All Eyes on Rooftop Views of White House

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One of the great power experiences in Washington, the chance to stand on a rooftop and gaze onto the White House grounds, is a splendid way to turn a profit and keep the Secret Service twitching.

The old Hotel Washington's rooftop terrace, long a prime spot to flout the city's access restrictions near sensitive locations, has reopened as part of a voguish new W Hotel. Anyone, even a visitor without Gucci shoes or Marc Jacobs sunglasses, can head up to the 11th floor and see the South Lawn of the White House.

"I'm sure they are watching us very closely," said Bruce Sorensen, the hotel's director of sales and marketing, observing the snipers' perch 950 feet away on the White House roof. "My guess is they are probably listening to us, too."

The hotel's public relations team, which proudly notes that Secret Service agents are probably watching, promises an exquisite view of the first family's playground and garden, as well as helicopter landings and takeoffs, especially after the trees lose their leaves in autumn. But the reopening of the 91-year-old hotel building in a time of terrorism, war and a new presidency also raises questions about security in a jittery capital.

Louis R. Mizell Jr., a former intelligence official who analyzed the Hotel Washington's rooftop sightlines while working for the State Department, recalls that when he first visited the hotel, he thought to himself, "If I was a bad guy, I'd love this position."

The city's other rooftop views of the White House are generally less accessible. If you're able to pay top dollar to rent the space for a private affair, the Hay-Adams Hotel across Lafayette Square has a nice rooftop bar. At the office building housing the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW, access to the roof is also restricted to private parties.

Many security consultants, former Secret Service agents and military snipers contacted for this report wanted nothing to do with any discussion of rooftop security so close to the White House -- "Just not appropriate in the public arena," one said -- and one sniper alerted the Secret Service to The Washington Post's inquiries.

But up on the W's rooftop, long one of the District's best spots for a romantic evening, visitors said that Americans have a right to feel like they're inhaling the same air as the president. If they're under surveillance, all the better; that sense of being watched feeds the inner insider -- it means proximity to power.

"I'm a Washingtonian, and it's my right to be this close," said Wavely Veney, a government contractor wearing red Marc Jacobs sunglasses for opening night on the W terrace. "I'm supposed to be able to do this. I pay his rent." Meaning, President Obama's.

Veney was not frisked before entering the terrace, but the Secret Service says he was being watched, which will no doubt please him. Ed Donovan, the agency's spokesman, said: "If you are in a building that looks into the south grounds, you can be sure we are also looking at you, and it's not through a set of binoculars." Thrilling, in a way. Asked whether that meant visitors were being watched through a rifle scope, Donovan took a pass.

William Graves, owner of a Phoenix area shooting school that trains Pentagon snipers, provided translation: "They've got those big 'Spaceballs' Mel Brooks binoculars going up there. If you see anything of interest, then you put those binos down and you're looking through a rifle scope."

The Secret Service says it is not overly concerned about these public overlooks. Agency officials said it's their job to mitigate the dangers that are part of an urban environment rather than hide the White House behind towering walls. Although the agency is tight-lipped about how this is accomplished -- and how much it costs taxpayers -- some former Secret Service agents are a little more forthcoming.

"When the president is outside, they enhance the security they already have in place," said Joseph Funk, a former agent who has been on the protection team of several presidents. "For instance, for the Easter egg hunt, you can be sure there is augmented security, including helicopters, visuals and electronics."

He calls places like the W's rooftop terrace a "concern, but not a threat." People who flock to the rooftop to sip $15, all-natural cocktails serve as a sort of extended security force, ready to leap up from the intensely red daybeds and alert hotel staff to any creepy behavior.

"What are the chances that a sniper is going to go up there?" Funk said. "I really doubt it. In spy novels, that's something worth thinking about. In day-to-day living, other than being able to look into the south grounds, is anyone going to do anything [without] getting caught, either by the hotel staff or the Secret Service, which has the place under surveillance either physically or electronically?"

Mizell, now a consultant who specializes in finding gaps in elaborate security systems, disagrees. He has a database of 3 million crimes that he uses to help government agencies and insurance companies understand past and future threats. He said that in the past 30 years, there have been at least 3,094 deadly incidents worldwide that were launched or controlled from the roofs or upper floors of tall buildings.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy comes to mind, he said. So does a famous and chilling quotation from the Irish Republican Army, after a failed attempt in 1984 to blow up a hotel in England and kill Margaret Thatcher: "Today we were unlucky. But remember, we have only to be lucky once; you have to be lucky always."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company