How worried should we be that government investigators, using fake police IDs, were able to talk their way into FBI headquarters, the Justice Department, the State Department, and other notable public buildings in Washington?
The point of the caper, carried out by General Accounting Office (GAO) agents at congressional behest, was to test how easily terrorists might do the same thing. From that perspective, official Washington, and the general public, should be a little stunned. The investigators had virtually no trouble penetrating building defenses.
Yet this is the same national capital that for years now has been super-conscious of security. Added layers of protection were applied following each major terrorist incident - the World Trade Center bombing in New York, the Oklahoma City bombing, the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Metal detectors have been joined by concrete barriers, more armed guards, etc., etc. What the GAO gumshoes exposed are some specific weaknesses - human and technological - in this heavy security curtain.
First, the investigators played heavily on the courtesies traditionally shown one law-enforcement or security agency by another. When they flashed their forged badges and said they were armed (which they weren't), they were waved through. Second, those fake police IDs were created with the help of the Internet. On e-commerce's dark side dwell some merchants who deal in just such fake credentials. You can purchase one for as little as $10.
Now what? Tightening the "wave 'em through" treatment for fellow cops is in order. IDs should be given a close look, especially when people are showing up without appointments. Heightened awareness should help close the fake ID gap. Legislation to criminalize the sale of such documents is also in the works.
Security in public places is a matter of ratcheting up vigilance while allowing, as much as possible, normal daily business - including, in Washington, an unending flow of tourists. Closing the security breaches brought to glaring light by the GAO should serve both those purposes.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society