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Carol Amico stands in the observation deck at the top of the Washington Monument and gestures at a white-painted barrier in front of her. “Hey, Matthew,” she says to her teenage son, “why do you think that’s closed off?”
The Amicos, visiting from Los Angeles on a Monday afternoon, are on the west side of the monument. To their left, an alcove leads to one of the monument’s coveted windows, overlooking the Potomac. But in front of them, where a similar alcove should be, is a wooden partition with a padlocked door in the middle of it. Matthew Amico sizes it up.
“Maybe it’s not safe to stand back there,” he says.
In fact, the alcove is perfectly stable. But security is at issue. Through a gap at the edge of the partition, a visitor can spot a tripod. A clear, orblike object dangles in front of the window.
The U.S. Park Police have commandeered four of the eight windows in the monument in the name of homeland security. Partitions keep tourists away from the viewing space so that closed-circuit surveillance cameras can peer out over the city, recording images of the National Mall from 500 feet up.
This past June, the United States General Accounting Office released a report on the use of closed-circuit TV to monitor federal property in D.C. The study notes that the Park Police’s use of cameras is not governed by federal law and that, at the time of the study, the National Park Service “does not plan to publicly disclose the exact locations or the number of cameras.”
Park Police officials say cameras are deployed at or planned for most manor monumentsincluding the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt memorials. Any recorded images, they say, will be destroyed after six months unless needed for a criminal investigation.
Don Hawkins, of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a local preservation group that works to maintain the integrity of the Mall, believes that the cameras violate not only the privacy of citizens but also the spirit of the monuments themselves. “They’ve turned it into a spy tower,” says Hawkins of the Washington Monument. “I’ve started calling it ‘The Structure Formerly Known as the Washington Monument.’”
“With the safeguards that are in place,” says Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers, “any abuses of the cameras are not possible.”
On Sept. 22, many visitors said they hadn’t even noticed the barriers. Told about the cameras, they expressed mild regret.
“I guess it’s a sign of the times,” said Pat Miller of Fort Wayne, Ind. “Sometimes you have to trust the government to make the right choice.”
Miller added that he’s not too concerned about the government using the cameras to pry into people’s lives. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “But I’m not from here.” CP