Washington commuters are used to traffic snarls. But drive time from Virginia to Capitol Hill doubled last week as government employees and other workers face what could be long-term anti-terror measures. New police checkpoints went up throughout the capital-as well as in major cities from New York to San Francisco-after the Bush administration elevated the terror threat level from yellow to orange nationwide early this month.
Worry about attacks from al-Qaeda reignited after the CIA discovered detailed plans to target major U.S. financial institutions, including D.C. headquarters for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The reconnaissance lay buried in the hard drive of a recently arrested al-Qaeda computer engineer, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan (also known as Abu Talha).
That intelligence, which one 24-year CIA veteran described as the most detailed and precise in his career, along with other data, demanded action after it was delivered to the White House on July 30. Over the weekend, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice contacted counterparts in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to request help from their intelligence agencies. And by Sunday the president had agreed to another threat alert.
On Capitol Hill the new warning immediately translated into a major lockdown: Police checkpoints went up on all sides of the Capitol and congressional office buildings. Nearby, behind the U.S. Supreme Court and Library of Congress, seven checkpoints extended four blocks east of the landmarks.
"If you need to get across town, there's no way to go except practically into Maryland," said an exasperated Jen Veerman, legislative assistant for the American Association of Christian Schools, whose Capitol Hill office is across the street from House office buildings. "Not really, but it's impossible to try to get to the White House from here." She and other workers spent most of the week testing alternate routes to work-and learning that even the better ones took twice as long as usual.
At the checkpoints, U.S. Capitol Police wearing navy shorts and neon yellow vests halt cars and peer into back seats. Drivers look dazed. At a Constitution Ave. intersection, one female driver leaned out the window to ask a policeman if it was even possible to get to Union Station-and the train hub was only four blocks away.
Threat level orange will not last forever, but navigating the security labyrinth may not end soon. Asked how long the new checkpoints will last, one police officer replied, "From what I'm hearing, it could go right up to the inauguration." Asked whether he was joking, the officer standing next to him said, "Dead serious."
The cost of new security isn't measured only in terms of inconvenience. Commercial transportation costs are sure to go up and tourist numbers are likely to go down with each new barrier. In New York, authorities closed the Holland Tunnel and other major inbound arteries to truckers on Aug. 1 in a bid to reduce the risk of a truck bomb outside one of the targeted Manhattan financial centers. Nancy Shevell-Blakeman, vice president of administration of New England Motor Freight, said the cost to truckers to deliver goods into New York City will increase 20 percent to 30 percent because of drivers' time and extra fuel spent idling. New Jersey union drivers who make daily trips to Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel are paid hourly. On Aug. 4 the city lifted the truck ban on some, but not all, bridges and tunnels into the city.
Law enforcers will continue to balance convenience and commerce with safety. Ms. Veerman said that despite the new hassles, she understands why the government is beefing up security. Her morning commute isn't so bad, she said, but "it's also August recess. In September it might get nasty."
-with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington