just-released report on security in Washington provides a grim look
inside the worst-case-scenario planning that is going on as federal
authorities search for ways to protect the nation's landmarks against
by the National Capital Planning Commission, was begun seven months
ago, well before the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington.
Much of the work involved the issue of whether Pennsylvania Avenue
in front of the White House, closed since 1995, might be reopened
to traffic. Although there was some momentum in favor of that prior
to September 11, the question is moot today. "There's a good
reason why it's closed," vice president Dick Cheney said last
month. "If somebody were to detonate a truck bomb in front
of the White House, it would probably level the White House."
The new report
dramatically underscores Cheney's point. The experts concluded that
only "stand-off distance," meaning a large space separating
the White House from traffic, offers adequate protection from a
car or truck bomb. "The Task Force could identify no currently
available technologies, including blast walls, remote detection
sensors, or other countermeasures, other than sufficient stand-off
distance, that could provide a practical means of protecting the
White House from a catastrophic vehicular bomb attack," the
report says. For example, the study found that to be effective,
a blast wall would have to be built about 50 feet from the north
wall of the White House and rise to a height of 50 feet. No possibility
of that. But experts did recommend a study of the possibility of
"hardening" the White House itself, citing new "structural
composite materials...that can significantly improve blast resistance."
But commissioners admit that hardening would be an enormous task.
Calling it the "last line of defense," the report says
a hardening project would involve "major construction and the
temporary displacement of the First Family and the White House staff."
The study says
that federal law enforcement, military, and independent researchers
conducted tests to find the "stand-off distance necessary to
provide a reasonable blast-effect mitigation zone" around the
White House. The commission concluded that the safe zone is bordered
on the north by the far side of Lafayette Park, and on the south
by the curve of E Street. "Although some consider the existing
stand-off distance to be excessive, practical experience indicates
differently," the report says, "the Oklahoma City bombing
resulted not only in the catastrophic collapse of the Murrah Federal
Building, but also caused extensive structural damage to many other
buildings 1,000 feet away."
The only real
alternative to keeping the road closed, the study concludes, is
to build a tunnel underneath the old Pennsylvania Avenue. "The
tunnel would be strengthened to withstand any blast that might occur
within that portion of the tunnel located within the required stand-off
distance from the White House," the report says. But even that
idea has problems; the report concedes that "if an explosion
were to detonate in the tunnel, the blast effects, including ground
shock, would likely result in damage to foundations and utility
infrastructure," a possibility that requires still more study.