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No Unguarded Moment
It's Time to Scale Back the Security Mania

By David Ignatius
Thursday, July 30, 2009

It was an unsettling image: Arrayed in front of the neighborhood barbershop last week were four burly men with the characteristic earpieces and bulky suits that marked them as security officers. Inside, gracing the barber's chair, was the well-trimmed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert Mueller.

Perhaps in today's Washington, the FBI director truly needs a security detail to protect him when he gets a haircut. But I wonder. From my vantage, the blatant obviousness of his bodyguards only called attention to him. At the grocery store across the street, he was the talk of the checkout line. "Who's over at the barbershop?" "The FBI guy, what's-his-name." "No way!" People were coming out just to look.

Protecting our public servants is important, to be sure. But we have gotten so cranked up about security in the United States that senior officials travel in cocoons, as if they are under constant threat. Every Cabinet secretary seems to have a security detail; so do governors and mayors and prominent legislators.

What are all these security folks protecting our officials from? Al-Qaeda? Hezbollah? Crazy people? Aggrieved constituents? Or is it something more ephemeral -- a nameless, pervasive sense of danger that may suddenly assault the secretary of energy or the governor of New Jersey?

What I encountered at the local barbershop was a small example of the general security mania that seized the country after Sept. 11, 2001. So here's a suggestion: This September, as we mark the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, let's resolve to dial the paranoia meter back a notch.

The hyper-security has added as much to public fear (and annoyance) as to public safety. The Transportation Security Administration is so pervasive at airports that we forget how bizarre it is to see old ladies and pregnant mothers and 8-year-old kids frisked and searched as if they had just arrived from Waziristan. Does this really make sense?

The security culture has its own momentum, wiping away other values, such as openness or privacy. These days, you can't get into any self-respecting building in Washington, public or private, without showing identification and signing a visitors' log. When I went to give a talk at the National Defense University last week, it was like entering the Green Zone in Baghdad. They made me open the trunk, the hood and all four doors of my car -- and that was after my license plate number had been cleared in advance.

The Secret Service has the most difficult security job in Washington -- and the most visible. You can hear the roar of the sirens each evening as the enormous motorcade of a dozen cars and a half-dozen motorcycles conveys the vice president to his residence on Massachusetts Avenue. Maybe it's necessary to have so many cars, but it's a scene, frankly, that reminds me of Moscow during the Soviet days.

The Secret Service must deal with a reported 3,000 threats a year against the president. And al-Qaeda aside, there are a lot of nut jobs out there who might like to harm the president and his family. That said, Secret Service officers can be among the rudest people in Washington. A White House chief of staff confided several years ago that he discovered their unfriendliness when he was stopped without his badge one day by an officer who didn't recognize him.

A few Secret Service personnel also seem to think that leaking embarrassing personal details about the president and his family is part of the assignment. (See the gossip-filled new book by Ron Kessler, "In the President's Secret Service," for leaks about the Bushes and the Obamas.)

Making trade-offs isn't easy when it comes to security. But surely we have reached the point of diminishing returns with the fortress mentality. The truth is, we all must live with vulnerability. It's a part of modern life. We need to take reasonable precautions, yes. But it would be good for our public officials to step out of the bubble occasionally and smell the roses -- unfiltered by the security detail.

The next haircut is on me, Mr. Mueller, and if your security detail doesn't object, I'll show you around the neighborhood.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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