Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Security

Government


Terrorism fear takes over security at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is America's national library. It also may be the only library in the United States where getting into one of its Capitol Hill buildings is a lot like trying to board an airplane. Security has shifted so much to anti-terrorism that it's no longer doing its intended job, to protect the library collection from theft.


Capitol Hill security checkpoint. All photos by the author.

Ever since terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995 and on 9/11, security has been dialed up to high. Streets in the federal core were closed and gates, bollards, and industrial-sized planters appeared around buildings. To get beyond most federal buildings' lobbies, there's a hodgepodge of security measures that includes metal detectors, searches, hand-held wands, and ID checks.

At the Library of Congress, security protocols that once guarded against people stealing from the library are now more focused on keeping weapons and bombs out.

Some of the nation's treasures have become eBay sales

Like most museums and archives, the library uses multiple layers of security to protect its 158 million item collection. Items have unique labels, and private security guards monitor reading rooms. Rooms with rare or especially valuable items have additional security. There are also cameras everywhere.


Library of Congress reading room.

None of these appear to be fully effective in preventing researchers and staff from leaving with purloined items. In 2011, presidential historian Barry Landau and an accomplice were indicted for stealing items from institutions including the Library of Congress.

That was not an isolated incident for the federal government. Former National Archives employees have been involved in multiple high-profile thefts, including in 2011 when former archivist Leslie Waffen stole historic recordings, and in 2002 when archivist Shaun Aubitz stole documents from the Philadelphia archives branch. Both Waffen and Aubitz used eBay to sell their artifacts.

The National Archives thefts occurred despite tight security that involves guards examining every piece of paper and book leaving facilities.

The Library's security protocols have reversed

According to a report from 1998, entering the Library then was "no different than most other security stations on Capitol Hill: Hand the guard your bag and walk through the metal detectors." That process typically took seconds.

Leaving the library, however, was an ordeal. It used to involve a Library of Congress Police officer removing everything from briefcases and backpacks and thumbing through books and papers to ensure that nothing was leaving that shouldn't.

Now, to enter, visitors have to remove electronics and other items, then go through an x-ray conveyor. To leave, officers peek into partially opened bags and do not typically bother to inspect books or folders. The process to enter takes a long time, but exiting usually takes less than ten seconds.

Shennell Antrobus, an officer in the US Capitol Police public information office, declined to answer questions about changes in exit screening, citing sensitivity. "We use our technology and certain aspects of security screening for both the entry and the exit," he said.

Did a police force merger weaken security?

From 1950 to 2008, the library had its own independent police force, whose mission included protecting its collections. Longtime researchers and staff suggest that the apparent shift in security priorities accelerated in 2008 when the Library of Congress Police merged with the US Capitol Police.


Library of Congress Jefferson Building entrance with security barrier. Federal regulations prohibit photographing interior security checkpoints.

Around the time of the merger, most of the discussion centered on personnel matters like seniority and rank. There does not appear to have been a public discussion about what the merger would mean for loss prevention at the Library of Congress. Semi-annual Inspector General reports show that most security issues in the Library relate to employee theft and the theft of laptop computers.

Library security was tight long before terrorism reconfigured federal architecture, but it was tight in different ways. Now, with such a strong spotlight on keeping terrorism out, security seems to be letting its original mission slip.

Bicycling


Bollards shape bicycle tracks in the snow

Snow is not just fun or a chore to shovel, but also a planning tool in the way it visually reveals the paths people take as they walk, bike, or drive. Jeff Miller captured this fascinating photograph of how bicyclists' many paths converge on a few points as they pass through the bollards on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.


Photo by Jeff Miller on Twitter.

Bicycling


"Unstealable" bike transforms to become its own lock

What if instead of carrying around a hand-held bike lock, your bike was its own lock? That's the premise behind the Yerka Project, an attempt to design an "unstealable" bicycle.


Image from the Yerka Project.

The ingenious design works like this: The bike frame's down tube splits into two pieces, each of which then twists so it's perpendicular to the rest of the frame. Once the two pieces are turned 90 degrees, the bike seat pulls out of its tube and slides into the down tube pieces, like a giant lock.

