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House members push for answers in wake of security breaches at Capitol

National Guard troops at the Capitol in Washington on Thursday.Jason Andrew/NYT

WASHINGTON — The removal of panic buttons from Representative Ayanna Pressley’s Capitol Hill office before an armed insurrection overran the complex is under review by the House Administration Committee, as Congressional Democrats push to determine whether the mob had inside help.

“The American people do deserve to know if these assailants were at all enabled by the very people who are responsible for stopping them and how we can ensure that attacks like this will never happen again,” Pressley said in an interview.

“Congress needs to immediately launch comprehensive, transparent investigations into what happened, and how our law enforcement agencies failed to protect the Capitol and members of Congress,” she said.

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In the days since last week’s deadly attack, House Democrats have called for investigations into security breaches and raised increasingly pointed questions about whether Capitol police officers and Republican members of Congress played any role in advising or encouraging the mob.

“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do to find out how things went so wrong, and one part of that is going to have to be, how organized was this and who participated in it?” asked Representative Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania. “There’s going to have to be a massive reckoning.”

Since the attacks, an atmosphere of distrust and unease has settled over the Capitol. Metal detectors were installed outside the House chambers before Wednesday’s impeachment vote — a measure intended to protect lawmakers not from the public, but from each other — while the National Guard, Secret Service, and Capitol Police have established an enormous security perimeter that stretches for blocks around the People’s House.

Inside, lawmakers have been grappling with the question of how the rioters — armed with racist symbols like the Confederate flag as well as zip-ties and weapons — were able to access the Capitol and to find their way through the byzantine building so easily once they were inside.

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One group of Democrats wrote to the acting House Sergeant at Arms to say they saw groups of people who appeared to be associated with the rally touring the Capitol the day before.

“We haven’t seen tour groups in the Capitol for months,” Scanlon said. “That’s why it was noticeable.”

New Jersey Representative Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot, said on Facebook Live that those tours appeared to be for the purpose of “reconnaissance.” Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina said rioters somehow found his unmarked office, indicating “that something untoward may have been going on.”

And Pressley’s office raised a new series of questions about the run-up to the attack with its revelation that panic buttons, which they had tested and used previously, had been torn out before the attack.

When Pressley learned the buttons were gone, she “found it immediately disturbing,” she said in an interview. “Not wanting to rush to any sort of judgment or conclusion.... my chief [of staff] began the necessary running it through the proper channels to better understand why that was the case, and again, now the matter is being investigated by the relevant agencies.”

Representative Jamaal Bowman, a new member of Congress from New York, said his office also lacked panic buttons during the attack. They weren’t installed until Wednesday.

Multiple requests for comment from Capitol Police and the House Sergeant of Arms since Wednesday have gone unanswered. The FBI directed all questions about the security breaches to Capitol Police.

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An aide with the House Administration Committee could provide no further information on the removed panic buttons in Pressley’s office except to say that it was under review.

“The breach today at the U.S. Capitol raises grave security concerns,” Representative Zoe Lofgren, the committee’s chairwoman, said in a statement on the day of the attack. “I intend to have the Committee on House Administration work with the bipartisan House and Senate leadership to address these concerns and review the response in coming days.”

Capitol Hill has remained on edge since the attack and some members have reported an increase in threats. An e-mail sent from the House Administration Committee to members on Monday, and obtained by the Globe, listed the various options they could use to pay for any security-related expenses and upgrades to their offices.

Lawmakers are also pushing for probes into the incident by the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general of the Capitol Police. In a letter to the GAO, Representative Jason Crow of Colorado and more than 100 members requested a wide-ranging investigation, including inappropriate conduct by law enforcement; the impact of elected officials’ rhetoric on inciting the mob; and efforts by government and congressional leaders to limit police preparation, coordination, and response.

“In the aftermath of one of the darkest days in our nation’s history, we are forced to reconcile with difficult truths about failures of leadership and preparation,” the letter states. “The failures of security are far more easily corrected than the failure to lead and the abuse of the public trust.”

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A spokesman with the GAO said it would need to go through a formal review process to determine what exactly the probe will cover.

Several members of the Massachusetts delegation told the Globe that they had received multiple assurances from Capitol police that they would have the crowds of Trump protesters under control ahead of the electoral vote count certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. But Representative Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran, has emerged as one the harshest critics of officers’ unprepared response, saying, “My platoon of 18-year-olds showed more professionalism every day than the Capitol police do.”

Among those who faced the most harrowing experiences were members of Congress who have been the direct targets of vitriol from President Trump and his supporters, including Pressley, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Representative Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, faced calls for her to resign after she tweeted out Pelosi’s location as security agents rushed her away to a secure location.

On Instagram Live late Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez told viewers she had feared her colleagues would give away her location and that she had “a close encounter where I thought I was going to die.” But she said she didn’t know yet whether she could disclose the full details of the traumatizing event.

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“I did not know if I was going to make it to the end of that day alive,” she said. “Not just in a general sense, but also in a very, very specific sense.”

Pressley spent part of the siege on the floor of her darkened office, gas mask in hand, with her husband and her chief of staff. They had barricaded her door with office furniture and water jugs, and as the time ticked by, they began to realize they could face threats from more than just the rioters.

When they arrived in a space that had been designated as a safe room, Pressley noticed some of the members in there weren’t wearing masks.

“I turned to my husband, and I said, I want to leave,” Pressley said. “I learned later that my chief was told ...when we exited that room, ‘You’re on your own. If there’s an evacuation, you know, we’re not, we’re not coming for you.’ ”

A person familiar with the situation said a member of her staff stayed in touch with security officials, but decided to limit her communication as the day progressed—just in case they were part of the danger, too.

Globe Columnist Yvonne Abraham contributed to this report.


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.