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Security efforts turning capital into armed camp { February 22 2004 }

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February 22, 2004
Security Efforts Turning Capital Into Armed Camp

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 An antiaircraft missile, ready for use, sits atop a federal office building near the White House. Devices that test the air for chemical and biological substances are positioned throughout the city. Subway stations are now equipped with "bomb containment" trash bins. A major highway that runs by the Pentagon is being rerouted several hundred yards away. A security wall is going up around the Washington Monument.

Day by day, the nation's capital is becoming a fortress, turning a city known for graceful beauty into a virtual armed camp. In response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal security agents along with their counterparts in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia governments began a huge effort to build permanent safeguards for the capital area's most important buildings and monuments.

The effort that built slowly after the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City intensified after one jetliner slammed into the Pentagon and another jet crashed in Pennsylvania, presumably on its way to a target in Washington.

But more recently, security efforts have gained a new urgency as officials seek ways to stop truck bombs and other terrorist tactics that have been used in other countries, like suicide bombers.

Some of the biggest projects are under way at the most visible symbols of American democracy and might the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Pentagon.

A result has been a surge of security construction at a cost, still being calculated, that is expected to reach several hundred million dollars within five or six years. Barely 20 percent of the security measures planned for the region have been designed, let alone completed, which means construction is certain to continue for years.

"I'm not sure we ever reach a point where everything has been done; it's an ongoing process," said Kenneth E. Wall, an official with the Department of Homeland Security who oversees activity in the capital region. "As threats evolve and information evolves, we have to make adjustments accordingly."

But even at this early stage, the security efforts have transformed large parts of Washington, creating a slightly ominous feel for the city's 572,000 residents and the million more people who work here and visit daily. Tony Bullock, an aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, called it "the uglification of Washington." Unlike New York and other cities that have fewer federal buildings and, thus, a less concentrated security presence, Washington has a dense core of buildings that house every department of the federal government and venerated monuments that honor the country's greatest leaders.

"It's sad to see this, but the reality is we are very vulnerable," said Peter McBirnie of Huntsville, Ontario, who was visiting the Washington Monument the other day with his wife, Linda. They stood before temporary construction walls that encircle the monument grounds and obscure work on a new permanent 30-inch-high security wall designed to stop a vehicular attack.

By now, most federal buildings and monuments have prodigious security measures in place, with enhancements planned or under way.

Police officers with dogs trained to find explosives are stopping cars before they drive past the Capitol. Plans have been approved to build a security perimeter around the 10 buildings of the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of Agriculture on the Mall. The interiors of most government buildings have taken on aspects of an airport, with magnetometers at every entrance and a greater presence of law enforcement officers. The entrance to the Washington Monument has metal detectors and X-ray machines, as does the front door of the Botanical Garden greenhouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.

Even the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., a Washington suburb, has been newly fortified with an electrified fence.

"My daughter used to run up the steps of the Capitol, turn around, spread her arms and say, `This is my city,' " said Dan Tangherlini, director of the municipal Department of Transportation. Now, the steps are off-limits to the public while construction continues on an underground visitor center that will serve as the Capitol's sole public entry point.

With rising concerns that Washington is disappearing behind castle walls, plans for enhancing security measures around the city now take into account a yearning for more pleasing aesthetics to offset the appearance of a city bracing for trouble.

As the central design planner for the metropolitan area, the National Capital Planning Commission, an executive branch agency, approves all proposed security changes. Sensitive to charges that Washington could become "Bollard City" after the thousands of metal posts, known as bollards, that line the perimeter of many buildings and parks commission officials say they favor plans that diversify new protective measures if they are deemed necessary.

"Every month, federal agencies come in here seeking approval of their security initiatives," said Patricia E. Gallagher, the commission's executive director. "We challenge these notions. We look at them and ask them to do threat assessments. Are they overreacting? What's the design of your response? We need to make sure they are not overreaching, but these days, we're at a disadvantage."

With so much activity in the works, responsibility for minimizing the physical and psychological impact on residents, workers and tourists falls largely to city officials pressing to strike a balance between openness and security.

"It's a balance we struggle with every day," said Margret N. Kellems, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice.

As time passes, she said, city and federal officials are cooperating better than they had been in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks. "But in a lot of ways, we're not where we need to be," Ms. Kellems said. "There's an ongoing struggle with certain agencies about what security means, especially when it comes to parking, sidewalks and streets."

She cited new pop-up road barriers at the Capitol as an example of potential cross purposes. While preventing terrorists from approaching a vital building, they would also block major evacuation routes leading out of a city that ranks as one of the most congested in the country.

"There is an extraordinary burden on resources to support a city where the federal government owns 50 percent of the real estate," she said, conceding that the $192 million in federal security grants Washington has received since 2002 has been inadequate for all the city's security needs.

The money is appropriated by Congress, based on population.

"I'm hoping they switch to a threat-based funding formula," Ms. Kellems said. "The District has few peers as a target-rich environment."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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