In the grand scheme of Washington in wartime, the following tale of a tape recorder is of marginal interest at best. It is offered here only as a small example of how the war has changed Washington and is likely to do so far into the future.
The tape recorder isn't a high-tech model like the new, small, voice-activated ones that slip easily into a pocket, showing scarcely a bulge, and perform other electronic wonders. This one is older and bigger; it must be carried in the hand or dangled heavily from the wrist by an attached strap. The machine shows unmistakable signs of advancing age. One of the snaps on its leather case is missing, and the recorder itself is bent and battered from extensive use.
But it works, and over many years of reporting excursions here, around the country and overseas, this old friend has become a familiar and reassuring appendage to a reporter's daily life. It is, in fact, inseparable from that life and, in recent days since war came again to Washington, has performed well in recording conversations with officials at the White House complex, in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
In each of those places, the old machine passed without incident through the security net that has been noticeably tightened here. Not so at the Energy Department. There, it created instant bureaucratic suspicion when its keeper walked to the check-in desk at the main lobby to keep a reporting appointment that included a conversation with the Cabinet officer in charge of the department.
The recorder could not be passed merely along the conveyor belt of the ubiquitous, airport-style metal detector/X-ray machine now a staple at federal agencies and symbol of this new age of tightened security around the world -- it had to be cleared. Calls were made. The official escort aide had to depart to check on ways that it could be admitted. Finally, an official form was produced and filled out appropriately. Only then did the tape recorder make its way to another metal detector machine around which four guards were posted.
Official admittance form and official escort notwithstanding, great suspicion was expressed about whether it could be permitted to go into there. One guard held the old recorder, turned it over warily, eyed it bottom and top, unsnapped the only operable snap and examined it more closely. He did not play the recorder, as is sometimes done at airports, open it completely, or even take apart its simple innards to see what it might contain other than tape and batteries.
The old recorder was doubtless honored at such special treatment, just as its possessor was bemused by the scene. Lines from an old Arlo Guthrie song sprang to mind: about Arlo being "inspected, detected and rejected" during his induction into the armed services during the Vietnam period.
Eventually, and without further travail, recorder, carbon copy of official admittance form, keeper and escort passed through the security net.
The point of this minuscule glimpse into the new world of wartime Washington is not to single out the Energy Department, which on the evidence is an admirably managed agency whose civil servants are performing increasingly stressful tasks with calm dedication and efficiency. Nor is it to single out scornfully its guards for exhibiting undue officiousness or heavy-handed bureaucratic impulses, or even to suggest naively that security is unnecessary or examination of electronic machines needless.
The old machine's odyssey there is, though, an example of how differing standards of security seem to have sprung up, inevitably causing all manner of petty frustrations. Washington must adjust to these new restraints and grapple with new security strains imposed by a serious threat of terrorism.
So far, the capital is handling this relatively well. But this is only the early stage in what is certain to be a long process of adjustment. As William M. Baker, who oversees the FBI's counterterrorism effort, remarked during a conversation in his office picked up by the old tape recorder, the potential for terrorism and the vigilant security "will remain no matter what the outcome of this war or when it is determined." New barriers being erected are likely to become permanent Washington monuments to this period.
Striking a proper balance between the functioning of a democratic society and the demands of a security conscious state may be more important than the outcome of this war itself.