Thus, the frame of the bike becomes its own lock. The only way for a thief to break the lock is to break the entire bike.

There is a weakness, though: individual components of the bike are still vulnerable. It's only the frame itself that's unstealable.

So far the designers have only produced a prototype, but the concept is straightforward enough that it could easily find its way to an assembly line. There are fewer moving parts than on a folding bike.

Still unsure how it works? Watch this example video:


Video from the Yerka Project.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Government


"No way." "Absolutely not." Residents react to the Secret Service's idea to restrict more area around the White House

A dangerous man managed to jump the White House fence, run across the lawn, and even get in an unlocked door before being caught on Friday. The Secret Service, with egg on its face, has suggested a few ways to beef up security, including searching anyone even walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by JeromeG111 on Flickr.

Many bloggers and just about every Washington Post columnist weighed in on this idea. And unlike with most issues in Washington, they spoke with a unified voice: "No way."

Unfortunately, this is one area in which residents (and columnists) have virtually no say. Still, we can all hope that the sharp rebukes from the pen convince someone at the White House to think twice before further damaging the public realm in a desperate quest to fix what was clearly a failure inside the existing perimeter and inside the Secret Service itself.

Petula Dvorak points out that the Secret Service screwed up, by not following its own procedures which could have stopped this threat.

The big danger, as Dvorak explains, is that people whose sole job is to think about security naturally will gravitate toward the most restrictive security measures. It's up to other people with a broader view to say no.

The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation's most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the fear and paranoia that already pervade the heart of our nation.

Given their druthers, of course, the security mafia would close downtown Washington entirely. Tourists could watch a slick "Inside the White House" video clip (in HD) at Reagan National Airport and pose in front of a cardboard cutout of the White House. Same thing for the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

The Capitol and Supreme Court are two other buildings where public access has diminished greatly in recent years, as Phillip Kennicott notes:
The closure of the front doors of the Supreme Court greatly confuses the architectural experience of the building, especially the short axis between the entrance and the courtroom itself—a powerful enactment of our right to appeal unjust laws to the judiciary.

The closure of the West Terrace of the Capitol denies residents and visitors the most accessible and dramatic view of Pierre L'Enfant's basic plan of the city, its axial relation between the legal and executive branch, the monumental dramatization of the Civil War and reunification, and the passion for civil rights embodied in the Mall.

Dana Milbank explains that one likely cause of the Secret Service's mistakes was budget cuts which have left the agency understaffed to carry out its vital mission.

Milbank also criticizes White House spokespeople for saying they're leaving the decision about what to do entirely up to the Secret Service. Decisions about First Amendment rights, public space, and the image our country projects to the world should involve more stakeholders.

But the Secret Service, which proposed closing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, doesn't exist to protect constitutional rights; left to its own devices, it would install an iron dome over the White House. Few would object to discreet changes to boost security. But it's another matter to impose sweeping new restrictions because of the latest in a long line of fence-jumpers. (One earlier this month wore a Pikachu hat and carried a Pokemon doll.)
The Post editorial board agrees:
Surely there is a way to secure the safety of the first family without closing more streets and fencing off more sidewalks. It is not just the convenience of DC residents and visitors that is at stake. It is the character of American government—still meant, the last time we checked, to be of, by and for the people.
[T]he Secret Service always will push for the most restrictive security measures. The District has learned the consequences of this the hard way, as Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW have been closed to traffic and once-public spaces have become private parking lots.
Most writers have focused, understandably, on the broader meaning of a closure for democracy. The White House is such a symbol of that democracy and of America's openness. Still, Pennsylvania Avenue and the other roads around Lafayette Park also serve other mobility purposes despite being closed to motor vehicles.

The 15th Street cycletrack runs along Jackson Place and Pennsylvania, and Penn is a great east-west path for cycling that avoids other congested east-west roads. Checkpoints would essentially shut down these uses as well.

Aaron Wiener gives the local point of view:

District residents have a different kind of concern, one that's both more pedestrian and more fundamental: It's annoying when federal government concerns make it harder for them to walk around their town.

