Greater Greater Washington

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The only thing we have to fear is a summit at the Convention Center

On Monday, April 12 and Tuesday April 13, fifty heads of state will convene at the Convention Center for the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by the State Department.


The Capitol's west terrace. Photo by The Great Photographicon.

The Secret Service will cordon off numerous streets around the Convention Center, creating significant traffic jams, forcing the rerouting of numerous bus lines and subjecting residents of the adjacent affordable housing complex to warrantless searches as a condition of accessing their own homes.

Do Washington's unique security fears limit the Bill of Rights for its citizens? While on the campaign trail, candidate Obama decried Pres. Bush's uses of warrantless wiretaps as violations of the Fourth Amendment, but President Obama believes there's an exception for residents around the Convention Center. DHS has declared the event a "National Special Security Event", placing it in the same category as an inauguration, State of the Union, or Super Bowl, thus legally putting the Secret Service in charge of security.

Too many Federal officials, who are granted special access to these closed spaces and don't live in the city anyway, think little of harassing innocent citizens and shutting off public access to public spaces. The West Terrace of the Capitol, providing one of the finest views of the Mall, has been closed to the public since 2001. Numerous Federal agencies have turned public street parking beside their buildings into permit-only parking for their employees under the pretext of "security".

E Street south of the White House is closed to car traffic, yet still intimidates pedestrians with a phalanx of barriers, fences, and guards. The Ellipse is now a parking lot for White House employees. Hideous Jersey barriers mar the monumental landscapes. An entire Flickr photo group is devoted to photographers harassed by police and Federal officers for photographing ornate public buildings or public art.


Plan for street closures and checkpoints for the summit.
The federal government's imperious re-appropriation of public resources is nothing new and the District government isn't innocent either. To stem the string of homicides afflicting the Trinidad neighborhood in the summer of 2008, the DC police set up checkpoints requiring anyone entering the neighborhood by car to provide a "legitimate" reason for entry. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled a year later that the checkpoints were unconstitutional.

In response to the Trinidad checkpoints, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, herself a professor of Constitutional law, told the Washington Post, "This is not Baghdad. It's the United States of America. People have the right to enter their communities without running through a police gauntlet."

Cars pass beside, in front of, and even below the United Nations headquarters in New York, yet this summit in Washington unleashes a hysteria of greater proportions, closing off streets for blocks.

Extra risk is the cost of living in a free society and public spaces, including streets, are by definition public. What makes city life unique, and in the view of many, enjoyable, is that much of it is conducted in public. City residents, because of our population densities and high rates of walking, biking and transit use, must share streets more so than suburban and rural residents, who rely more on enclosed private cars for traversing public thoroughfares.

Public spaces are not for the select fewappointed or self-appointedto rule as their exclusive, private dominions. They rightfully belong to everybody.

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 

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Finally something I can agree with 100%!

by Bob on Apr 7, 2010 1:40 pm • linkreport

Great post!

I'm in favor of moving this event to somewhere in Sarah Palin's "Real America." Surely those folks won't mind having all of their parking taken away from them with a weeks notice and no alternatives. And they'll think it's their patriotic duty to walk through metal detectors and get searched just to enter their home.

by Tony L on Apr 7, 2010 2:06 pm • linkreport

My main criticism is simply the selection of the venue. I think it's a stretch to compare the security restrictions in place for the NSS to the illegal Trinidad checkpoints.

Assuming that the event has to be at this location, then it's obvious that it needs to be secured. We must then contend with the fact that private residences are located directly across the street. I imagine most people would have no argument or legal standing to complain if their office building was located across the street, and they were subject to security screening to enter their office.

Let's also realize that this summit is likely attractive to all sorts of terrorist organizations, both domestic and internationally. So, obviously security is vital. So, how do you secure a residential complex that could be used as a launching point for an attack?

Well, you've gotta screen people entering the complex. Is it overboard to subject them to actual searches? I think this point could be debated, depending on threat assessments and whatnot. At a minimum, though, it makes sense to see whether or not someone actually does live there.

