Barricades Seal Off
A symbol of Openness
By Ann Devroy and Steve Vogel
Lamenting the "changing nature and scope" of terrorist
threats, President Clinton yesterday abruptly closed Pennsylvania
Avenue in front of the White House to motor vehicle traffic,
ending a symbol of national openness that endured from the
founding of the capital.
Shortly before 5 a.m in the cool predawn, police cruisers sealed
off the avenue between 15th and 17th streets and U.S. Park
Service workers began setting up wooden sawhorses. The sawhorses
were later replaced by concrete barriers, which were also used to
seal off the H Street side of Lafayette Square, and segments of
State Place and South Executive Avenue behind the Old Executive
"It's history," sighed Robert Williams, a Park Service employee
who helped put up the barriers. "It shows the changing times and
the way things are today."
Kenneth Dale Bristow, a security guard walking home after his
overnight shift, greeted the new avenue with a look of stunned
dismay. "Having Pennsylvania Avenue open gave me a really good
feeiing," he said. "to see this happening is very discouraging."
Clinton directed Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin to close off
the avenue on Friday night after he was briefed on the results an
eight-month review of security at the White House done by a team
of experts and vetted by a panel of six outsiders. Closing the
street to traffic was one of 11 recomniemlations from the panel
The president announced the decision in his weekly radio
address, declaring that he was reluctant to accept the
recommendations but "I believe it would be irresponsible to
ignore [experts] considered opinion or to obstruct their
decisions about the safety of our public officials."
Closing the street,he said; is a "practicai step" to protect
against an Oklahoma City-type bombing attack and should be seen
"as a responsible security step necessary to preserve our
freedom, not part of a long-term restriction on our freedom."
The decision was made with no public debate or prior notice and
with much of the justification contained in classified documents
administration officials would not describe.
The White Honse broadly interpreted the Treasury Department's
legal authority to protect the president as sufficient authority
to close streets. Officials posted notices on lampposts as the
barricades went up yesterday morning and the final car made its'
way past the president's house.
City officials, briefed earlier, put in place a complex traffic
plan to reroute the estimated 26,000 vehicles per day that use
Pennsylvania Avenue, many of them tourists in slow-moving cars
who craned their necks to catch an awed glimpse or snap a picture
of the president's house.
By midday, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House
looked as though it had never seen a car. Joggers and roller
bladers wove their way through crowds of tourists strolling in
the bright sun on what had become an asphalt extension of
In the official view, the closing may be an annoyance to
drivers and a sorrowful commentary on the times but will in time
be a boon to those on foot. Instead of the rush of traffic, the
noise, the speeders, the honking of horns and grinding of brakes,
pedestrians will have leisurely strolls along a quiet avenue and
in time, enjoy a serene exspanded park abloom with flowers,
filled with trees and benches and fountains.
The National Capital Planning Commission has been asked to
produce in 90 days a proposal for the conversion of the stretch
of Pennsylvania Avenue, the park across the street, and adjoining
streets into a pedestrian mall. 0fficials agree such a
transformation, involving millions of dollars, a variety of local
and federal agencies, and major construction, would be years
But William H. Webster, former FBI and CIA director who`served
on the advisory panel that reviewed the White House security
recommendations, said that within a couple of years "I'll bet if
we do it right, no one will remember there ever was driving on
Pennsylvania Avenue. I don't think this is going to look like a
fort. We can create the kind of beauty that will conceal" the
uglier purposes of closing off the street.
Webster, fearful that potential terrorists would see the closing
as a sign of weakness and disquieted by the relentless addition
of security around the president and other of the nation's
symbols of democracy, said he had been one of the last of the
advisory group to give in to what he sees as ene of the
inevitable results of last month's bombing in Oklahoma City
and the increasing ability of terrorists to construct and use
"I don't really like to see concessions to terrorists" he said,
"but I came to see this as drawing a sensible line."
White House officials tried hard yesterday to make the case that
Clinton and most of his aides were also reluctant to give in to
terrorist fears and worried about the signal such a concession
sends, but were finally persuaded that no responsible alternative
They said all living former presidents were briefed on the
situation and concurred in the decision and that the top
congressional leaders were also briefed and only House Speaker
Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) raised any objections. "He didn't support
it, but he didn't oppose it either said one official.
The White House security review presented to Clinton concluded
that occupants of the White House, including hundreds of
government officials, visiting foreign leaders and tourists
who pass through each day, were vulnerable to a truck bomb. It
made 11 recommendations, only six of which were made public
yesterday. All involve the security of the president himself or
the White House, including the areas adjoining it and the
airspace above it.
