WASHINGTON — Outside Attorney General Eric Holder’s Northwest Washington, D.C., colonial and Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic Georgetown Federal, armed security guards wait with car engines humming.
The motorcades idle so they are ready to shepherd Kerry and Holder to their offices or planes at a moment’s notice. But well after Kerry and Holder are on their way, some black SUVs linger round the clock in their neighborhoods, engines on, ready to react should anyone take a step too close to the houses the agents protect.
Most neighbors say they like it that way.
“It gives a sense of security,” said Eric Mielants, who considered buying an alarm system for his house around the corner from Holder, but instead decided to count on the attorney general’s detail. “It’s never a bother, really. Quite the opposite.”
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The celebrities of the nation’s capital, unlike those who enjoy the secluded realms of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, often live cheek-by-jowl with more ordinary Washingtonians.
Many administration officials do not make the kind of money that buys walled-off privacy, or like Kerry they live in cobblestoned urban density. The result of this peculiar mix of geography and demography is that the protectors of Washington officialdom are sometimes at odds with the tax lawyer who is simply trying to turn into his own driveway.
In the gated Georgetown community of Hillandale, neighbors who have protested the security arrangements for Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, found themselves on the front page of The Wall Street Journal last month in an article that quickly spread online.
Although the complaints were more personal than usual — one resident objected to the “doughnut bellies” on Yellen’s blue-uniformed security detail — they were also familiar.
Some of the residents in Holder’s Spring Valley neighborhood said they did not like the perpetual noise of the running motors, and one of Kerry’s neighbors said the permanent presence of the security alternated between “useless” and “over the top.”
But most relationships are not nearly as adversarial in a city accustomed to White House motorcades that routinely hold up traffic, cordoned-off buildings after bomb scares and police helicopters whirring overhead.
In some neighborhoods, the longer the security detail loiters, the more friends the detail makes.
“They’ve sort of become part of the neighborhood,” said one of Holder’s neighbors, referring to an FBI agent by her first name. “We’ll miss them when they’re gone.”
The goodwill has not come unearned.
Some security officers knock on neighbors’ doors and introduce themselves when they first arrive in a neighborhood, said John Murphy, who led Secretary of State Colin Powell’s security detail.
Former members of details emphasized how important it is to charm the neighbors, who are also a crucial source of potential intelligence.
“If you alienate people, they’re just going to say to hell with you and not tell you what’s going on,” said Dan Emmett, who wrote “Within Arm’s Length,” a book based on his 21 years as a Secret Service agent.
In Holder’s neighborhood, his security detail initially had a permanent station in front of Mielants’ house, a few doors down from Holder.
So when a school bus dropped off Mielants’ young son at home after his first day of elementary school, rather than on a nearby street corner where Mielants was waiting, the FBI agent protecting Holder took the boy in tow and walked him to his father.
The agents have also given Mielants’ children fake security badges as gifts.
On a recent day, one of Holder’s agents moved a misplaced recycling bin from a neighbor’s driveway so the neighbor could turn into it without getting out of his car.
Agents have also helped elderly residents take their trash cans out to the street and given dog biscuits to a gardener walking the family pet.
Elizabeth Barth, who lives a few doors down from Holder, said the agents even chased away men who seemed ready to steal her car last summer.
The biggest benefit, neighbors say, is enjoying Holder’s security without being Holder.
In Chief Justice John Roberts’ neighborhood in Chevy Chase, Md., just over the border from Washington, D.C., the Montgomery County police roam the community as a supplement to the security detail that drives Roberts to and from the Supreme Court. Neighbors say it gives them peace of mind.
“They don’t send that car because they like me,” said one neighbor, who asked not to be identified talking about Roberts’ security arrangements. “They send that car because they want to keep an eye on the house when the security detail’s not there.”
Some neighbors of Washington’s well protected complain that the security details could be more substantial than they are.
Ronald Bauman, a neighbor of Kerry, said that despite the block’s 24-hour surveillance and a private Georgetown security force that already patrols the neighborhood, there is still local crime.
The three cars stationed between cones on the narrow street in front of Kerry’s home do not seem to be much of a deterrent, he said.
And those who benefit from the security details also worry about their intrusiveness.
Barth, the neighbor of Holder who praised the agents for chasing away the car thieves, said the security came hand-in-hand with life in the detail’s sightlines.
“They’re also watching you,” she said.
Barth’s husband, Richard, said he once ended up by mistake in the middle of Kerry’s convoy when he was returning home — and soon found himself getting a tongue-lashing.
Bauman said he also had to navigate through Vietnam War veterans protesting during Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and through security agents when Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, invites prominent guests.
After the inconveniences, Bauman said the Kerrys had their employees knock on neighborhood doors with bags of candy as peace offerings.