The Supreme Court has said that certain warrantless searches are permitted, such as in the case of DUI checkpoints. You are required to stop and be 'searched' without probable cause. It's true the Trinidad checkpoints were deemed illegal, but those were not looking for any in particular, just general 'crime fighting' measures. There's the whole "exigent circumstances" exception to the Fourth Amendment, which generally says police may conduct searches if there's an immediate need to protect lives and property. To fall under the exigent circumstances exception, the intent of the search must be for 'safety' and not with intent to seize.

So, I don't exactly see this as being problematic as long as the screening is for security purposes only, and is not treated as MPD as a way to search all persons for any sort of contraband.

Just my two cents, but I think the bigger point to takeaway from all of this is that an event of this magnitude should have been hosted at an easier-to-secure venue. Once the decision was made to host it at the convention center, this sort of security does seem necessary.

As a side note, I don't believe that it's right or correct to set up police checkpoints around the city as an attempt to fight crime. I just think that the security measures in place for the NSS are not unreasonable.

by Dave Stroup on Apr 7, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

Good post Eric! Yes, there's a point where 'security concerns' get way abused and the pre-cautions necessary might not be justified. I wouldn't like the idea of our losing our 'capital' function of hosting these events, but I agree that a closer look needs to be had as to what is justifiable and what isn't. From a bigger picture, how are we safeguarding the freedoms that come with being a democracy when we curtail these same freedoms in the name of safeguarding our democracy. We get ourselves into a catch-22 ... Freedom is inherently risky ... Maybe we just need to accept these risks and move on.

by Lance on Apr 7, 2010 2:25 pm • linkreport

Inauguration, State of the Union, and the Superbowl????

by Erik W on Apr 7, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

"Do Washington's unique security fears limit the Bill of Rights for its citizens?"

The worst form of hyperbole. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that guarantees you the right to go down any street of your choice 24/7, no matter what the security situation.

This is definitely the kind of an event that is on the radar of terrorist groups and violent and anarchist protest groups.

As Dave Stroup put it, the government has a right to secure this area for this specific event. There are limits as to what it can and should do to secure the area, but, as Justice Jackson observed, we must not turn the Constitution into a suicide pact. The Secret Service must protect not only our own government officials, but those from more than
40 other nations attending this event.

by Mike S. on Apr 7, 2010 2:35 pm • linkreport

@Erik W: Inauguration, State of the Union, and the Superbowl????

Yeah, it's not like terror groups would ever want to hit a high profile target or something seen by hundreds of millions of people. Next thing those nervous nellies will be telling us is that they'd hit the World Trade Center or something.

Jes' sayin.

by Mike S. on Apr 7, 2010 2:40 pm • linkreport

As a resident in an affected area of the NSS, I wholeheartedly empathize with the plight many of the older or disabled residents will have to endure next week. That said, there is no question that this is an extremely high profile event which will surely generate a lot of attention.

I think the article is spot on when it comes to the burdensome security environment this city has lived with for the past ten years. We have given up many great places in the name of security, and I wish we could find a better way to create more access to these great places. That said, like the inauguration the NSS is held in DC so infrequently that a small amount of inconvenience should not be viewed as an infringement upon liberty. It's part of the tempo of life in DC. It will certainly be exciting to see these motorcades coming in.

side note: I believe the periphery of the UN is closed down during high profile summits. Daily business at the UN is pretty dull.

by JTS on Apr 7, 2010 2:49 pm • linkreport

I agree wholeheartedly with Dave Stroup.

The larger point of this piece is well taken. However, the criticism of current, temporary security measures for the upcoming summit is unreasonable, and also an unnecessary addition to the argument.

by Matt R. on Apr 7, 2010 2:58 pm • linkreport

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety

Ben Franklin

Why have the event in DC at all; if someone wanted to act it they would get a 2 for 1 special.

Why have it near a residential area?

