Fortress Washington: Who's In Charge here?

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Today's evacuation of the Washington Monument because of a security threat highlights the elaborate measures put into place to protect the memorials and edifices that are central to America's image of itself and its history. The Monument in particular illustrates the lengths to which various government agencies are going to protect the capital's edifices. As of July 4, the Washington Monument has been encircled by three low granite walls, built at a cost of $15 million, to guard against truck bombs—even though engineers have said it would be relatively difficult to blow up the stone obelisk, which already had 15-foot walls at its base. "If you put 4,000 pounds of TNT up against the Monument, like Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City, would it take it down?" says Allyn Kilsheimer, a structural engineer and blast expert who helped rebuild the Pentagon after 9/11. "No, I don't think so."

A tour this summer began with the words, "Listen up! Everything needs to come out of your pockets!" Private security guards ushered visitors through the metal detector and x-rayed their bags. Then an elevator hustled them to the top of the obelisk. In the observatory, four of the eight small windows have been blocked off, commandeered by security cameras that stare down to the ground below. The tourists formed lines at the remaining windows and patiently waited to point down at the White House and Supreme Court. Above, six additional cameras monitored their movements.

Permanent barriers are also being built around the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, marble colossuses that don't hold many people even on a busy day. Meanwhile, the Defense Department, concerned that some of its offices are too close to the street, wants to move more than 20,000 workers out of D.C.-area buildings and onto military bases. The Old Post Office and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum now have metal detectors and x-ray machines. Even at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which is very nice, but still just a garden, tourists must file through metal detectors and x-ray machines manned by armed Capitol Police.

The fortification of Washington began long before 9/11. Each piece of armor was snapped into place in the same way: Americans were attacked, somewhere, and officials reached for the most visible available defense mechanism. Often, the change was called temporary. During World War II, the North Lawn of the White House, which had been open to the public, was closed for good. In 1983, after a bomb went off outside the Senate chamber, several concrete sewer pipes appeared outside the Capitol to protect the perimeter. In 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Secret Service closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. It remains closed to traffic. In 1998, after U.S. embassies were bombed in Tanzania and Kenya, the Washington Monument was surrounded with Jersey barriers--tapered concrete blocks that were originally designed to direct traffic on the highways of New Jersey.

The proliferation of security measures is to some extent a result of the way Washington is policed. To begin with, there are at least two dozen law enforcement agencies here, from the National Zoo Police to the Park Police. (Neither the Mayor's office nor the city police department could tell TIME the exact number.) Indeed, unlike everywhere else in America, many of D.C.'s major public counterterrorism initiatives are not overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. That's because so many of them are under the jurisdiction of other federal agencies, instead of one state or city government. On the Mall alone, at least seven different agencies, from the Smithsonian to the National Park Service, splice up control of the land. Each has its own security strategy and budget--and is jealous of its turf. The city itself only controls the sidewalks.

Just last week, the Department of Homeland Security waited five days to tell D.C. health officials that six bioterrorism sensors had detected the presence of a dangerous bacterium on the Mall, where tens of thousands of people had gathered for an antiwar demonstration. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of anyone getting sick.