Security vs. openness in the US capital
Washington — The nation's capital is grappling with the problem of how best to protect against terrorist attacks while maintaining the freedom and openness essential to American democracy. The issue arises as security guards, policemen, and government workers here remain on a heightened state of alert in the aftermath of the United States bombing attacks on Libya last month. American law enforcement officials have been on the lookout to detect signs that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi might try to make good his earlier threat to export terrorism to the US.
Though there have been no terrorist incidents or arrests here, more than 175 bomb threats were recorded in Washington alone in the two weeks following the attack on Libya, according to local police officials. Twenty such threats were made against the US Capitol, according to Capitol police.
Across town, the US Park Police reports that bomb threats against American monuments and memorials are up by 40 percent.
Security officials believe that disgruntled former employees, outraged citizens, and emotionally disturbed persons make the majority of the bomb threat calls. To date, no actual bombs have been recovered, police said.
The proliferation of bomb threats presents federal security officials with a dilemma: How to maintain free access in government buildings while keeping the buildings free of planted bombs.
``We are dealing with public buildings and it is important to us that they remain that -- public buildings,'' says Randy Lash, director of the federal protection and safety division of the General Services Administration. ``If we shut [them] down, then that is what the terrorists want us to do, to shut down the operations of government,'' he says.
Major Richard Susick of the US Park Police adds that his agency has no intention of restricting access to parks and monuments in Washington because of bomb or other threats. ``People should have access to their monuments and memorials. These are symbols of a free society, so we are not going to close them off and arm them like forts,'' Major Susick says.
On Capitol Hill, Congress is considering circling itself with a tall, wrought iron fence to help keep terrorists away from the Capitol building. The structure would be similar to the fence that already surrounds the White House, including such high-tech extras as infrared and seismic sensors to detect warm bodies or soft footsteps of people attempting to sneak over the fence on a foggy, moonless night.
Some congressmen complain that fences make for bad government.
But other lawmakers, such as Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California and Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, maintain that the fence may ultimately contribute to a freer atmosphere in the halls of Congress than at present.
Following a series of bomb scares and threats culminating in an actual bombing on Nov. 7, 1983, certain hallways in the Capitol have been declared off limits to unauthorized persons.
``Some halls have been closed down step by step over the years as the perceived threat has risen,'' Senator Cranston said. He added, ``I would hope that when we have this greater security [as a result of the fence and other measures], the restrictions would be eliminated.''
The plan, according to Simpson and Cranston, is that metal detectors and other security equipment currently jamming the entrances of the Capitol building, would be located instead at the gates of the perimeter fence. The projected cost of the security project is $15.5 million.
``We have already had experience with bombs in the Capitol,'' Cranston said. ``It is only prudent to take some precautions on behalf of the symbol of our democracy.''
Terrorism experts indicate that because of the size and military strength of the United States, foreign terrorists seeking to strike at the US would probably attempt to attack symbolic American targets such as the Statue of Liberty, the US Capitol building, the White House, or the Pentagon.
Secret Service officials are well aware of the symbolic importance of the White House. Secret Service spokesman Jack Taylor says at least once a year someone decides the time is ripe to ram his or her car into the executive mansion's reinforced iron driveway gate.
Plans are also underway, officials say, to replace the thick concrete barriers that ring the White House with hefty, but more attractive, concrete planters. Such planters are expected to be equally effective at preventing Beirut-style car and truck bombings.
Mr. Taylor says that the majority of bomb and other threats intercepted by federal officials ``are not made by individuals or groups that intend to carry them out.''
But in a city widely perceived as being chock-full of terrorist targets, the Secret Service agent and other security officials point out that it is impossible without carefully investigating each threat to seperate the crank callers from real terrorists armed with real bombs.
``We treat every bomb threat seriously,'' Taylor says. ``We must.''