A senior official said that after Clinton and. Rubin viewed the
devastation caused by the April 19 bombing of the Oklahoma City
federal building, their doubts about the closing were eclipsed
by their sense of how easy it would be to assemble a car bomb and
set if off near the White House and its complex of offices and
ceremonial and residential quarters.
Clinton, said one official, "was very struck by the effect an
explosion would have not just on the president and the
government, but on the touringt with and around the White House.
Webster said the analysts looked at the sky, the ground, the
shooters and the bombers" and conluded that a large bomb in a
truck parked 50 feet away "could do lethal damage. . . . This is
a real risk. They gave us the numbers and the pounds and the
distances and it is life threatening.
A number of alternatives were studied, officials said, but
nothing but closing the street and turning the area into a
pedestrian mall was considered workable.
"Cleariy this closing is necessary because of the changing nature
and scope of the threat of terrorist actions" Clinton said, It
should be seen as a responsible security step necessary to
preserve our freedom, not part of a long-term restriction of our
Secret Service Director Eljay B. Bowron said he had long
believed that Pennsylvania Avenue would have to be closed in his
lifetime. "It was really just a question of whether it was going
to close before we had an explosion or after we had an an
explosion. I'm thankful that it's been done this way, he said.
The service has long pushed for closing the section as a
security threat, renewing their entreaties after the Oklahoma
Senior officials said Clinton had been given an extensive
ballistics briefing on Wednesday by Bowron and other experts
using charts and graphs to protect the effects of car bombs of
different weights and placed at different points around the White
House. One official said that included in the presentation were
"extremely grim" projections of death, destruction and injury
involving not only Clinton but the hundreds of others who
routinely work in or visit the White House.
The security review also included an examination of alternatives
to closing the street that would produce the same result of
preventing a car or van with a bomb from getting near the White
House. Officials said one alternative was setting up checkpoints
at 17th and 15th streets and west of the White House where
vehicles would Be stopped and searched. Another was to construct
what amounts to huge bomb detectors that vehicles would pass
through. Another was to allow cars and buses but ban trucks, or
to somehow try to reinforce the White House to withstand blasts.
All the alternatives were rejected, officials said, because they
either were "too militaristic looking for a democracy, unworkable
or impractical. Officials said the tension between Protecting the
president and the historic of a democratic society was heavily
debated but that the experts agreed, and Clinton concurred, it
would be "irresponsible" to ignore the recommendations.
Besides the street closing, officials said several other
security recommendations were implemented over the Past few weeks
or will be, including a new system of coordination and alert to
deter air attacks.
The crashing of a small plane on the White House grounds last
September revealed a lack of coordinated system to deal with air
threats. Webster said the Federal Aviation Administration and
Secret Service "got sleepy" over coordination and other aspects
of air security but the recommendations will remedy that.
One official said the air recommendation's primary intent is to
spot and identify potentially hostile aircraft more quickly so
that the president can be moved to a "hardened location" while
the plane is being dealt with.
"You can't shoot down everything that strays in the air,"
Other recommendations concerning security around the complex,
including more builetproof glass, more carefully delineated lines
of authority over which agency is in charge of which aspect of
security, have also been implemented, officials said.
The closing adds another dramatic chapter in the government's
drive to deal with security fears around presidents. Over the
decades, every new threat or fear of threat to the president or
White House has been met with new restrictions. While Clinton
pledged the moves would not cut off his access to average
Americans, that access, inch by inch, has declined.
The "security package" around the president has gradually
increased. His schedule is kept more secret, his movements are
less visible to the outside world. Bigger motorcades, wider and
deeper "perimeters" between the president and regular people,
audiences forced to spend hours going through metal detectors
before a presidential event all signal the strengthening of the
security cocoon around presidents.
The latest security review was prompted by a string of security
incidents, including the landing of a plane on the White House
South Lawn; the shooting into the White House by a man on the
sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue and the killing of a man
who lunged at security officials outside the White House.
None of those incidents would have been affected by the
Pennsylvania Avenue closing, but officiais asserted other changes
implemented would help to avert similar problems. One official
said, "We looked at what did occur and what might occur and what
practically could occur, and took the steps against those
Webster noted: "I used to say that security is always too much
until it is not enough. You just have to balance the costs of
democracy and the risks. This was a real risk and worth, we
thought, the costs."
Washington Post Staff Writers
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park