National Parks Service Defends Cameras on National Mall

The National Park Service plans to set up closed-circuit television cameras for the first time to monitor open, public areas around the Washington Monument, the Jefferson, Lincoln, Vietnam Veterans, and Korean War Memorials in an effort to boost homeland security.

The Park Service had been planning a similar project since the Oklahoma City Bombing and the embassy bombings in Africa, but the deployment was accelerated after Sept. 11, the local head of the National Park Service told a congressional committee Friday. Cameras are scheduled to be placed around the National Mall in six months.

"We are convinced by studies and consultants that these icons of democracy are high targets for terrorist activities and that is the sole purpose that we have made the decision to forward with planning for these cameras," John Parsons, associate regional director of the National Capitol Region of NPS told the House Government Reform Subommittee on the District of Columbia.

Park officials say the cameras will be for law enforcement in public areas, where there is no expectation of privacy. The closed-circuit system, costing between $2 million and $3 million, will not use technology for facial recognition. Images will be recorded and kept for a limited time and will only be used for law enforcement, Parsons said.

Some lawmakers, however, said they were disturbed by what they had learned from the experiences with cameras in other major cities, and questioned whether it is worth it.

"In London, a camera system initiated to combat (Irish Republican Army) terrorism has sprouted into a network with an estimated two and a half million million cameras. The average Londoner is caught on film about 300 times a day and no terrorists have been caught by the camera's use," said Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., chairwoman of the committee.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also expressed misgivings about the fear of too much government interference – the Big Brother syndrome – and said she will introduce legislation to form a presidential commission to study how best to fight terrorism while protecting American values of privacy, openness and public access.

Cameras are already a fixture in the nation's capital, where they are located on the roof of the Labor Department building overlooking the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and about 10 other locations.

Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey said the cameras are activated only during major events such as marches and demonstrations and during periods of heightened terrorist threats. All are used for observation only, not recording.

He said there are efforts under way to link the police Joint Operations Command Center with other public agency video networks, particularly traffic camera systems that could be helpful in times of emergency or evacuations.

The administration has asked for $23 million next year for enhanced security around the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, including barriers and lighting, and another $6 million for the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Mount Rushmore and the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis.