D.C. Tightens Down with Access Control that Limits Visitors

WASHINGTON -- Visitors to Washington D.C. once could wander the White House grounds, poke around the Capitol, check out fabulous artwork in the Justice Department and generally have the run of just about any federal building.

Security, if there was any, often consisted of little more than a guard at the door nodding as people entered.

No more.

Many of the celebrated edifices in Washington took on multiple layers of security after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and for some buildings, it was much earlier. The result is that a visit to the nation's capital isn't what it used to be.

"I don't feel like we can go anywhere in D.C.," Darrell Baker, 56, of Fairfield, California, said during a recent visit.

Things were much different the last time he came to Washington, in the 1980s.

"It was a lot more lax," Baker said.

In the truly lax old days of the 1800s, visitors could walk through open gates and stroll on the White House lawn. As recently as 60 years ago they could even knock on the front door.

Even when press credentials were required for a reporter to get on the White House grounds, security was loose. On Inauguration Day 1937, when AP reporter Beth Campbell lost her pass on her way to cover Franklin Roosevelt, she climbed the fence and strolled into the Executive Mansion.

Anyone trying such a stunt these days would attract instant attention and big trouble. It requires a pass to get in for the popular tour.

Now old soldiers must make appointments at Veterans Affairs headquarters. At the Library of Congress, public access to the general collections -- once available to researchers with permits -- has been shut down for more than a decade and the reading room only is accessible after people register and get a photo ID.

It's the same all over Washington, where an almost complete range of federal buildings operates under restrictions that amount to a Do Not Enter sign. Or, at least, Do Not Enter Without a Reason.

"To get into any mundane federal building you need a Social Security number, need to sign in, practically sign your life away, have to show proof you're seeing a person there, have a purpose," said Don Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian.

At the Justice Department -- a building adorned with fantastic art the public owns but rarely gets to see -- a sign says "100 percent security check." A guard says that's no idle warning: "You can't go in here unless you work here, have official business or are signed up for a tour." All visitors and anything they bring with them gets scanned.

At the Capitol, visitors once walked in unimpeded and then could duck into just about any room. Now no one gets in the building without a visitor's pass, an appointment or escort from a congressional staff member. The passes, which are timed, are available at a kiosk outside and are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

To get into the House or Senate galleries a visitor needs a pass from a member of Congress.

A huge Capitol visitor's center is being built underground with the dual purpose of improving security and making people feel more welcome. Instead of waiting outside for public tours as they do now, the throngs will file past security detectors into the center and be able to wander among exhibits and amenities. From there, tours will depart for the Capitol building. The center is expected to open in September 2006.

It was a different story when Darryl Penner, 63, of Tacoma Park, Maryland, worked at the Capitol in the early 1970s.

"The Capitol was as wide open as my house," he said. "It was easier to sneak around. You'd get to know the police and there'd be a lot of head-nodding and good ol' boy networking. Before you could wander around and do anything you wanted."

The Capitol's open-to-all policy actually ended long before the Sept. 11 attacks. In 1983 someone left a shopping bag on a bench outside the Senate chamber with a bomb in it. No one was hurt, but after the incident more metal detectors went up and access in some hallways around chambers was cut off.

Security got even tighter after July 24, 1998, when a man charged into the Capitol, shot and killed two police officers, and wounded a female tourist.

Even so, the Senate and House office buildings on Capitol Hill remain among the more open of the federal edifices. After being checked at the entrance, visitors are free to enter any hearing room or office.

"The Capitol has elected officials," Ritchie said. "They increased security, but tried to make it as accessible as possible."