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David Ignatius

Dial back the paranoia meter

WASHINGTON

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 a well-trimmed director of the FBI, 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. But we have gotten so cranked up about security that senior officials travel in cocoons, as if they are surrounded by constant threats. 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-Qaida? Hezbollah? Crazy people? Or is it something more ephemeral — a pervasive sense of danger that may suddenly assault the energy secretary or governor of New Jersey?

What I encountered at the 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 9/11, let's resolve to dial the paranoia meter back a notch.

The hypersecurity has added as much to public fear (and annoyance) as to public safety. The Transportation Security Administration is so pervasive now at airports that we forget how bizarre it is to see old ladies and 8-year-old kids frisked as if they 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 — and that was after my license plate number had been precleared.

The Secret Service has the most difficult security job in Washington, and also 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 convey the vice president to his residence on Massachusetts Avenue. Maybe it's necessary to have so many cars, but it's a scene 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-Qaida 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 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 Obamas.)

Making tradeoffs 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.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

Dial back the paranoia meter 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 2:00am]

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