Barricades Seal Off A symbol of Openness

By Ann Devroy and Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writers

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 Office Building.

"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 he accepted.

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 Lafayette Square.

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 away.

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 deadly bombs.

"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 existed.

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 freedom.

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 bombing.

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," Webster said.

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 threats."

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."

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park