Panel Sees Danger to White House

Washington Post
Tuesday, May 9, 1995
Review Urges Closing Pennsylvania Avenue to Vehicular Traffic
by Pierre Thomas and Hamil R. Harris

An advisory committee examining security at the White House has recommended closing Pennsylvania Avenue after experts determined that a truck bomb outside the gates could do enough damage to injure persons inside the residence, sources familiar with the overview said yesterday.

The concern predated the April 19 Oklahoma City blast that obliterated a large section of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. But the bomb's power underscored the threat to the White House, sources said.

"The concern was for the increased capacity of a few individuals to do harm," said one source familiar with the report, which has not been released. "The big problem was always Pennsylvania Avenue. If the truck gets there it's too late."

The committee's recommendation to close Pennsylbania Avenue from 15th to 17th streets NW is part of an overall review of security at the White House, including the performance of the U.S. Secret Service.

In September, a plane crashed on the White House lawn, nestling beside the mansion. In October, a man fired a semiautomatic rifle from the sidewalk in front of the building into the White House before being wrestled to the ground by citizens. Then, in December, police fatally shot a homeless man allegedly brandishing a knife on the sidewalk adjacent to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Under the advisory committee's Proposal, the area in front of the White House would become a pedestrian mall, which committee officials recognized has the potential to significantly disrupt traffic in Washington's downtown core. In addition, politicians dislike the symbolism of restricting access to such a landmark.

Clinton said last month that he hoped officials would find a way to secure the mansion without closing the street. "Millions of Americans go by Pennsylvania Avenue every year and see the White House and the overwhelming number of them are law-abiding, good American citizens," he said in an interview on "60 Minutes"

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Sunday that he would oppose closing the avenue. "Keep it open," Gingrich said on "Meet the Press." "I mean there are limited risks in a free society."

Thus, the recommendation places Ronald K. Noble, Treasury Department undersecretary for enforcement, in a difficult position.

"The president is awaiting the recommendation from the secretary of the Treasury and will review it when it arrives," said White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos.

White House officials and sources close to the review say Noble is expected to formally present the report to Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin soon and that a final set of proposals is to be ready for the president's consideration not long after his return from this week's summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Closing down Pennsylvania Avenue for the short or long term would require the approval of the National Capital Planning Commission, said commission spokesman Lee Feldman. "Nothing has been submitted to us," he said.

"We have been on record for years calling for Pennsylvania Avenue to be closed," said Secret Service spokesman Eric Harnisfeger. "We can't do anything until the review comes out. We thought it would be out by now."

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she initially was opposed to the idea. But Norton said a few seeks before the Oklahoma City bombing she was briefed by Noble, who she said told her, "Our problem is that someone could come with a car bomb and there would be nothing we could do."

Now, after Oklahoma City, Norton said, "I think we have to do it." She and Noble have talked about a long-range proposal for tunneling traffic under Pennsylvania Avenue, she said.

Closing the street in front of the White House could worsen downtown rush hour traffic congestion, according to some traffic engineers interviewed late yesterday. The section of the avenue between 15th and 17th streets is heavily traveled by suburban commuters, with about 13,000 cars passing each way daily.

East of the White House, Pennsylvania links up with New York Avenue, a major artery for District and Prince George's County commuters. On the west side, Pennsylvania ties into the Potomac River bridges carrying Northern Virginia traffic and connects Georgetown with downtown. For many, Pennsylvania is the easiest way to George Washington University.

Traffic that now travels on the busy east-west artery would have to be diverted north to H, Eye and K streets NW, experts said, which already carry heavy loads of commuters.

The advisory team considered a number of options, including check points, but determined that would also create traffic problems.

In addition, the report, the bulk of which will be classified, calls for a number of other changes at the White House, such as expanding the use of bulletproof windows, In one recent incident a bullet pierced a State Dining Room window.

One source described the report as placing "heavy emphasis on improving interagency communication" with the Secret Service. Although finding no significant problem with Secret Service performance in protecting the president, the review offered some criticism of the Secret Service, holding the agency responsible for some gaps in communication and coordination with Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Park Police.

Concerns about coordination surfaced after the plane crash; although a computer at National Airport recorded the aircraft as being picked up on radar, no one from the FAA was watching at the time. At the time ofthe incident, officials had difficulty finding a written agreement documenting the responsibility for protecting White House airspace. Reviewers also found some confusion as to the Park Police's responsibilities.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park