Washingtonians are pushing back against suggestions that the U.S. Secret Service might make it harder for the public to get close to the White House.
Reports in recent days suggested the service might respond to a security breach at the White House by increasing the security perimeter around the White House.
But locals and tourists alike, including Washington’s nonvoting member of Congress and a prominent architecture critic, say the service charged with guarding the president shouldn’t punish the public for its own lapse.
“Under no circumstances should the Secret Service be allowed to encroach further on the public space of Washington,” wrote Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic. “This is an institutional, organizational problem,” he wrote. “It does not require an architectural solution.”
Officials already have gone too far in pushing back the public in the name of security throughout the nation’s capital, he said. “Ill-considered, unnecessary and undemocratic security measures” already block the public from the west terrace at the U.S. Capitol and from the front doors of the Supreme Court, he said.
The service on Monday imposed what it called a “temporary buffer zone” along the public sidewalk on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the White House. The waist-high barriers – like those used for crowd control at parades – prevent the public from getting close to the fence.
A spokesman for the Secret Service said Wednesday that the temporary closure would be in effect while the service conducted a “comprehensive review” of the fence-jumping incident last Friday, in which a man with a small knife climbed over the permanent fence, bolted across the lawn and made it into the White House before being detained.
As for further restrictions, spokesman Brian Leary said the Secret Service “is not aware of any definitive plans to add increased permanent security measures around the White House.”
Reports had surfaced through the weekend that the service might react to the breach with new security measures that could make it harder for people to get to the public areas around the house, including possibly stopping people a block or two away to check for weapons.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Washington’s nonvoting member of Congress, asked for a meeting with Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, insisting that any plans to boost security be done in the “least restrictive means possible.”
Chiefly, Norton said any change should maintain the current view of the historical landmark, as well as recognize that the north front of the White House, including the adjoining Lafayette Park, was a place where people came to protest the government.
Norton said the Secret Service had tried to close the entire area around the White House to the public after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It did close Pennsylvania Avenue to motor vehicles out of fear of a truck bomb, but she managed to get the service to reopen the street on the south side of the house, at least until 9/11, when it also was closed permanently.
“The public must be assured that limiting access or physical changes to the area are necessary, and so far that case has not been made,” she said. She suggested minor changes that include making the fence taller or curving its upper portion away from the White House, adding funding to increase staffing or adding more specialized canine units.
The temporary fence – which includes yellow signs that say “Police Line Do Not Cross” – created few fans among tourists Wednesday.
“We need security, but the government tends to overreact,” said Lisa Jones, 31, a tourist from Columbus, Ohio, who was among those disappointed Wednesday that the temporary barrier prevented her from making it to the fence to get a clear picture of the White House between the bars. “You can’t keep people from taking pictures of the White House. I hope they don’t start to try.”
Australian tourist Matt Falvey, 58, has seen a widening security zone in repeat visits to Washington. He toured the White House in the 1980s with no trouble, but he said it was now next to impossible, as it required a tough-to-get appointment at the Australian embassy. He remembers zipping by in a car on Pennsylvania Avenue when the street was open to traffic.
“This openness, standing in front of the White House, is something you want to treasure, but Americans are on the list of not-so-favorite countries in the world and they’ve got a huge job to protect the president,” Falvey said. “Unfortunately, it’s part and parcel of what’s happening around the world.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t say whether the White House endorsed an expanded security zone, alarming many public access advocates when he said President Barack Obama would “leave it up to the professionals at the United States Secret Service to determine the security posture.”
But Earnest did note that outside the White House’s front gate is Lafayette Park, “among the more prominent First Amendment zones in the country.”
Civil rights groups are suspicious that last week’s incursion will be used as a pretext to widen the security perimeter – and push back protesters, who often clog the sidewalk, chanting and carrying signs for various causes.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a civil liberties organization that’s helped organize protests outside the White House, called any proposal to restrict access an “outrageous assault on free speech.”
It said the White House sidewalk and Pennsylvania Avenue were among the most important historical protest areas in the country, allowing Americans to openly petition their government.
“The Secret Service’s security failures inside the perimeter of the White House grounds do not provide a legitimate basis for extinguishing the First Amendment rights of the American public,” said the group’s executive director, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a constitutional rights attorney.
Too often, government has sought to restrict access to public space for free speech, said Carl Messineo, the group’s legal director. “Time and again it has been up to a vigilant public and civil liberties advocates to stop these incursions,” he said.
The group said it had obtained a permit in 2005 for the first mass protest in front of the White House in the post-9/11 period.
But, it said, as Obama delivered a statement about Syria from the Rose Garden in August 2013, police officers began ordering anti-war protesters off the White House sidewalk after news crews reported that they could be heard from the Rose Garden.
“This is not just about ‘security’ concerns,” said Verheyden-Hilliard. “This is part of a growing trend that we are fighting in the removal of public space from the people, to whom it rightfully belongs.”