D.C. visitors are disappointed that tours of FBI are canceled

Unspecified terror threat closes headquarters to public indefinitely

July 27, 1999|By Georgia N. Alexakis | Georgia N. Alexakis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They came from as far away as Germany and as nearby as Silver Spring. But at the corner of 9th and E streets, visitors to the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building all found disappointment at their final destination yesterday.

The attraction that brought them there -- the popular public tour of the FBI's headquarters -- has been halted indefinitely, after recent unspecified threats against the agency's facilities in Washington.

By yesterday, news of the tour cancellations, which began Friday, had clearly not reached everyone in the nation's capital.

All the way from Paris

"I am very disappointed," said Sid Sala, who was visiting Washington from Paris.

"My father was a lieutenant in the French police force, and I have watched many, many films about American cops and robbers. I was very interested in seeing the FBI."

Bureau officials declined to comment on the nature of the threats, saying only that canceling the tours would allow the FBI to complete "security enhancements" prompted by the threats.

NBC News has reported that the threats might be linked to followers of Osama bin Laden, the Islamic radical who is accused of planning the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last summer that killed more than 220 people.

Concern for public safety

"We know that the cancellations will disappoint many visitors, but our decision was based on our concern for their safety," Steve Berry, an FBI spokesman, said yesterday.

The tours -- which attract more than 500,000 people annually -- have occasionally been halted because of security concerns in the past.

World War II, urban rioting in 1968, anti-war demonstrations in the early 1970s and the Persian Gulf war in 1991 all prompted brief cancellations.

Tours of the bureau's central offices have been offered since 1937, when the agency was in the main Justice Department building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since 1975, the FBI headquarters has been in the J. Edgar Hoover building across the street.

The hourlong tour features presentations of the FBI's "10 Most Wanted List," information on some of its most notorious cases (John Dillinger, Al Capone), visits to the DNA laboratory and a firearms demonstration.

The tours are normally offered Mondays through Fridays between 8: 45 a.m. and 4: 15 p.m.

"It's such a good tour -- probably one of the best in Washington," said Karyl Farris of Albuquerque, N.M., who visited the FBI early last week and stopped by yesterday in hopes of seeing it again.

"All those people who can't go in are really missing something special."

The bureau said it could not estimate how many people had been turned away since the last tour was given at mid-afternoon Friday.

A steady stream of visitors who approached the designated entrance yesterday was greeted by a sign that said, erroneously, that the tours had been canceled because of "capacity visitation."

That was the only explanation the FBI offered tourists yesterday for why the tours had been halted.

"Obviously, we don't have a sign for every event: cold weather, hot weather, terrorist threat," Berry, the FBI spokesman, explained.

"That's just the sign that was available so that we could notify the public as quickly as possible about what was going on."

The truth is in there

A photograph of himself next to that sign was all that Michael Degenhardt, a tourist from Berlin, Germany, could take home after he learned that the tours had been canceled.

An avid fan of the television show "The X-Files," Degenhardt said he had been eager to observe up close the real-life inspiration for the series.

"This is a pretty big disappointment," he said. "I was looking forward to seeing anything and everything they wanted to show me."

For David Bartlett of Tryon, N.C., a closed-off FBI meant a missed opportunity to view the rifle and gun exhibits that he and his 9-year-old son, Ethan, had especially planned to see.

"We're still here for a few more days," the elder Bartlett said philosophically.

"Who knows? They could open it up again."

To be sure, not all the visitors to FBI headquarters were so disappointed by the canceled tours.

Jay Mackey of Guthrie, Ky., and Carla Hopkins of Clarksville, Tenn., took one look at the posted sign, shrugged their shoulders and unfolded a map of the District of Columbia, in search of Ford's Theater.

"It would have been nice to see, but there are other things to do in this city," Hopkins said.

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