Annals of Security: “Sorry, Mr. Webster, You’re Not on the List”

By Jack Limpert

In the Washington of the late 1960s I could walk into almost any federal building (not the White House, Pentagon, or CIA) without anyone asking me anything. In 1968 I was a Congressional Fellow in the office of Vice President Humphrey—he lived in an apartment in Tiber Island, a newly renewed area of DC that was close to the Capitol. If you were visiting him at his home, you’d walk in the building’s front door, talk to a Secret Service agent who had a small office near the building entrance, and take the elevator to Humphrey’s apartment.

In 1974, Congress established an official residence for the Vice President on the grounds of the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts Avenue. The Victorian-style home had been built in 1893 as the home of the observatory’s superintendent. In 1977, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, was the first to move in.

In 2002 Philip Merrill, the owner of The Washingtonian, where I worked, was named head of the Export-Import Bank; he was to be sworn in by Vice President Richard Cheney at the Vice President’s residence.

We took taxis to the Massachusetts Avenue gate of the Naval Observatory, where a team of Secret Service agents was clearing visitors to enter the Observatory grounds and the Vice President’s house. It was 15 months after 9/11 and the line took a long time to move.

While waiting we saw two men whom the Secret Service had refused entrance because their names weren’t on the okay-to-be-let-in list. They were still waiting when I got cleared to go in. I was told later they had to wait 40 minutes.

One of the men outside in the December cold for 40 minutes was William Webster.  He had been director of the FBI from 1978 to 1987 and then was director of the CIA from 1987 to  1991. Sorry, Mr. Webster, we can’t let you in until you’re cleared, he was told by the Secret Service.
What’s security like now? Here’s a note from Washingtonian writer Harry Jaffe:

“Sometimes it’s not worth the hassle. Take Voice of America, the government-run media operation in a nondescript federal building amid the thicket of bureaucracies between Independence Avenue and Maine Avenue. I had scheduled a lunch with my friend David Ensor, then the VOA director. It was a cold day. I would have liked to have waited in the lobby and watched VOA TV in dozens of languages. But to do that I would have had to empty my pockets, take off my jacket and belt, then walk through two metal detectors. Just to sit in the lobby. Instead, I stopped and waited inside the doors, outside the security zone. A guard shooed me outside.

“Then there’s the FBI Washington Field Office near Judiciary Square. You knock on the ‘Visitors’ door. It opens a crack. An armed security guard in flak jacket asks if you have an appointment. You nod. She asks for your ID. The door closes. You wait. Then she invites you inside and you get to empty your pockets and partly disrobe. Then the guard packing a Glock-17 wands you. Then you get a tag with your photo. And you pass through, maybe.”
How life changed in official Washington is paralleled by the changes everyone now faces when flying.

Before 9/11, my wife and I disagreed about how early we had to get to an airport to catch a flight. I said 20 minutes was plenty of time; she always wanted to get there at least a half hour ahead. Then one time, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, we got to the airport 15 minutes before the flight and we missed it. It was still at the gate but the doors were closed.

From then on we went on my wife’s schedule. And then 9/11 changed everything.


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