimedia use,” according to RTKL’s statement. The Capitol Police declined to comment on whether the facility is secure against bombs, nuclear threats, or biological and chemical incidents. Although the center contains supplies of gas masks, officials declined to say how many.

In the absence of official acknowledgment, speculation has focused on the lowest of the structure’s three levels. “There’s obviously a bunker there,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. “How could it be otherwise? They’ve got a bunker at the White House, and there’s a bunker out at Camp David. There are many scenarios under which you would not have time to get the Congress out of town.”

“I think it’s safe to say that there are security-related features that are likely to be located on the lower level,” said Steven Aftergood, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists who specializes in security policy. “It’s hard to imagine that security was not foremost in the mind of the architect and planners.”

Thomas Fontana, a spokesman at the Capitol Visitor Center, declined to comment on the speculation and offered no additional information. “The lowest-level floor is the home of the guts of the system,” he said. “All the corridors [in the lowest level] will be secured. The public will not be able to wander into secure areas.”

The 580,000-square-foot center includes four bombproof skylights that allow visitors to see magnificent views of the Capitol dome. It also features a public address system and network redundancy.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project has been integrating its information technology, said Darren Vican, an IT specialist at RTKL. “The public will be able to use all cellular services, including BlackBerries and broadband cards. They will have 100 percent coverage for all cellular phone services,” Vican said.

But officials won’t divulge more details about the center’s IT capabilities. After speaking only in general terms about voice over IP, Vican referred security questions to the Capitol Police. Advanced Technology Systems announced that it won a $20 million contract to provide IT support for the Architect of the Capitol, the office in charge of the visitor center project. That company will provide network engineering, network and help-desk support, and IT security planning for all congressional offices, including a backup site in Manassas, Va.

But most contracts for the new facility are not available for public review, and Fontana declined to provide a list of companies working on the center.

In a tour conducted for Federal Computer Week, Fontana described some of the visitor center’s state-of-the-art, high-tech equipment. For example, it includes cable lines that conform to tougher combustibility standards than national requirements. It has an underground delivery tunnel built to keep garbage trucks and delivery vans from sight. “You will never see a Coke truck or a garbage truck on the plaza again,” he said.

Fontana declined to say whether the tunnel would be a secure entrance for the president or other officials visiting the Capitol. High-level officials must exit their cars aboveground at the entrance of the House or Senate after Capitol Police officers secure the area.

Visitors will find the plaza designed by Frederick Law Olmsted restored to its original shape, a quasihidden entrance and no indication that a new center exists underground. The center includes a 435-seat auditorium that the House and Senate will likely use when their main chambers undergo renovation in several years.

Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens against Government Waste, said the center’s cost has doubled from the original estimate of $265 million to $559 million today. “We never saw anyone complaining about the lack of a $559 million visitor’s center,” he said. “It’s not being done for the visitors. It’s being done for the members.”

Hasson is a former editor at large at Federal Computer Week.

Capitol Visitor Center: Is it the congressional bunker?Many Washington, D.C., observers have speculated that the $559 million Capitol Visitor Center includes a secret bunker to protect lawmakers in the event of a terrorist attack.

A secret bunker for members of Congress that was built during the Cold War was disclosed several years ago. Visitors can now tour the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, which was to have been a doomsday hideaway for members of Congress. It was built based on the belief that lawmakers would have an hour or more to get there because it would take that long for a nuclear weapon launched from Siberia to hit Washington.

During the 2001 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the White House staff were protected in a bunker under the White House. Congressional leaders, including the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader, were whisked out of town to a secret facility and returned to the Capitol in the evening.

Bunker or no bunker, no concrete plan exists to protect members of Congress, said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. During the 2001 terrorist attacks, lawmakers wandered aimlessly in the Capitol with no specific place to go. A few weeks later, he said, lawmakers were given a laminated card that instructed them to go to the auditorium at the Library of Congress in the event of an attack or other disaster.

There still is no concrete plan in place, Ornstein said, except the motto, “Run for your life.”

— Judi Hasson

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.