Why not have it outside of the city; National Harbor sounds good for this kind of event. The place is pretty much the middle of nowhere in terms of being near DC they could have the complex to there-selves and the only ones effected would be employees.

by kk on Apr 7, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

Too much hyperbole; too little focus on the fact that this likely is the largest gathering of world leaders in the US since the end of WWII. And there are a whole bunch of bad guys out there who'd really, really like to kill a bunch of these leaders.

So, yes it does suck to live near the Convention Center and be inconvenienced for a few days. And yes, it is idiotic to have Jersey barriers popping up all over the place without actual security threat reviews. And yes, Union Station guards are clueless about taking photos inside the building.

But in terms of sheer size and magnitude, the Convention Center procedures don't seem all that different from the Inauguration procedures. The Secret Service worries about keeping their charges safe; not about whether people are inconvenienced.

by Fritz on Apr 7, 2010 3:02 pm • linkreport

Liebe Genossin you must be careful not to criticize the security around this event. You can be sure that the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit is watching and listening.

Especially you, Herr Fidler.

by Matt Johnson on Apr 7, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

@Mike S: I'm not arguing that the Super Bowl isn't a legitimate terrorist target or that it shouldn't have heightened security. I'm just pointing out that a sporting event requires the same (maybe more, I don't know) security measures as the inauguration of leader of the free world and the most important speech that leader gives each year. Just a little social commentary.

by Erik W on Apr 7, 2010 3:28 pm • linkreport

As a resident who lives 3 blocks away the security for NSS does seem like overkill. But it is only 2 days for a summit of world leaders. As long as this is a rare once every 2+ years occurrence in our community I don't think warrants the outrage and hyperbole expressed by Eric. If these restrictions lasted a week or happened frequently through out the year in the same neighborhood I would probably feel differently.

The G20 summit was at the NBM a little while back. The street grid around the NBM has less residences, no bus lines, and less through traffic. I think it was a better location. I do wonder if the NSS could have fit there?

My CAPTCHA words are rhetoric tampax

by Paul on Apr 7, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

Sounds like they should get a different venue. For security they need somewhere that is isolated, with practically no one living there, and no way to easily get to.

Sounds like National Harbor is perfect for for this...

by Josh on Apr 7, 2010 3:52 pm • linkreport

I live in the affected area. My usual Metro station (Convention Center) will be closed and I will have to walk 5-8 blocks out of my way to get around the convention center and get to work. I don't mind that. What I am concerned about are the numerous businesses (bars, restaurants, stores) within the perimeter that will basically have to shut down (because no one will be allowed inside except the people who live there) and lose 2-3 days of revenue. In this economy that can be more than an inconvenience......

by Jaredd on Apr 7, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

Josh: if it were at National Harbor, they'd probably shut down the Beltway...

by Froggie on Apr 7, 2010 4:04 pm • linkreport

I think it's funny (and sad) how many folks think the solution is to move the summit to National Harbor. They say it's easier to secure a remote location, but frankly, I wonder if an unspoken reason is because no one cares if it gets blown up. (Joking!) As an urbanist I think it's great that the center city can play host to such a high-profile event. The question is how do we juggle the security with our rights, and our ideals of an open and free society?

We're not just managing "security" by closing streets, asking for IDs, removing mailboxes etc... we are managing our fears. If the goal of terrorism is to spread terror, then score one for the terrorists.

The problem with this sort of "batten the hatches" approach to security (other than "minor" constitutional issues) is it's not scalable. You can only ratchet up to this level on special occasions; it becomes wearisome and expensive and annoying to keep it up. While a summit of heads of states deserves the highest level of protection, we've seen that some of the most fearsome targets are the more mundane and unexpected... a transit station, an office building, a marketplace.

Yes, I am just rambling, since I don't have a genius solution. I know instead of venting to the bloggosphere I should be venting to all those evil terrorists. Stop being evil! I guess that's my genius solution.

by M.V. Jantzen on Apr 7, 2010 4:37 pm • linkreport

I'm surprised at how little discussion there is of what I thought was the fundamental point of Eric's post (and something I had been thinking about lately, given that I live so close to the affected area).

How would you feel if someone told you that every time you wanted to go home, you had to be subject to a search?

