Reagan Building Security Follies: We Are Incompetent Too.


Once a month I give an ethics seminar at the Reagan building in Washington D.C. This is a massive, confusing, and absurdly expensive government edifice that serves as a center for events, conferences and exhibits, also houses some agencies. Any terrorist who got inside with out a map and a Segue would rsik wandering around lost for a week, but there are also usually elected officials, judges or VIPs in the vast expanse,  along with a Boy Scout troop or two.

Usually I am dropped off, and go in through a main entrance off of 14th Street. So I have to go through a metal detector, have my brief case x-rayed, and, for extra measure, get wanded, because my metal hip joint sets off the alarm. (50% of the time, I may add, the process is executed by surly, rude security officers.)

Yesterday, though, I drove myself into the city. The security officers stopped my car at the garage entrance, asked for ID, and checked my car’s trunk (not the back seat), and allowed me to park. Then I took the elevator to the floor where my lecture venue was, and proceeded to the seminar, where I easily slaughtered all 320 people in the room by detonating the bomb under my suit. OK, that’s not true. But it could have been.Nobody checked my brief case: the bomb could have been there too. There is no screening if you drive into the garage, beyond the trunk search. This has been the system for years, and both Bush administration and Obama administration officials must have been made aware of it years ago. Either the ritual at the front entrance is for show, wasting our time and submitting us to indignities for reasons of public perception only, or the lax security at the parking garage is a blatant and dangerous security flaw that should have been fixed.

There are two conclusions compelled by this kind of official incompetence. One is that we are at risk. The other is that we have entrusted our lives, security and welfare to lazy, slovenly, careless, none-too-bright fools. The latter should trigger an immediate response—throw them out to teach the lesson that incompetence will not be tolerated, and install new leaders/managers/ administrators who are on notice that they have to do better, while  we watch closely to see if they are any better. (The odds are that they won’t be, whereupon we throw them out and keep trying.) Screamingly obvious incompetence has its benefits, if we are responsible enough to use them. Incompetence that cannot be denied becomes a management tool.

This episode demonstrates that the decision-makers we are so willing to give control over our lives are untrustworthy. That ought to compel, at the very least, a journalist’s expose, and immediate consequences, including more responsible  procedures. Most of the time, however, it does not: what sparks the call for change is when a terrorist version of me exploits the incompetence to murder innocent people. Luckily, the terrorists are as incompetent as we are….so far.

That is we, meaning the citizens who are supposed to exercise oversight as one of the duties of living in a participatory democracy. We are incompetent, because we tolerate intolerable incompetence. The Reagan building is a microcosm of a much more serious problem, and it is an ethical one. The culture is beginning to accept the concept of no accountability, which means incompetence has no costs; only the results of incompetence do, and then only occasionally. The Obama administration, which is in charge of security for the Reagan building, has made this its signature legacy. Today on ABC’s Sunday morning talk show, the panelists did not disagree when columnist Peggy Noonan bluntly stated that the Affordable Care Act was a complete, inexcusabl;e and probably hopeless botch. She didn’t even go into detail about the consequences of such a fiasco; she didn’t need to. The only defense offered was wanly spoken by a Democratic congressman, who wimpered that the law was helping people, suggesting that as long as a law isn’t 100% useless to everyone, that it does more harm than good, isn’t working as sold and promised, and is being cynically  postponed in chunks in desperate hope that the public can be fooled for another election cycle  is unimportant.

Obvious incompetence is a gift—a warning—to the American public, because it prompts us to remove the incompetents responsible before disaster strikes. Unfortunately, the public is as lazy, inattentive and incompetent as they are. We’ll wait until disaster strikes to care, thanks.

19 thoughts on “Reagan Building Security Follies: We Are Incompetent Too.

    • Amen. Security theater (none of this “theatre” proper English spelling here 🙂 ) drives me absolutely insane, when we ignore security measures that might work because they make people frown and then go ahead and have a bunch of poorly trained goons groping people becaause it SEEMS like it whould work.

  1. I noticed the same thing when I parked there recently but walked to another nearby building. No check of my purse (or any bag in my car) to get into the building via the garage but when I went through the front door to get back to my car they screened my purse and i walked through the metal detector. I think your characterization of surly and rude is putting it nicely.

    I have a friend who was not allowed to park there once because she had a bag of potting soil in her trunk. Maybe I should be comforted that no mad gardeners are hiding in the recesses of the building.

    What a farce.

    I also noted that when I first parked there years ago it was $10 for the whole day – great option if going to nearby museums on the mall. But on this last trip I paid $22 for just over 3 hours! I will find a more reasonable garage.

