A security report from D.C.
WASHINGTON — In the wake of last month's terror bombings in London, Washington Mayor Anthony Williams says his city is working much more effectively with the federal government on security issues than in the past and has adequate funding to protect the nation's capital.
But at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday, Mayor Williams cautioned that more money is needed to beef up security in Washington's subway system, that at last one glaring security problem remains in the city, and that not every terror incident can be prevented.
Williams, Washington's mayor since January 1999, presides over a city widely acknowledged to be one of the most appealing targets for terrorists. Within Washington's 68 square miles are the highly visible homes of all three branches of the US government, as well as a series of heroic monuments.
"You can't reduce the risk to zero," Williams says of terrorism prevention efforts. "It is impossible and it is irresponsible to tell your people that you can prevent every possible incident. And people ... really know that. But what they want you to do is try mightily to bring that thing as near to zero as possible and bring the severity [to] . as low a level as possible."
In the past Williams has been critical of the federal government's approach to dealing with the city on homeland security matters. His complaints focused on what he saw as delayed notice from federal authorities about threats to the city and a reflex response of blocking off major thoroughfares when security issues arose.
But notification has improved sharply under new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, he says. "That is an area where I commend [Chertoff]."
"The new secretary of Homeland Security has been good for local governments in the way he has certainly consulted with us here in the District and given us information," Williams says. Chertoff's "personal relationship and accessibility I think has been extraordinary."
"A couple of years ago the first response anybody had to any kind of hiccup was to shut down all the streets and shut down every thing," Williams says. "Now we have a much more nuanced approach to this, and we understand that we can't save the city by sending everybody to Nevada."
Still, security concerns remain. "We have gotten adequate funding here for national security. We could use more money for mass transit, especially after what we have seen happen [in London] over the last month, month and a half," Williams says.
The New York Times editorial page charged that a railroad bridge a few blocks from the Capitol dome may be "the weakest point in America's defense against terrorism." The paper noted a terrorist could blow up the bridge, which carries tanker cars loaded with toxic chemicals, thus endangering lawmakers and hundreds of thousands of others. Williams says, "I wouldn't say it is the most dangerous intersection in the world, but it is dangerous."
District of Columbia voters will have to wait until September to hear if Williams will run for re-election. His term ends in December 2006. Until then, he is encouraging other candidates to enter the race. "There actually is no real motivation for me to stop people from getting in there ... from a political calculus you just want people to come on in and divvy up the opposition vote," he says with a smile.
Born in Los Angeles, Williams spent his first three years in a foster home. His life changed dramatically when he was adopted by Virginia and Lewis Williams, who had two toddlers at the time and a third child on the way. Later in life, Williams dropped out of Santa Clara University and joined the Air Force. After applying for conscientious objector status, he spent the next several years driving trucks and spraying crops. When he returned to the academic world, he would earn a bachelor's degree from Yale with honors, a law degree from Harvard, and a mastersfrom the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
He came to Washington as the first chief financial officer of the US Agriculture Department. In 1995 he became CFO of the District's financial control board, charged with restoring financial accountability for District agencies and, by 1997, the District posted a $185 million surplus.