Downtown office workers accustomed to strolling to M.E. Swing for a cup of coffee that doesn't say "Starbucks" or "Peet's" could find themselves needing to take a lengthy detour or else face lines and bag checks en route. Same with people working west of the White House who commute on the 14th Street bus.

Do these inconveniences compare with a safety threat to the president? Of course not. But they do give Washingtonians who may already feel shut out by the government a sense that their city isn't truly theirs.

Tim Krepp, a candidate for Delegate to the US House of Representatives in November's general election, talked about both the national and local issues:
I'm not blind to the security threat. I once was my ship's Force Protection Officer in the Navy and was responsible for coordinating our physical security when in port. It's a difficult and demanding job, where success is measured by the absence of failure. I'm sympathetic to those who are responsible for security on a level several orders of magnitude greater that I had to handle.

There are however practical issues for the District at stake here. Pennsylvania Avenue is a major east-west route for commuting cyclists, and a bag check would add a significant delay between downtown and Foggy Bottom ... For tour groups, there is a limited amount of motor coach drop off/pick up space, so any bag check or further delay on to what is a simple photo-op stop would add to the already not-insignificant problem of coaches circling around downtown, waiting to pick up their group.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the incumbent delegate, also said in a statement, "It is important to keep Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and the surrounding area, including Lafayette Park, Pennsylvania Avenue, 17th Street and 15th Street, as accessible to the public as possible." She also pointed out that she opposed permanently closing Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street to traffic.

Krepp goes on to sum it up nicely:

We have to look at [these proposals] comprehensively, to take stock of what it means to be America's capital. Do we want to stand with courage and openness or do we give in to fear? If elected, I want to push to do exactly that, to bring our dozens of law enforcement agencies to the table to rethink some of the decisions we've made to "secure" the capital. But for now, on the issue of requiring bag checks or otherwise infringing on the public space of Pennsylvania Avenue, I'll just say this: no.

Absolutely not.

On this, it seems, we all agree—with the possible exception of the only people who will actually decide.

Public Spaces


How big of a "moat" would the FBI need if it stayed downtown?

The FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) are searching for a site to house a new consolidated FBI headquarters. Though no sites in DC remain in consideration, there are a few who wonder why they don't just reuse the existing Hoover Building site on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by the author.

One of the strong preferences in the GSA's site location criteria is for a 350 foot "security buffer zone" surrounding the new headquarters building. Though this is apparently not an outright requirement, the GSA and FBI have said that they strongly prefer sites that can offer such a buffer.

The image above shows what such a 350 foot buffer zone would look like around the existing Hoover Building footprint.

As you can see, this would seriously impact buildings on almost every block adjacent to the Hoover Building. It would affect the IRS headquarters, the Justice Department, and especially the historic Ford's Theater. It would also have a minor impact on the Navy Memorial.

From a transportation perspective, it would block E Street, 9th Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue, all major streets in the DC core.

A version of this post originally appeared in Just Up the Hill.

Government


Proposal for a huge Capitol security zone gets low marks

Could a bigger security zone around the US Capitol enhance downtown and protect Congress? Most of our commenters say such an idea would instead deaden a large area for little actual security benefit.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

The recently-retired head of security for the US Senate thinks there should be a big security zone, closed to motor vehicles, all the way to Union Station and east to 2nd Street. Washington Post columnist Bob McCartney recently wrote about this and said, "I support Gainer's vision, for the sake of both security and expanding green space downtown."

While some might think that an urbanist site would support more green space (and, perhaps, cheer removing space for cars), our community did not agree with McCartney. And we're not anti-car; a grid of streets is a good element of cities.

