Nervous Secret Service

Posted: Oct 08, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Six days after the terrorist attacks on America, the U.S. Secret Service issued a largely overlooked press release announcing that "due to ongoing security concerns, ... some offices of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building are being relocated as a precautionary measure." That represented one victory in continuing efforts by security experts to impose a new way of life on Washington in the wake of Sept. 11. The only side exposed to public traffic of what is commonly called the Old EOB, next door to the White House, is the west side, on 17th Street. On Sept. 14, amid spurious bomb threats and pervasive anxiety, offices on 17th Street were closed indefinitely. Employees in the Office of the President were sent elsewhere in the capital while that part of the building (which long ago housed the State, War and Navy departments) is turned into an impregnable fortress. No matter that this precaution was unrelated to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that an armed assault on the Old EOB is a low risk. It represented another backstage skirmish between President Bush and his zealous security advisers, this one resulting in compromise. The Secret Service wanted to totally close 17th Street as it six years ago closed Pennsylvania Ave. on the north side of the White House and the Old EOB and, as on Sept. 14, it closed E Street well to the south of the two buildings. Tension between George W. Bush and the service mandated to protect him began the day he took office. During last year's campaign, he implied he would reverse President Bill Clinton's decision closing Pennsylvania Ave. in front of the White House to vehicular traffic. Secret Service officials launched a campaign (illustrated by classified videos) to convince Bush and his top aides that it is too dangerous to reopen the street outside the "people's house" as it had been open for nearly two centuries. The Pennsylvania Ave. question appeared moot after the terrorist attacks, but new disputes divided the president and the Secret Service. Bush understood that he had to return to Washington Sept. 11 to reassure the country. If the Secret Service had prevailed, the president would have not slept in his own bed that night. Thankfully, he prevailed. Nervous reaction by the Secret Service immediately following the attacks led to such bizarre security regulations as a prohibition on window washers on the upper stories of private office buildings three blocks from the White House. The attempted closing of 17th Street and the successful closing of E Street were accompanied by security experts demanding that Washington's Reagan National Airport be shut down permanently because its flight patterns were so close to the White House. Bush correctly perceived that a padlock on the airport serving the only superpower's capital would be perceived worldwide as a triumph by the terrorists. Nevertheless, last week's re-opening did not come easily. A week earlier Bush asked Richard Clarke, the Clinton administration's holdover counter-terrorism expert in the White House, for a detailed plan to re-open Reagan National. He got back a brief statement calling for traffic limited to small, regional passenger planes. The president did acquiesce to Secret Service insistence that, without historical precedent, Vice President Dick Cheney go into hiding Sept. 20 when Bush addressed an historic joint session of Congress. That cast doubt about the protection of the president, the first lady, the whole Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the diplomatic corps and visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But if all perished in a terrorist attack, the Secret Service argued, we would still have Dick Cheney. Hopefully, Cheney will again perform his constitutional duties as president of the Senate the next time Bush addresses Congress. But the bunker-pocked stretch of Pennsylvania Ave. in front of the White House and the EOB, now often closed to pedestrian as well as vehicular traffic, is permanent testimony to the zeal of the president's protectors. The Secret Service acts as though it wants to turn Washington, D.C., into Gorky, the closed Soviet city. It is George W. Bush's responsibility to challenge his bodyguards.