Congressman urges NPS to consider digging White House ‘moat’

By Kevin Bogardus | 01/05/2015 12:57 PM EST

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has pitched the National Park Service on his idea of building an ornate water hazard around the White House to strengthen the building’s security.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has pitched the National Park Service on his idea of building an ornate White House water hazard to strengthen the building’s security.

In a letter obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act, Cohen asked NPS Director Jon Jarvis to consider "a water barrier" that could "be installed along the fence facing Pennsylvania Avenue." It "could act as an obstacle to potential intruders but could also be made decorative as well as functional," the congressman wrote in his Nov. 25 letter to the Park Service.

The congressman faced some derision when he first raised the proposal, himself using the word "moat," at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in November. Lawmakers were looking into White House security after a man climbed over the fence and found his way into the building this past September.


"Would a moat — water, 6 feet around — be kind of attractive and effective?" Cohen asked Joseph Clancy, the Secret Service’s acting director, at the hearing.

Clancy answered that it might be a possibility, but steered his response toward improving the White House fence.

"We are now in the process working with our partners at the National Park Services to see if we could do something with the fence," Clancy replied. "That’s our first step, to see if we can do something that would still be appeasing to the eye and keep the historical nature of the White House."

The Park Service has looked after the White House and its grounds since 1933, according to Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, an NPS spokeswoman. President’s Park, which includes the Ellipse and Lafayette Park, joined the National Park System in 1961.

Security at the White House has fallen under scrutiny since the September incident.

"The National Park Service takes the security of the White House grounds seriously and is working hand in hand with the United States Secret Service to develop an appropriate barrier that will satisfy the individual missions of each agency, which includes keeping the White House and grounds as accessible as possible to the public while ensuring the security of the White House and its occupants," Anzelmo-Sarles said.

Cohen also included a Nov. 20 letter he wrote to the Secret Service with his missive to the Park Service.

"While much attention has been given in the media to my use of the word ‘moat’ which has given many people the wrong impression of my proposal, I hope you will consider the concept of installing a water barrier to hinder an intruder’s ability to reach the building if he successfully climbs over the fence," Cohen wrote in his letter to the Secret Service’s Clancy.

The Tennessee Democrat went on to describe his proposal in more detail, saying he imagined a water barrier that would be "a deep pool" and 6 feet across, placed behind the Pennsylvania Avenue fence line.

It could include "a decorative fountain maybe even adorned in red, white, and blue that would enhance the beauty of an already beautiful landmark." More walls and fences, however, would make the White House "unattractive" and seem more like "a fortress," Cohen wrote.

"My proposal would bolster security while making it even more appealing to visitors," Cohen said in his letter to Clancy.

Clancy responded with his own letter to Cohen, saying, "I sincerely appreciate your suggestion and letter following the hearing regarding the use of a water obstacle to deter or even slow down individuals that jump the fence."

Clancy noted that reviews of "security measures at the White House Complex" were underway in his Dec. 10 letter to the congressman.

One review, released by an independent panel last month, made no mention of installing a water barrier around the White House. Instead, it made several recommendations, including building a taller fence as well as adding more staff to the Secret Service.

In a statement, Cohen told Greenwire that he hoped the Secret Service would still consider building a water barrier.

"I appreciate the Department of Homeland Security’s serious review of White House security and while an attractive water barrier was not included among its recommendations, I still hope the Secret Service will consider it," Cohen said.

"My suggestion was never intended to be portrayed as a medieval moat, but rather another of the many fountains and pools on the White House grounds. Such a water feature could strike a good balance between security and aesthetics."

The Park Service, however, is not a fan of a large "water feature" on the White House grounds.

"The White House grounds have had a fence or wall around them since the early 19th century, but water features have never been a predominant component of the landscape. A large-scale water feature would be inconsistent with the historic landscape," Anzelmo-Sarles said.