The Washington Post, June 16, 1996

Open the Avenue, Move the Staff

In two recent editorials the Post rightly promotes reopening Pennsylvania Avenue's 1600 block and opposes White House annexation of Lafayette Square ["Reopen Pennsylvania Avenue," May 22; "No Funds for a Permanent Park," May 26]. This contrasts with Benjamin Forgey's muted praise of the National Park Service's plan to annex the Square ["Street at a Crossroads," Style, May 25].1 can think of at least one probably cheaper security option.

 I'm skeptical of the May 26 editorial's premise that "the president's [personal] safety . . . is paramount" in the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue. His life, after all, is at greater risk away from the White House than in it. (All presidential assassinations and most attempts have happened elsewhere.) Most likely, the Secret Service had in mind two less movable targets. One is foreign dignitaries at the White House, the other is the West Wing office complex—the hub of presidential management.

 The premise that the West Wing hub is a terrorist target implies that deconcentrating that hub with modern info-technology could lower the risk at a low cost.

 Lafayette Square is lined west and east with government office buildings. So are 15th and 17th streets south of the White House. Another government building is at 1724 F St. NW, and the White House Visitor's Center is on Pennsylvania just east of 15th Street. Tenants of many of these buildings could be displaced by offices relocated from the West Wing. The new offices would remain a short wheelchair ride from the president and in full e-mail contact. But their move would greatly reduce the target profile of the White House.

 Mr. Forgey wrote that "a bomb exploding on the avenue ... could decimate the White House." It actually could destroy all of it, not merely the tenth that "decimation" means. But negating bomb threats falls short of physically defending the White House.

 A recent book on terrorism risks in America, "When the Eagle Screams" by Stephen Bowman, discusses several kinds of threats, of which bombing is only one. This is no reason to eschew partial defenses, but it points up that denying Pennsylvania Avenue to Washington would be only that.

 Closing the avenue makes obsolete 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as the nation's most famous address. The White House effectively is now at 1600 State Place NW or 1600 H St. NW. That reality saddens me.


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