It's only for two days, but where's the acceptable line? A week? A month? Obviously the government has the authority to deny people access to otherwise public places, but in this case, it's potentially denying them to *private* places. What if a resident in the affected area is on some kind of watchlist (fairly or unfairly)? Do we say 'sorry, go get a hotel for a few days'? Wouldn't you be outraged?

by J on Apr 7, 2010 4:52 pm • linkreport

Its interesting. When I brought up these kind of issues in a variety of forums before the Obama Innauguration the responses ranged from:

"This is a once in a lifetime historic event that will only last 2 days, how dare you criticize the security." to

"Obama is being targeted by a bunch of crazies who want him dead, some sacrafices of freedoms must be made for his security."

I was hard pressed to find many people willing to go on the record and say that things were overboard, or that, the President could just as well be innaugurated at National Harbor or in the plains of South Dakota.

Security is politics, politics is security.

by urbaner on Apr 7, 2010 5:42 pm • linkreport

I live about 1 block from Mt Vernon Sq Metro. I don't mind showing ID to prove I live in the neighborhood. I constantly put up with the inconvenience of events at the Convention Center as part of the price of urban living.

I do draw the line at searches of my person to enter my own home. While I am not affected this time, but is difficult for me to imagine the fear and humiliation that will be experienced by residents of McCollough Terrace which pre-dates the Convention Center.

The apartments in question were built and owned by the United House of Prayer. Most of the residents are members of and active in the church. This immediate area (including neighboring apartments & town homes owned by the church has been an almost crime free haven dating to the time when drugs pervaded the surrounding area. Now the same God-fearing people will be subject to search in order to enter their own homes.

Something is real wrong with this picture.

by Kreeggo on Apr 7, 2010 5:49 pm • linkreport

The National Harbor suggestion is silly - but the Building Museum is not. If you're going to host this kind of event in the city, the Building Museum provides an area that's already somewhat isolated from the rest of downtown, thanks to the 395 trench, and doesn't have a ton of residential areas around it. The main business in the area is government (GAO, DC Gov, Courts), so scheduling it for a weekend would be best - if I recall correctly, that G20 meeting was on a Saturday.

by Alex B. on Apr 7, 2010 6:02 pm • linkreport

@ urbaner

"Obama is being targeted by a bunch of crazies who want him dead, some sacrafices of freedoms must be made for his security."

I was hard pressed to find many people willing to go on the record and say that things were overboard, or that, the President could just as well be innaugurated at National Harbor or in the plains of South Dakota."

I'll bite.

It was overboard because there does not need to be a big celebration for it.

It could be done in/outside the Capital and shown live on TV and streamed through out the world via whitehouse.gov plus youtube/dailymotion/other internationally known video sites on the internet

Therefore causing no financial harm to the city, no inconvenience to citizens and he could get to work sooner.

All presidents didn't have a damn parade after the taken the oath and there is no need for one now.

by kk on Apr 7, 2010 6:38 pm • linkreport

The anti-Washingtonians atmosphere here is getting funny. A couple of posts ago, there were a lot of complaints about tourist buses and now we complain about pretty much all world leaders coming to our city?

Come on folks, this is the point of being a nation's capital.

The same crap happens (to a somewhat lesser extend) twice a year around the IMF and Worldbank when those institutions hold their meetings. Or when the Pope comes by.

Quite frankly, the security folks can to whatever they deem necessary on those rare occasions. There are real, tangible risk with those occasions. "That's what you get when you want to live in a Capital of the USA".

I am way more bothered by the relentless using of safety concerns for continuous disruptions. The jersey barriers. The forbidden pictures. The Ellipse as a parking lot.

The underlying problem there is that nobody ever explains the "safety concerns" that cause all this nonsense. And worse, if there is a true safety concern, why not make a permanent solution. Jersey barriers should never be permanent. Some places have heavy concrete flower pots. Way better. The White House needs more parking? Add a floor or dig a garage, just like everyone else.