Thayer-D wrote,

The recommendation to turn the Capitol building into a multi-block secured campus is a horrible idea. Obviously some buffer and enhanced security is necessary, but the threats to all our cities are unbounded. No amount of buffer will truly keep us safe if someone is determined enough to cause havoc. Plus,the security state atmosphere that will result would be a shame.
RDHD added:
When I first read the headline I thought 'Ooh, a car free zone would be really nice.' Then I read the article and got the scary feeling that this guy would turn the city into a police state if he had his druthers. The city could quickly become nearly unlivable given the number of things that could be protected to the degree he thinks they should.
And Birdie pointed out,
The Capitol Police already prohibit large trucks from the streets immediately surrounding the Capitol. They have officers posted at key locations to divert truck traffic, along with signs announcing where trucks have to turn. Is it perfect? No. But I'd much rather put up with that system than further indulge Gainer 's love of security theater and cutting off the Capitol complex from the rest of the city.
McCartney noted that closing Constitution and Independence would be terrible for traffic. Commenter KingmanPark echoed this.
Blocking such a huge section would force crosstown traffic to the North and South, where east-west connections are already congested. Traffic would become a nightmare, and you'd also slow down crosstown buses such as the X2 and eventually the streetcar.
Could there be a silver lining for urbanism?

Others wanted to consider how, if such a proposal were to happen, it could work well, or at least better. AWalkerInTheCity said,

This is a place where we get to think radically about transportation options. Though I am often a moderate [with respect] to auto usage, I too sometimes like to engage in such radical thinking. I know many folks here hate security theater, but I can imagine some HUGE upsides to the proposal. Can we at least think how, if this were adopted for security reasons, it could be connected to bike infra in order to become a regional asset? ...

A no car zone to union station would solve the MBT to the Mall/PA Ave gap in the bike network. It would also absolutely require improved transit access to Union Station. Transit vehicles could be expempt - much as buses are (I think) allowed closer to the Pentagon than private vehicles.

But others disagree that such a change could ever be positive. Neil Flanagan wrote,
You can't turn Gainer's plan into urbanism. It's not just closing streets, it's about eliminating mixed use and enclosing what should be open spaces. There's not much left of urbanism without those.

It violates the fundamental part of walkability and vibrancy: having something to go to. No matter how "green" and carfree a space is, it's dead without a reason to be there.

The mall doesn't need to become an even larger isolated monoculture, no matter how much "park" space that returns.

The outer grounds of the Capitol are a dead zone. When was the last time you went to the Taft Carillon? Or those parks Dan Malouff pointed out?

Would it be like Pennsylvania Avenue?

Some commenters pointed to Pennsylvania Avenue as a fairly successful car-free space, though Kingman Park noted that Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House isn't open to transit vehicles, either. And Falls Church said

It took many years of debate and lobbying for the park service to redesign PA Ave in front of the WH into the nice space it is today. For a decade after PA Ave was closed, it looked like the uninviting, inhospitable areas that are closed around the Capitol. Only because the national spotlight gazes on "1600 Penn Ave" was pressure to make it into a nice space successful. I doubt the proposal for closing down additional areas around the Capitol would result in anything different than the areas that are already closed.

Also, the feds didn't pay for any additional transit that was needed to replace the lost vehicular capacity after PA Ave was shut down. Unlikely they would do it for shutting down more of the area around the Capitol.

Jasper predicted that any such plan woudn't create real pedestrian-oriented zones or green space, but rather just mean more fenced-off parking for people who work at the Capitol (like the White House has done with the E Street area, for example).

He said, "This plan would, of course, immediately start with a massive list of vehicles that would be excepted to the rules. Police vehicles, politicians vehicles, security vehicles, emergency vehicles... You know, pretty much all vehicles Congress would need, except those of 'We the People' that Congress serves."

Alex B. agreed:

The existing track record for security closures becoming good public spaces is very poor. The closed streets around the capitol are hardly car-free, they are just closed to public traffic. They instead get used for staff parking. There is little to no benefit from improved bike access, since the gates are not bike friendly and the police direct bikes onto sidewalks. Transit routes are forced into costly detours around the cordons.
Is this really necessary for security?

Gainer said it's important to act because "Action after something happens is fighting the last war." But commenter Falls Church begs to differ:

Gainer is the one trying to fight the last war. The next attack isn't likely to come from some obvious source like the truck bomb that was used in the 1993 WTC bombing. It will be from some absurdly weak link that no one is thinking about. Probably something having to do with cybersecurity. If the US can control Iran's nuclear centrifuges using an embedded virus, surely a hacker terrorist could control some critical electronic component in or near the Capitol building to wreak havoc.

