Senators issued satellite phones, part of new security measures

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By Scott MacFarlane

/ CBS News

Amid growing concerns of security risks to members of Congress, more than 50 senators have been issued satellite phones for emergency communication, people familiar with the measures told CBS News. The devices are part of a series of new security measures being offered to senators by the Senate Sergeant at Arms, who took over shortly after the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The satellite phone technology has been offered to all 100 senators. CBS News has learned at least 50 have accepted the phones, which Senate administrative staff recommend senators keep in close proximity during their travels. 

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee last month, Senate Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibson said satellite communication is being deployed “to ensure a redundant and secure means of communication during a disruptive event.”  

Gibson said the phones are a security backstop in the case of an emergency that “takes out communications” in part of America.  Federal funding will pay for the satellite airtime needed to utilize the phone devices.

A Department of Homeland Security advisory said satellite phones are a tool for responding to and coordinating government services in the case of a “man-made” or natural disaster that wipes out communication.  

Gibson has also opened an office “demonstration space” in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building to offer senators and staff an exhibition of new home state office security upgrades. The demonstration room offers exhibitions of “duress buttons,” mail screening devices and safety glass to reduce the risk of attacks.   

U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibson testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on April 25, 2023 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibson testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on April 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

In her testimony before the Senate panel in April, Gibson reported, “Our team provided initial physical security enhancements for 31 offices and improved existing security for 52 others in 2022. Maintaining security systems in good working order is a priority, and to support this effort our team conducted over 622 service calls to maintain, repair, and or test and inspect state office physical security systems in 2022.”

Senate administrators have also offered “stop the bleed” training to better equip staffers to respond to medical emergencies and victims of attacks. 

In April, the House Sergeant at Arms William McFarland told legislators there is “robust participation” in a program to help House members secure their home residences. McFarland said that House administrators are coordinating with local police departments to help protect members of Congress who hold events in their home states and to help better secure the homes of members.

A spending bill passed in late 2022 provided additional funds for hometown security measures for Congress. The legislation required security administrators to “enhance member protection including providing a security program for Congressional Leadership, expanding Dignitary Protection Division services and expanding USCP field office presence,” which would deploy and broaden Capitol Police protection in cities outside of Washington. 

Though the U.S. Capitol complex is shielded by a force of nearly 2,000 Capitol police employees, there have been growing concerns about hometown security for members of Congress. A California man was charged in a 2022 attack at the San Francisco home of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The assailant was allegedly targeting Nancy Pelosi when he confronted and attacked Pelosi’s husband Paul with a hammer.

In a May 15 attack at the Fairfax, Va. office of Rep. Gerry Connolly, one of Connolly’s constituents is accused of attacking two of the congressman’s staffers with a metal baseball bat.  Both were briefly hospitalized and are recovering.  

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