Federal Roadblocks and Checkpoints Creating Capital Maze

By JAMES DAO

The New York Times

August 7, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 - Each day seems to bring a new reminder that this is a city under siege by an invisible enemy.

On Monday, following a terrorism alert naming financial institutions as targets, parking spaces were eliminated around the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. By Tuesday, the Capitol Police had closed a street and established 14 traffic checkpoints around Capitol Hill.

By Thursday, the police were inspecting vehicles near the Federal Reserve. And by Friday, the Secret Service was planning to close a sidewalk outside the Treasury Department. More is to come, security officials said.

On its own, each measure might have seemed inconsequential. But together, they have brought an explosion of denunciations from local officials fed up with the growing maze of concrete barriers and guard posts around their city. To them, the latest round of fortifications have seemed excessive, intrusive and even harmful.

"It's an overreaction," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting delegate in Congress, who contends street closings have created havoc for emergency vehicles and choked off the city's evacuation routes.

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey complained, "The city has to be able to function," predicting cancerous traffic jams when vacation season ends and Congress returns in September.

And Tony Bullock, the spokesman for Mayor Anthony Williams, called the moves "a decidedly knee-jerk reaction" by federal agencies seeking to use the latest alert to impose security measures they had wanted long before Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's not entirely clear what we're reacting to," Mr. Bullock said. "The warning from the Department of Homeland Security was specific to certain buildings. We're seeing federal government agencies using that information to implement security measures that have no connection to that warning. What is happening in the capital is unsustainable."

Their anger, on one level, reflects the longstanding frustration of Washingtonians who have felt powerless to rebuff federal demands. The federal government is not only the city's largest landowner and employer, it also controls its budget and exerts virtual veto power over its laws. The Secret Service and Capitol Police even have authority over city streets around the White House and Capitol Hill.

"We are treated as a colonial possession," said Mark Plotkin, a political commentator on a local radio station, WTOP. "We're not part of America, we're just props."

But on another level, many here are increasingly worried that the city is changing in fundamental ways. Institutions that were once beacons of open government, particularly the Capitol, have imposed stricter security than at any time in history, including when Washington was under imminent threat of invasion during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, historians said. Even monuments and museums are being encircled by protective walls.

"No question that security now is far greater than ever before," said Richard A. Baker, the Senate historian.

"It has always been a strong article of faith that the building needs to be open to the public," he said of the Capitol. "Fences come and go, but in the past, they usually have gone. Because there was always a sense that if this building is not open to the public, then the nation is in real trouble."

Federal security officials say that the advent of powerful truck bombs and suicidal assailants has made tougher measures unavoidable. They assert they have tried to work with city officials to ensure that expanding security perimeters are as unobtrusive as possible.

"Secret Service really prides itself on working with its local partners," said Lorie Lewis, a spokeswoman for the agency. "We do take into consideration the concerns of all affected."

But even the chairman of a commission that coordinates planning for the federal government worried that some agencies are hastily expanding security.

"I am concerned that we may have unintended consequences," said John V. Cogbill, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission.

For decades, Washington has seen a creeping expansion of protective barriers around government buildings. A bomb set off by the Weather Underground inside the Capitol in 1971 led to the installation of security cameras and metal detectors, Mr. Baker said. Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicle traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

And after a man smuggled a gun into the Capitol and killed two police officers in 1998, Congress appropriated money for a visitors center intended to restrict public access to the Capitol.

In the past, some powerful lawmakers, led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, were able to resist such efforts to wall off the government, its museums and monuments. But Mr. Moynihan died in 2003, and few other members of Congress have been willing to oppose the heightened security since Sept. 11.

And that has opened the gates to a flood of security measures by the federal government that local officials have felt helpless to resist.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, for instance, the State Department closed C Street and removed nearby street parking, even though the department lacked the legal authority to do so, city officials contend. Similarly, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing regular puts up "no parking" signs on meters outside the mint, without city permission.

City officials contend that some federal agencies have even proposed replacing public parking with permit parking for their employees, claiming the restricted spaces would provide "security buffers" for their buildings.

Dan Tangherlini, the director of the city''s transportation department, said the city was losing $100,000 a month in parking fees because of post-Sept. 11 security restrictions. And the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street near the White House has caused such severe disruptions that the city is studying plans to build a tunnel under the White House complex to speed crosstown traffic.

Mr. Tangherlini can tell many stories about the battle over security. Shortly after Sept. 11, he says he saw federal workers erecting barriers to close 10th Street outside the Energy Department - without his authorization. He leapt out of his car and ordered the men to stop, threatening to call in heavy equipment to remove the barriers if they refused. They relented.

But it is one of the few fights he has won in recent years, he says. "Sometimes I feel like Neville Chamberlain," Mr. Tangherlini said. "If I tell them, 'O.K., you can close 15th Street, but that's all,' it's not going to stop them from asking for more."