  2. The question is whether we should be doing this security at all. For some government buildings, we obviously need to and I doubt that the CIA’s standards are as lax. But the Ronald Reagan building? It is huge and is used for conferences more than anything. I’d rather my tax dollars go to something more useful.

    In any event, I hate parking in that garage. There is one at 13th and E for the same price and it is valet so you don’t need to spend 20 minutes finding your car.

    • True story—today I flew to Boston, and my hip set off the alarm at the gate. That always happens, and I always get wanded and patted down. This time, the agent said, “Eh, go on. You’re fine.”

      • True story — I deliberately pack a bottle of water in my carry-on each and every time I fly. They only find it about 20% of the time.

        • Another true story – I occasionally show my daughter’s military ID at security check points. I do it by mistake because I keep her ID in the same slot as mine in my wallet (I need it to get her meds at the pharmacy) and pull out the wrong one. It is easy enough to do while driving slowly up towards a gate with one hand on the steering wheel, eyes on the road and simultaneously fishing through my wallet. Our ID’s look very similar – except she is a teen 32 years younger than I. No one has ever noticed, which I do not take as a compliment to my young appearance. Recently I will admit I did it on purpose for three weeks while visiting a family member at a “highly secured” psychiatric hospital. I signed my name on the registers going in and out but showed her ID to see if they would ever notice it was not me. I was filmed every minute while there – had to be buzzed through doors while the guards watched on security cameras. The contents of my purse were dumped and I had to leave nail file, removable purse strap and advil at the front desk (people inside are on suicide watch). Of course I carry multiple proper IDs of my own. I spoke with the lead Psychiatrist who was appalled and said he’d fix it.

          Security guards are often just going through the motions. They must see hundreds of IDs a day. Maybe they are looking for expired IDs – but I doubt they could tell if someone were using a current but stolen ID. My experience shows they don’t expect spot checks designed to keep them on their toes. ID bar codes and hand held scanners could improve security and make up for such gross human errors/ineptness.

          The recent revelation that airlines do not routinely make use of Interpol’s database of lost and stolen passports left me shaking me head. Surely this should be a priority. Good grief.

          • You are expecting a well trained professional. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of those. Because of the huge demand for security personnel, you generally find low paid individuals with little training or motivation… but with inflated egos stemming from a sense of power that they could never have otherwise achieved.

    • In the spirit of anecdotes of nonsense security theater: My bag either set off something or was randomly selected. I was waved over as it was being rummaged through and having bomb-detection strips (which may or may not just be paper) rubbed on it- right up til the moment I took my jacket off and the guy realized we went to the same college (or he’s a fan of the school I went to, given my general opinion of the mental capacity of TSA goons), at which point I am no longer a suspect and am free to go. What absurdity.

  3. I have to tell you the truth, my belief is that this whole Patriot Act/Homeland Security schtick some how strikes me as being just a bit…I don’t know…pre-war Germany (the Fatherland) or maybe Stalin’s Russia (Mother Russia). Admitting that I am not a Constitutional attorney (nor any other kind, for that matter), aren’t these “unreasonable searches and seizures” exactly what the 4th Amendment is supposed to protect us from (sorry about the preposition)? I haven’t flown in 5-6 years and do not intend to resume any time soon, nor have I been to DC in some time but the “security” in Texas public buildings is just as absurd, so I avoid them as well. Ben Franklin said it best, and I suspect there is no reason to quote him yet again.

  4. I noticed this security flaw a few years ago when I went to see the Capitol Steps who frequently perform in the Reagan building. We arrived early and parked in the building then went out for dinner before the show. I had a leather man pocket knife on my key ring which I had already carried through the building after leaving my car to go to dinner. When we returned to attend the show the pocket knife was seized at the entrance. I agree with the commentators who suggest that this is security theater.

    I suspect that much of what government does is theater without regard to actual effectiveness. For example study after study show that the DARE anti-drug classes in public schools have no effect on later drug use by the students who participated in the program. Hardly any politicians will support discontinuing the wasteful program because they want to be seen as fighting drug abuse. The actual effect on drug abuse is unimportant. For government the important thing is that they appear to be fighting some problem.

    Both left and right do ineffective things because they appear to combat some evil or support some good. However, sometimes it seems like this is all the left does. Obamacare is good example of this. Giving people who have no healthcare access to healthcare is a laudable goal. For the left that is the end of the discussion. The fact that Obamacare has fails to accomplish this goal is irrelevant. It is the appearance of addressing a problem that is important.

    To paraphrase George Will. If you disagree with a conservative he will tell you you are wrong. If you disagree with a liberal he will tell you you are hardhearted.

  5. Dear astonished people, its because they profile.

    Now, are we going get huffy about that? Or are we going to accept that on utilitarian terms it makes it easier on most people while still keeping risks relatively low.

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