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White House to Weigh Limiting Public's Access

November 01, 1994|ROBERT L. JACKSON and AARON NATHANS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said Monday that the Clinton Administration is responding to Saturday's shooting at the White House by reviewing "every aspect of how the White House complex could be attacked--from the air or from the ground," and acknowledged that public access might have to be further restricted.

At a news briefing, Bentsen said that recommendations will be made by early next year for upgrading security, such as possibly closing off the two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that runs in front of the mansion or stationing more guards on the sidewalk.

Bentsen also defended the Secret Service, an agency he oversees, for the way it handled the incident Saturday. He said that sharpshooters on the White House grounds held their fire because they were afraid that bullets from their high-powered rifles would pass through the gunman's body and injure someone else.

"The Secret Service . . . responded, I think, effectively and with judgment. The last thing I wanted to see was someone firing weapons in a crowd like that," he said. "Even with the full accuracy of someone shooting, hitting the target, there's nothing to stop that bullet from passing on through and hitting innocent bystanders."

Bentsen's remarks came as a federal magistrate ordered Francisco Martin Duran, who is charged with raking the White House with bullets Saturday, to undergo psychiatric testing to determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial.

U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson issued her ruling at the request of federal prosecutors, who said that the contents of handwritten notes found in Duran's pickup truck suggested that the precautionary move is needed to ensure a fair trial. Duran fired 20 to 30 rounds from a semiautomatic assault rifle shortly before 3 p.m. Saturday while standing on a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk in front of the White House.

Administration officials acknowledged that a review of security procedures, which began after the Sept. 12 crash of a light plane on the White House South Lawn, now centers on a sensitive question that long has been avoided: whether the President's house should, after two centuries, be put out of reach of the public--at the cost of dimming its status as a leading symbol of the nation's democracy and detracting from a prime experience of visitors to the capital city.

"The review will examine whatever means might be available, including state-of-the-art technology, to better protect the White House and our national leaders," Bentsen told reporters.

Asked how security needs could be balanced with the public's desire for access to the national landmark, Bentsen said:

"Well, obviously you can't have a totally open White House. You have to achieve a balance insofar as making it as accessible as you can to the American people and in turn giving the protection that's necessary for this nation's leaders and their families."

Bentsen announced that he was appointing an outside advisory committee to assist in the review. The panel will include William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and CIA; David Jones, retired Air Force general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Judith Rodin, a psychologist and president of the University of Pennsylvania; Robert Carswell, a former deputy Treasury secretary, and former Transportation Secretary William Coleman.

The review is expected to take note of how other countries protect their leaders. In France, for example, the executive mansion in Paris is surrounded by high walls. Regular French police and the Republican Guard, a special police force that ensures the security of all official buildings, oversee protection of the Elysee Palace. Cameras scan all streets leading to it.

In London, the home and office of the British prime minister at 10 Downing St. are in a quiet setting with gates and guard posts at both ends--a setting very different from the busy downtown district around the White House.

Downing Street was accessible to tourists, who could stand across the street from its entrance, until 10 years ago. But with Irish Republican Army terrorism moving to London in the 1980s, onlookers were moved back, 10-foot-high steel gates were installed and extra security was put in place.

Nonetheless, the residence was shown to be vulnerable. In 1991, an IRA makeshift mortar shell, fired from a pickup truck two blocks away, landed in the garden during a Cabinet meeting. No one was injured, although the blast blew out windows.

In Tokyo, the Japanese prime minister's office, which also is his home, is surrounded by a brick wall. And in Moscow, the public does not know where President Boris N. Yeltsin lives.

At his court hearing, Duran, a husky man dressed in a black polo shirt and black jeans, was asked only for his name as he stood in the heavily guarded courtroom. He made no statement and will officially enter a plea later this week.

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