We should be taking care of these issues. We should not be complaining about the business of being a capital and forgetting that we are a welcoming city that has a significant tourism industry. All those tourists pay 10% sales tax on the junk that they buy. And the world leaders spend plenty on hotel( floor)s.

by Jasper on Apr 7, 2010 8:58 pm • linkreport

Anti-non-Washingtonians, sorry. Thought quicker than I typed.

by Jasper on Apr 7, 2010 9:38 pm • linkreport

Does DC law require people to carry ID with them? If not, then where does that put a resident who wants to go home but doesn't have an ID?

by J on Apr 7, 2010 10:42 pm • linkreport

I don't think Dave is an attorney. The Supreme Court has never ever permitted warrantless searches of pedestrians without even reasonable suspicion, and even in that case (suspicion but no probable cause), it's limited to a quick frisk.

Requiring physical identification is also probably unconstitutional unde the Kolender precedent. The recent Hiibel decision allowed an officer to demand that a person stopped under "reasonable suspicion" circumstances identify himself (verbally).

I can't even come up with a legal theory under which residents could be subject to a bag search to enter their own homes.

by Joey on Apr 8, 2010 1:15 am • linkreport

I live in Chinatown, a block away from the Building Museum, which hosted the G20 Summit on Financial Markets in 2008. Frankly, I'd say that the list of guests for the DC G20 was even more prestigious than for the 2010 nuke summit.

I walked my dog through the neighborhood pretty much as I pleased; the only restriction was to not walk near the entrances when guests were arriving. No one checked my ID. No one harassed me. And this was when George Bush was president. What's happening to us?

by tom veil on Apr 8, 2010 9:21 am • linkreport

You're correct that I'm not an attorney. I don't think we have any constitutional scholars on staff at GGW, and I don't know about the commentariat either. I'd imagine that most of this is all speculation. From what I understand, though, a search that is only for security purposes, and not for the intention of seizure could possibly be considered 'reasonable' depending on the circumstances.

Somewhat related to the idea of 'forced consent' (e.g. consenting to a search to enter your home), how are mandatory searches for students to enter a school legal? School children are required by law to attend school, so bag searches/metal detectors are hardly optional.

by Dave Stroup on Apr 8, 2010 10:04 am • linkreport

I think it's great to have the event in DC, especially with record high unemployment and falling tax revenues. Plus, it's a central location served by transit!

Sure, it's a hassle, and even a silly one at times. But the revenues and jobs are really important and the benefits are not in any way minor benefits. My neighbor is a waiter at the convention center, and their hours have been cut in recent years.

by emrj on Apr 8, 2010 10:18 am • linkreport

@Kreego

"Now the same God-fearing people will be subject to search in order to enter their own homes. Something is real wrong with this picture."

I must have missed the memo that declared that religious, "God-fearing people" couldn't pose a threat to national security. Isn't a lot of the terrorism in the world today religious based? While I agree that the security measures are overzealous, an argument that they are unnecessary because the individuals who are impacted the most are religious is, um . . . flawed.

by dcd on Apr 8, 2010 10:47 am • linkreport

@Dave Stroup
"I don't exactly see this as being problematic as long as the screening is for security purposes only, and is not treated as MPD as a way to search all persons for any sort of contraband."

Somehow I doubt MPD will just ignore drugs or other non-security related contraband. I fully expect this to result in several million more taxpayer dollars being wasted to ligate the latest chapter in Cathy Lainer's war on the Bill of Rights.

@Mike S
"There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that guarantees you the right to go down any street of your choice 24/7, no matter what the security situation."

The Supreme Court has consistently held that freedom of movement is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Privileges and Immunities Clause.

by Jacob on Apr 8, 2010 2:29 pm • linkreport

Lo and behold, the Post wrote about it the next day. One resident of the McCollough Terrace Apartments said,
"You know you don't have no power when outside forces come in and do stuff like this," Washington said. "You've been living here your whole life. You finally know you don't have power when somebody you don't know . . . just can come, block off everything, and don't even ask you."
Don't forget the warrantless searches just to enter your own home, Mr. Washington. I fully sympathize with his resentment.

by Eric F. on Apr 9, 2010 9:40 am • linkreport

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