July 13, 1996

The Washington Post

America's Avenue

Some clarifications need to be made to Stephen Fehr's front-page article "Closing Called Only Safe Avenue" [July 3]. Specifically, the effective distance from a potential car-bomb explosion in front of the White House is three times the distance of the truck bomb in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, but far more important is the following:

Nobody on the side of reopening Pennsylvania Avenue believes that the White House and all its occupants should not be protected.

· All along, we have been saying eliminate any truck traffic. Former FBI director William H. Webster says, along with a host of other experts, "The real danger is a truck bomb." Truck traffic can be eliminated in several optional ways that have been put forward before.

· The Secret Service says that nothing but closing the street will work but later on the director, Eljay B. Bowron, is quoted as saying that the idea I proposed six months ago—a laminated high-tech explosion-resistant glass fence ["Window on the President," Close to Home, Feb. 4]— has not been tested.

We think that when one is proposing to spend $40 million (the Park Service plan) to foul up the city forever, it would be just a bit more prudent to test at least one alternative that would cost one-tenth of that sum and permit the reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue, which almost every friend of our grand nation's capital wants.


In view of the terrorist bombing of a U.S. facility in Dhahran and perhaps other matters not known to the American public, I am sure the Secret Service director has security reasons for his strong opposition to reopening Pennsylvania Avenue. Nevertheless the president must make the ultimate decision, and maximizing security cannot be the only factor he considers.

If maximizing security becomes the sole standard, President Clinton and future presidents will become more and more isolated from the American public and less and less able to lead our democracy. If presidential security is the sole standard, I am sure such regular activities as jagging, appearances at fund-raisers, mingling with crowds at parades and political events and numerous other regular presidential activities will have to be terminated. With respect to the White House itself; the risk from private planes flying into National Airport must certainly pose at least as serious a risk as -truck bombs." There is also the risk from missiles that could be launched from adjoining buildings, such as the building from which I am writing this letter.

While President Clinton's security advisers are not now suggesting that individuals be restricted from walking on Pennsylvania Avenue, experience has shown that such persons can be carrying rifles and firing them at persons near the White House they believe to be the president. And it is only a matter of time until explosives become sufficiently compact for an individual to carry a charge as powerful as those now feared from trucks.

If security becomes the controlling standard, we soon will have a president who is isolated in a bunker— somewhat similar to that in which Hitler committed suicide. I do not believe that this is the standard we want to adopt.

It is the president's responsibility to balance the recommendation of his security personnel against his other requirements and obligations. I am sure that a feasible way to open Pennsylvania Avenue can be found so the American public can continue to drive past its White House without assuming disproportionate risks to President Clinton and future presidents. I strongly urge the president to direct the Park Service, in conjunction with his security personnel, to design a plan that reopens the avenue to normal automobile traffic.


The closing of Pennsylvania Avenue is called the only safe solution. and in the wake of recent terrorist bombings, that's probably so. But can you imagine a similar proposal to close a three-block stretch of Rockville Pike or Route 1 without accommodating the displaced traffic? Of course not. So why does the federal government think that it can simply shut down one of Washington's major east-west boulevards without solving the traffic chaos it has created?

If Pennsylvania Avenue must remain closed, the common-sense solution is to build a replacement tunnel beneath the existing right-of-way. After all, tunnels beneath our circles and parks have been a tradition in Washington since the streetcar era. Making more efficient use of nearby streets—while laudable—can be only a temporary solution, because they are hopelessly clogged, and movement across downtown has become a nightmare.

While protecting the president should be the first priority the federal government also has a responsibility to the city and the economic well-being of its citizens. The cost of a tunnel— whatever it is—is simply part of the price the governments must pay to solve its security problem. To consider anything less is unreasonably shifting a national burden once again to the people of Washington.


Those who would reopen Pennsylvania Avenue because of arguments about whether 100, 200 or 400 feet is enough distance to ensure the safety of the White House from a potential car or truck bomb forget one very important thing—the safety of people walking along Pennsylvania Avenue and in Lafayette Square. We must ensure that there is not even the illusion that a truck bomb could seriously damage the White House or its principal occupant, the president. As someone who worked in the West Wing and saw daily the large numbers of tourists, office workers and other passersby in the vicinity of the White House at any given time, I find the prospect of even a "failed" truck bombing very frightening.


The issue so far has been posed thus:

(1) Close Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th to 17th streets.

(2) Reopen a vital city traffic artery.

Those who favor the closing cite the damage a car or truck bomb could do to the White House, its occupants and American prestige. Let's accept all that. But they also object to running the avenue in a tunnel between 15th and 17th streets as too costly. Let's accept that also as legitimate.

A yet unspoken compromise is possible. Run the avenue in a depressed slot, so that any blast from a truck bomb would be deflected upward away from the White House and all the other buildings surrounding Lafayette Square. Pedestrian bridges would link the park with the White House. Motor access to the White House north grounds would be purely ceremonial. The city's lifeblood would flow smoothly again.

The Inaugural Parade could just as easily be run south of the White House and up 17th Street. Or a pedestrian mall parallel to a recessed Pennsylvania Avenue could function as a parade route. The underground utilities affected could be shifted at minimal expense.

A fine example of such an out-of-sight road depression is close by: E Street from 20th to 24th Street NW.


When did the Secret Service's charter to protect the life of the president expand to include protection from the service's self-imagined risks? Three presidents have been assassinated by lone gunmen, and one was seriously wounded, yet the Secret Service now believes that truck bombs parked on Pennsylvania Avenue are "a serious risk."

Where are the data? No one doubts that if a truck bomb were parked in front of the White House it could endanger the president, but this ignores the fundamental question of the likelihood of such an event. A report that surveyed the incidence of vehicle-bomb attacks on the residences of heads of state worldwide should be mandatory. Inflating the threat allows the Secret Service to inflate its power, unchecked by anyone. Since when does "protecting the president" constitute authority to imperil the safety of District workers degrade the quality of life of District residents and jeopardize the viability of District businesses?