Gainer reminds me of the French in WWII who heavily fortified their border with Germany. Then Hitler invaded France via Belgium, totally bypassing the fortified Maginot Line.

AWalkerInTheCity wouldn't dismiss the concern so quickly:
Not sure how much Gainer is thinking in a knee jerk way, and how much is serious concern about truck bombs. Truck bombs are quite real, are a problem overseas, and prior to 9/11, they were the instrument IIUC of the biggest terrorist attack on American soil (at Oklahoma City.) Now that aircraft have their cockpits locked, trucks are likely the biggest non-cyber physical terrorist threat. I am not sure I am qualified to dismiss that because TSA makes old ladies take their shoes off or because we have too many ugly bollards.

Transit


Metro bag searches aren't always optional

If you refuse a bag search at a WMATA subway station, Metro Transit Police may follow you if you leave and even if you board a bus. That's what happened to me Tuesday morning in Shaw.


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

I entered the Shaw Metro station with a bag containing my lunch and my laptop. An officer waved me aside on the north mezzanine and told me to put my bag on the table for inspection. Stunned that I was being stopped without cause, I asked the officer if he had a warrant. He said that if I refused, I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation."

I refused the search, which is mostly about theatrics than actual security. I didn't want to enable what critics have labeled "security theater", the symbolic show of force to give the appearance of protection. In fact, WMATA admits that since they don't search every bag, it's really more about perception, providing "an additional visible layer of protection." Putting on a show is not a good reason to rummage through people's personal items and I didn't want to enable that behavior and belief.

By agreeing to an "optional" WMATA search, I was afraid I would also be inadvertently consenting to a search of my laptop, which would be an abusive and unreasonable intrusion for a transit agency. I wasn't sure if the officers were properly trained to know the nuances of what was and wasn't an appropriate search. How would you even argue with an officer who believes random bag checks at one station actually deter terrorism, anyway? It's like arguing the plot in a fiction novel: the very premise is that facts only partly matter.

Remembering reports that Metro Transit Police only set up searches at one entrance, I pointed to the south mezzanine and said, "I can use that entrance," and the officer said nothing. I left the north entrance to walk to the south entrance a block away.

As I descended the escalators to the south mezzanine, I spotted more officers in the distance. Realizing that the answer would probably be the same at this entrance. I calmly turned around and left, deciding to catch the bus instead.

Little did I know that Metro Transit Police would follow me there. I boarded the 70 bus, which runs above the Green and Yellow lines on 7th Street NW and SW. Two officers got on behind me. Their vests were marked with the word "Terrorism" (perhaps, "Anti-Terrorism" or "Counter-Terrorism", I don't remember which), so clearly they were not there to investigate a fist fight, theft, or fare evasion.

One officer took a seat and another stood, mostly watching his phone. Neither of them said anything to me.

Perhaps it was a coincidence, I thought. Why would police follow me for refusing a supposedly "optional" search, even after I was told I was "welcome to use another mode of transportation"? I was on another mode, after all.

When the bus reached H Street, where I intended to transfer to the Red Line, I paused a moment in my seat, to see what the officers were doing. They remained on the bus. I then got up and stood in line to leave the front of the bus. As I neared the front door, I looked back and noticed that one of the officers had left the back door of the bus and was standing outside.

To test if he was following me, I then sat down in a seat at the front of the bus, and the officer re-boarded the bus through the back door. The driver closed the doors and I asked her if she could reopen it so I could leave. She pushed the door mechanism, which reopened the front and the back door and I left the bus.

As I left the bus at the front door, the officer standing at the back door, partly hanging out the bus, waved and smiled at me through the glass of the rear open door. This act was about sending me a message: if you refuse a search, you will be followed, which is itself a form of intimidation.

WMATA's stated policy allows customers to refuse the allegedly optional search. "Customers who encounter a baggage checkpoint at a station entrance may choose not to enter the station if they would prefer not to submit their carry-ons for inspection," it says.

While you may be "welcome to use another mode of transportation," bag searches aren't really optional if Metro Transit Police follow you and deliberately make it known that they're following you.

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