Police officers carrying automatic weapons patrolled streets around the Capitol last night as they prepared to close a major thoroughfare on Capitol Hill and to set up 14 vehicle checkpoints, creating a huge security perimeter around powerful symbols of American democracy.
Amid objections from city leaders, U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said last night that First Street NE between Constitution Avenue and D Street NE -- which runs between two of the Senate office buildings -- would be shut down indefinitely, starting this morning.
A sign warns motorists traveling near the Capitol that they will be subject to checkpoints as part of the stepped-up security.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
Securing the City: Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey discussed security procedures throughout the District.
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In addition, Gainer said Capitol police would set up checkpoints at several key spots around the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings, inspecting vehicles that cross Independence and Constitution avenues near Capitol Hill, as well as several other streets in the area.
D.C. police, meanwhile, said they would set up checkpoints near the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters to scan traffic and pick out cars and trucks for inspection. Those checkpoints will be on 18th Street NW between F and G streets and on 19th Street NW near I Street, police officials said.
Squads of officers from different agencies patrolled the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the IMF and World Bank and the Capitol yesterday and concentrated bomb-sniffing dogs in the subway stations around Foggy Bottom and the White House. Workers tried to go about their business and ignore the threat.
The announcement by Capitol police came as some government officials acknowledged that most, if not all, of the al Qaeda surveillance that led to Sunday's new terror alert occurred about three years ago or possibly longer.
D.C. officials blasted the Capitol Hill action, saying the closure and checkpoints would lead to gridlock and send the wrong message to tourists and residents. Several pointed out that the Capitol and Supreme Court were not mentioned in the announcement Sunday by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that raised the threat level in the District, New York and Newark. Ridge singled out the financial districts in those locations, including the IMF and World Bank.
But Gainer said the threat level is increased across the city, not just at the financial centers.
"There has been ongoing concern about the Capitol," Gainer said. "The 9/11 Commission report indicated the great likelihood that the Capitol was a target. We see the intelligence that terrorists would like to strike the United States and the Capitol of the United States."
The Capitol Hill closure brought a swift and sharp rebuke from D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), whose spokesman said city officials learned late yesterday that "the nervous nellies in Congress" were closing the street near the Capitol.
The spokesman, Tony Bullock, said the mayor and other D.C. officials would try to persuade security officials to reopen the street. City officials also are concerned that if Congress is permitted to close streets, other federal agencies could follow suit, as has happened in the past. "It scares people," Bullock said, referring to the security zone. "This is not Beirut."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she was outraged. "The arrogance of it is mind-boggling," said Norton, who has called a news conference this morning to discuss alternatives. "Closing down a main thoroughfare must be the last option, and it has become the first option here."
Gainer said he took the action after reanalyzing data about the effect a car or truck bomb would have on the Capitol, the House and Senate buildings and people in the area. Gainer said that he has also placed his officers on 12-hour shifts and required them to work six days a week. "We feel that a threat to one section of the city is a threat to all of the city," Gainer said.
He said his police force will also be carrying more automatic weapons and shotguns when they patrol the Capitol. He said he understood concerns about road congestion. "We will work with the city to alleviate the traffic as best we can," he said.